Story by Savannah Cooper and Kristina Valdez | Photo by Maryse Bombito
As you pull into the parking lot of the massive white building, bay windows covered in toddler’s doodles and stickers greet you. The guest house dog, Barney, wags his tail when he sees you. It is then, that you realize this is not a shelter.
The Care Net Pregnancy Center of Central Texas opened in 2004 for pregnancy testing, ultrasounds and peer counseling. Care Net serves more than 2,600 clients a year. In 2016, Care Net opened a second location, a guest house, for pregnant and new mothers. Within McLennan County, there are two Care Net locations, the guest house on 800 W. Waco Drive as well as the medical services on 1818 Columbus Avenue.
Unlike Planned Parenthood and The Salvation Army’s Sally’s House, Care Net’s guest house is not a shelter. Care Net gives women and their children a stress-free environment to become stable and find dependable resources. There are 28 beds in the Care Net guest house.
“They have such a web of dependency on people that can cause them to fail that we have to get them to see,” Care Net Waco CEO Deborah McGregor said. “We say look, you can have these relationships with people in your life, but these are the very things that cause you to fail.”
This 14,000-square-foot facility offers mothers and their immediate family members free programs to participate in. Baylor students have a special volunteer room where they chat and receive their assignments for the day. Nancy Rothe, COO of Care Net, said she goes into their volunteer room to greet them every day. Along with volunteers and young children, Barney, the guest house dog, is roaming around.
“Barney means comforter,” said Rothe. “He was bought specifically for the guest house, to comfort the children and their families. His home is the guest house.”
Care Net’s programs range from life skills classes like budgeting and self-care to monthly Waco transportation cards. Care Net offers various services including childbirth preparation and post-abortion counseling. While family members are in class four times a week, children spend time with Sara Stanley, a child education specialist, who makes their time more productive rather than just babysitting.
“As a pioneer, you don’t really have anybody to learn from,” McGregor said. “We’ve had to figure it out on our own. Every initiative that we’ve added, we didn’t have anybody in the pregnancy center to learn from.”
Communications director Isabel King was an intern when she first started working at Care Net. King was kicked out of her home when she became a teen mom. She felt pressure to abort her child, so her work with Care Net is even more special to her. She has grown attached to the residents and their babies.
“Watching them grow is amazing,” King said. “I think it’s harder for us because we get attached to them and we get attached to their babies. As staff, we do feel like we don’t want to let them go, but you’re excited for them at the same time because you watch them come in almost broken and see them blossom as they leave.”
Residents can stay through their entire pregnancy, but they need to be actively progressing toward full independence. Each room has two bunk beds, dressers, desks and closets. Residents have access to the community kitchen, laundry room and living room. Residents have an assigned mailbox and a set of tableware that corresponds to their name. Outside of the guest house, there is a classroom, an infants room and a toddlers room.
“We knew women needed community and a lot of them were coming from poverty,” McGregor said. “We believed that a lot of women were strong enough that if they just had the chaos out of their life and didn’t have to pay bills for a minute, they could get their wits about them and become independent.”
Once a guest feels ready to leave the center and is prepared to fully stand on her own in the world, Care Net then hosts a going-away party for her. McGregor hopes that women in difficult situations don’t make a decision about their pregnancies until they have explored all their options.
“Don’t make any decisions until you have gotten information on all the help available,” McGregor said. “Everything from knowing how she will talk to her parents to connecting her to other [young women] who have been through the same thing. There’s nothing like looking somebody in the eyes and saying I’ve done this, here’s how you do it and it’s going to be great. Finally, I’ll tell her you’re going to be great at this. You don’t have to do the whole pregnancy today, you just have to do today, today.”