YMCA program lets ex-homeless woman try again


Sometimes, says 31-year-old Sheila Woolford, "It's good to get the boot -- just to wake up and realize how detrimental life can be if you don't do anything with it."

Next week, Ms. Woolford, a single mother of four, will check herself into a Baltimore detox center to exorcise her demon: a yearlong addiction to cocaine.

"I want to get clean," said Ms. Woolford. "That's the starting point. Then everything else will fall into place."

A year ago, Ms. Woolford and her family fell into homelessness and ended up at a shelter at the YWCA in downtown Baltimore.

When she left the shelter in December, she left alone: Under court order, her four children, ranging in age from 10 to six months, were taken from her. Two are in foster care. Two are with their father.

For now, Ms. Woolford lives with friends in an East Baltimore flat, trying to put the pieces of her life together.

Helping her do that is Ridge Pilcher, a 51-year-old nurse, who serves as Ms. Woolford's mentor as part of a program the YWCA began four months ago that links struggling homeless families with community volunteers. The two women spend a couple of hours a week together.

Among other things, Mrs. Pilcher has informed her about an array of social services and encouraged to write poetry, a pursuit that Ms. Woolford says "keeps my mind open, keeps me free."

The family mentoring program, a project of the Baltimore-based Coalition for Homeless Children and Families, is funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and United Way of Central Maryland.

So far, 25 families have participated.

"We're friends -- that's what we've become," said Mrs. Pilcher, who works for Health Care for the Homeless, a group that is part of the coalition. "People like Sheila are survivors. But they need self-worth. They need to change certain behaviors. "You set the priorities your clients set.

For Ms. Woolford, there is now hope where before there was only despair.

"I'm ready to make changes. I want my children to say they love Mommy because Mommy is a caring person, because Mommy is about them, not because it's just something they say," said Ms. Woolford.

"You know I don't know if I could do this -- or at least not as easily -- without Ridge. She's there to talk to when I'm feeling defeated. "For the first time in a long time, there's a chance to speak with someone, air out the issues and feel you're going in the right direction."

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