Girls find growth, support at Bernadette's House

At first glance, the old white house on Montgomery Street might seem to be just that — an old, white house.

It is so much more.

It’s the home of Bernadette’s House, a nonprofit organization established to provide a safe and supportive program for girls ages 8 to 17 years old who live in Laurel and the surrounding area. It is not a typical home, because no one sleeps there, but it’s filled with laughter, love and warmth.

“When they [the girls] come in, there is always someone for them to be greeted by and we greet them all with ‘Hello beautiful,’ ” said Bernadette’s House founder, Carol Nash, 74, who wanted to create a center that focuses on developing relationship building, academics, self-confidence and self-love.

A registered nurse by profession, Nash, of Laurel, founded Bernadette’s House in 2012 after retiring from Dimensions Healthcare System.

Through her professional career, Nash would come in contact with women who struggled with having self confidence and self esteem in the adult world.

“I knew I wanted to help,” she said. “A lot of the pain women go through is not just physical but also emotional and I wanted to make a difference.”

Nash decided an early intervention program would be the answer and so, Bernadette’s House was formed.

“The mission is to provide a safe, supportive home-like environment for young girls to realize their dreams,” Nash said. “We don’t try to tell them what to dream, but we just come alongside them and help them get to their dream.”

Each weekday after school, 12 to 15 girls arrive around 2:30 p.m. They can rest and have a snack before starting the day’s activities that may include learning etiquette or organizational skills, reading, playing games, dance classes and more.

On Wednesdays, the girls participate in a bible study. On Fridays, there is a longer activity, either karaoke, watching a movie or an outdoor activity.

Each week, there is also a “Girls Talk” session at which the girls can talk about things on their mind, including feminine hygiene and skills for managing conflicts.

The girls must also do chores, including washing dishes, sweeping the floor and cleaning the bathroom, before leaving at 6:30 p.m.

In each participant’s first year of the program, she is assigned a mentor, whose job is to to expose her to new things, Nash said. Whether it’s going to the movies, a theater show or the ballet, the mentor meets with a girl four hours each month.

Tonya Hunt, 44, of Laurel, has been volunteering with Bernadette’s House for the past two years.

“Just knowing the positive work that it [Bernadette's House] has done for the girls in the area, it made my decision to volunteer here easy,” Hunt said.

As the organization’s program assistant, Hunt works with Nash and the girls three days week or more, helping with the various activities.

“I just feel like that the house offers them [the girls] additional structure to their life,” Hunt said.

“It’s been a good experience, I’m a mother of four so I love working with children,” Hunt said. “Coming to Bernadette’s House felt natural to me.”

On Saturday, Nov., 10, Bernadette’s House will host its third annual “Keeping Our Youth Safe Conference,” at the city of Laurel’s police department’s Partnership Activity Center from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m..

“The world we live in is hard,” Nash said. “It seems today we are going backwards instead of forward and we need to have a strong foundation to keep going.”

The conference will address a few timely topics, including school safety, human trafficking and internet safety. Nash said she wonders if parents are having those conversations with their children at home.

Some girls, Nash said, say they don’t feel safe in school and are afraid of school shootings or bomb threats.

“We have to have these hard conversations,” Nash said. “My goal is to help Laurel realize its awareness of these issues and start having meaningful conversations.”

The city of Laurel, Starbucks, Wegman’s and Giant are sponsoring the conference.

Bernadette’s House also runs a summer program where girls can learn to play sports like lacrosse and tennis. Subjects, including world culture and business, are also taught.

Over the past six years, the organization has had nearly 75 girls participate. The program has room for 20 girls.

The organization operates mostly from donations and grants Each participant is charged a weekly $50 fee. An additional $15 for transportation is charged each participant who gets picked up from James H. Harrison Elementary, Dwight D. Eisenhower Middle and Laurel High schools. In the six years of its existence, Bernadette's House has never raised its prices.

On Nov. 1, the organization marked its first year in the house on Montgomery Street. Built in 1892, it has a full kitchen, a living room, a dining room and four rooms upstairs, which have been converted into an arts and crafts room, a learning lab equipped with computers, a quiet space and a lounge area filled with books.

Climbing a creaky staircase to reach the second floor, a wall of affirmations, with quotes from Dr. Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi and Theodore Roosevelt, is meant to inspire, Nash said..

In its beginnings, Bernadette’s House was at 804 West St.

Next fall, Nash is planning to have a gala event to hopefully secure funding to purchase the home as well as a bus for transportation.

Nash is renting the home from Manon Gurley, the senior pastor and president at The Tabernacle Church in Laurel. The asking price of the house is $350,000.

Having grown up in a covenant after the death of her mother, Nash said she gained self-esteem and confidence from her guardian, Sister Maria Bernadette. Nash hopes she provides each girl the best support to help them grow and become more self confident.

“Under her [Sister Bernadette] I received love and nurturing,” Nash said. “I want kids to know it doesn’t matter what your story is.Everybody has a dream, everybody has a gift.”

jnocera@baltsun.com

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