Hearth House gives families refuge and hope of turning lives around


Miss Maybell and her family were on the run from violence in Liberia when she wound up broke in Baltimore. Wendy was running from an abusive husband. Rita Redwin's luck just ran out.

The three women have one thing in common. They and their children live at Hearth House in Lansdowne, the last stop before a newspaper bed on a steamy grate or cold pavement. This Christmas will be a warm one.

There's one more thing they have in common.

"All three are going to make it," said Brenda Pendergrass-Chwang, executive director of Hearth House.

Miss Maybell, 36, tells her story in the lilting accents of her native Liberia, where she says her husband was a cabinet minister until civil war tore the country apart in 1991.

"We went to Sierra Leone to escape the fighting and stayed there a year while my husband went to New York to work for the United Nations," she said.

In March 1992, her husband died of brain cancer. She went to New York to bury him, she said, and later moved to Baltimore to stay with friends.

"My money ran out, and so did my friends," she said.

Then she was robbed of her purse at gunpoint on Saratoga Street in downtown Baltimore.

"All my papers, and my children's papers were in the purse," she said.

Some of her papers were replaced through the Liberian Embassy, and she has applied to the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service for permanent status.

She is broke and living with her children at Hearth House, a transitional shelter created by a group of church and social agencies to help families down on their luck. The home opened in July 1987 in a four-bedroom house renovated with an $89,000 federal grant.

Since then, Hearth House has helped more than 120 women and children return to society's mainstream. Three women and their nine children now live at the home. About 25 families are on the waiting list.

"We give them more than just shelter," said Ms. Pendergrass-Chwang. "We help them plan their future, help them with goals, encourage them to get their high school equivalency, get them into a job training program."

The home's $85,000 annual budget is supported by federal, state and county grants, and donations.

On Wednesday, children from Lansdowne Middle School brought boxes of toys and stuffed animals. A donated turkey, a ham, bags of rice, and canned goods helped fill the home's larder for Christmas.

"This time of the year will see us through," Ms. Pendergrass-Chwang said. "I wish they would remember us as well in August."

The home spends about $250 a month on food and gets the rest of its needs from church pantries, the Maryland Food Bank, and other charitable organizations.

One of Miss Maybell's daughters stared wide-eyed at a carton of Christmas toys and found it hard to keep her hands off the contents.

"That's for later," her mother said. "Be grateful for what you have, and stop being selfish."

"Nobody's perfect," her daughter said politely.

"I'm a happy person," said Miss Maybell. "We would be out on the street, and cold. And they treat you with respect and dignity here."

Upstairs, Wendy stirred a large pot of spaghetti for the evening meal. The women take turns fixing the communal dinner.

Wendy, 29, is on the run from the abusive father of three of her five children. He lives several states away.

"I just got on the bus with my children and came back to my hometown," said Wendy, who preferred not to give her last name. "He would come after me if he knew where I was."

Wendy quit school in the seventh grade, worked as a waitress for several years and had her first child when she was 16. She managed to get along until her mother died in January.

"She was very supportive, and kept me on an even keel," Wendy said. "Now I want to get my high school equivalency, get a job and an apartment, and raise my children so they don't make the same mistakes I made."

Wendy lost all of her teeth because of gum disease, and her dentures are ill-fitting.

"We're going to get that straight," said Ms. Pendergrass-Chwang.

Ms. Redwin, 31, is still a little stunned by her situation. She graduated from Edmondson High School in 1980, worked at St. Agnes Hospital for several years, had a son, now 3 years old, and lived with her mother in Edmondson Village. Her mother died in January 1992.

"My father was in the Merchant Marine and we were happy and I thought well-off," said Rita. "My father died in 1985, and after my mother died, I began to have problems at work. Too much death."

She and her son lived with friends for several months, but someone in the house stole her belongings and she knew she had to move.

"I had no place to go," she said. "I never thought it would happen to me."

She went to a YWCA shelter on Reisterstown Road, then came to Hearth House, where long-term help was available. The average stay lasts six to nine months.

Now she is working with psychiatric patients at Spring Grove Hospital and plans to get a college degree.

Hearth House is a tight ship. The women keep it neat. The children are in bed by 9 p.m. The others are in their rooms by 11 p.m. Men are not allowed inside. They visit with their children at the door.

Four full- and part-time workers give Hearth House 24-hour coverage. A nurse from the county health department is on call around the clock.

Ms. Pendergrass-Chwang, who has a master's degree in social work from University of Maryland Baltimore County, doesn't let uncooperative people stay.

"They are told to go, and it is not my problem where they go," she said. "They usually come around after I talk to them."

There is a yearlong follow-up program, and Ms. Pendergrass-Chwang can recall only five women who didn't do well after leaving Hearth House.

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