[Hpn] SOUTH TAMPA, FL - Alpha House of Tampa is a "Haven" - The Tampa Tribune - November 8, 2003

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Sat, 8 Nov 2003 14:19:51 -0500

Pregnant, In Crisis? ?

Alpha House of Tampa is a "Haven"
By LENORA LAKE - The Tampa Tribune - November 8, 2003

SOUTH TAMPA, FL - Three years ago Bridget Thornton
found herself pregnant, single and unable to work.
Thornton, now 27, was living on her own and faced
losing her apartment with the loss of her job. She
didn't want to return to an unhappy family situation on
the East Coast and was left with no options.

She sought refuge at Alpha House of Tampa, 202 S.
Tampania Ave. The facility provides shelter, food and
clothing, educational opportunities and a chance for a
better life to pregnant women in crisis.

``I don't think I could have some of the choices I have
now,'' said Thornton, the mother of 2 1/2-year-old
Dimitrius Burns Jr., or D.J.

``If they had turned me down, I don't know where I would be,''
said Thornton, who works full time, is taking classes online and
lives in a town house in Riverview she owns with D.J.'s father,
whom she plans to marry.

Founded in 1981, Alpha House has 20 maternity beds for pregnant
women and 16 transitional housing units for mothers and children.

It has served more than 1,000 women over the years; in 2002, 104
women and 63 children were served.

Bonnie Christiano has been the executive director for six and a
half years. She oversees the 24-hour-a-day operation that has a
$1 million annual budget and staff of 15 full-time and 10 part time

``Every decision we make at Alpha House is driven by the mission
to help pregnant women in crisis,'' Christiano said. ``It has
never failed to give us an answer.''

Christiano said, ``That crisis can be anything you can think of.''

Most women fall into one or more categories: homeless, in
poverty, victim of domestic violence or substance abuser.

Women seeking help must be obviously pregnant or take a
pregnancy test, she said.

Women who have other children must find a place for them to stay
while they are in maternity housing. The facilities are not built
to accommodate them, she said.

Alpha House turns away an average of two women a day because they
are unable to place their children in other care, she said.

Women who are accepted into the house must attend parenting
education classes and enroll in GED courses or college courses.

They also must learn about job opportunities, money management
and employment skills.

They also learn about government programs such as Medicaid and
food stamps and receive help in applying for those programs.

Those under 16 must attend school at a traditional high school or
go to a Hillsborough County Public Schools program for teen

``I like to say `They cannot lay on the couch and wait for labor
to start,' '' Christiano said.

Thornton said she used the time to earn a GED and start other
training. She plans to attend Hillsborough Community College in
January to study business administration.

``I don't think I would have had the mindset to go to school if I
hadn't been there,'' said Thornton, who lived at Alpha House from
February to December 2001.

Her stay was longer than the average of six months. The longest
stay has been two years, Christiano said.

The average age of a client last year was 23 1/2 years old, she
said, adding that Alpha House has had women in their mid-40s and
girls as young as 11.

About 50 percent of the residents resolve their crisis before
giving birth.

Christiano said the most difficult cases are when the
mother-to-be is a foster child, often in her early teens. The
mother and the child often are sent to separate foster homes.

Most of the mothers keep their babies. About 2 to 3 percent give
them up for adoption, a ``decision that they must make for
themselves,'' Christiano said.

Thornton said she never considered adoption.

She said since D.J.'s birth, his paternal grandparents have
helped her financially and with his care.

She said she didn't meet them until the baby was born, and they
had not realized what a serious situation she was in during the

Alpha House receives most of its funding from government grants,
the United Way, donations, foundations and special events.

It costs an average of $50 a day for a mother and baby to live at
Alpha House, said Joe Odda, Alpha House's director of

Having a healthy, normal birth-weight baby also saves
Hillsborough County about $45,000 in medical costs, he said.

On Thursday, Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio will speak at New Lives
Breakfast II, an event that is expected to draw more than 400
people and will include the stories from several clients, Odda

Last year's inaugural breakfast with 228 attendees brought
in $154,000 in donations and pledges, far topping the previous
record fundraiser, a golf tournament raising $40,000.

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