Beacon On a Hill: How This Shelter Is Transforming Young Lives

Written by Óscar Fernando García

A cluster of cozily set houses on 17th Street in Santa Ana blend into the surrounding neighborhood. Had I been strolling through, I probably wouldn’t have given a second glance at Mary’s Path, a shelter for young mothers and their children. I wouldn’t have realized that for the 18 homeless young women and their 12 babies, this set of ordinary houses is a beacon of hope in a world of tumult and uncertainty.

The front door opens into a small foyer that quickly leads to a front desk. A cheery lady welcomes me as I tell her I’m here to interview Gina Croft, Director of Community Engagement, Certified Doula, and Lamaze Childbirth Certified Educator. She tells me to sign in as Gina briskly walks out of a nearby office.

I tail behind Gina as she guides me through the house, down a beige corridor, to her office. My mind recalls reading the fixed 8-to-5 hours online which now seem odd. The general pulse gives the impression that this is the type of place that doesn’t sleep.

The humble office reflects Gina’s busy schedule. Like many of the other volunteers at this faith-based shelter, Gina doesn’t work for the salary. Rather, a genuine passion to help others anchors her to her work. Gina began her work with non-profit organizations after her son suffered from Leukemia and has been involved in social work since.

While they work in collaboration with Casa Teresa, another shelter in Santa Ana, Mary’s Path restricts its work to female youth 12 through 18 who are either pregnant or parenting a child. But of the youth that they receive, Gina says that most of their residents struggle with the cycle of poverty. Additionally, Gina comments that a “very high” number of their female youth have experienced sex trafficking.

Sex trafficking, which is the illegal transport of persons for sexual exploitation, remains a pressing issue in Orange County. An Orange County-specific study on human trafficking by Waymakers and The Salvation Army documented 415 individual cases of human trafficking for their 2017 and 2018 period; however, 359 of those cases were victims of sex trafficking.

University of California, Irvine psychological sciences professor Jodi Quas is working on a National Science Foundation-funded project to improve protocols for law enforcement officers whom may come in contact with sex trafficking victims. Professor Quas says that in the U.S., where sex trafficking is a significant issue, most sex trafficking victims are “prematurely involved” because of risks stemming from homelessness or tumultuous backgrounds. As it also relates to victims of sex trafficking, the rehabilitation of traumatized female youth becomes another concern for Gina and her team.

As a Short-Term Residential Therapeutic Program (STRTP), Mary’s Path is prepared to instill independence and maternal instinct in its residents. California Department of Social Services (CDSS) identifies STRTP as “an integrated treatment model of 24-hour specialized intensive care and supervision.” Some of the services that Mary’s Path provides include day-care, access to education, and even family-oriented meals. Thus, Mary’s Path is able to address the “cycle of dependency” in residents that Gina identifies as a recurring issue.

Like the other staff, Gina makes use of the resources at Mary’s Path to help the residents become independent, successful mothers through individualized care and attention. Chuckling about a moment from when she first began at Mary’s Path, Gina remembers how she once saw a resident maneuver around with her baby draped casually in her arms in the facility kitchen. After Gina recommended that the young mother  should adjust the way she held the baby, the mother responded, “Girl, I’ve been doing this my whole life.”

“They may not realize this is what they signed up for,” titters Gina. The desire for a new start often couples with apprehension. As she reflects, Gina admits that Mary’s Path symbolizes drastic change for young mothers, and their babies, who consider shelter at Mary’s Path. However, as their motto states, “Changing lives two at a time,” Mary’s Path guides young mothers and their babies towards a better tomorrow.

Gina Croft (Director of Community Engagement, Certified Doula and Lamaze Childbirth Certified Educator) with a newborn under Mary’s Path’s care during summer 2018.

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