RUSSIA — Lauren Burnam, then of Troy, was not quite 19 when she found out she was pregnant.
She was also homeless.
“I was moving from sibling to sibling,” she said, recently. Then, someone told her about Rustic Hope.
Since 2006, the rural Russia-based nonproft has provided free support to single mothers before, during and after pregnancy. Its director and founder, Connie McEldowney, invites unwed, pregnant teens to live in her home on a temporary basis.
“Connie messaged me, ‘Come live with us,’ so I came,” Burnam said. It wasn’t the first time she’d been a live-in guest in the McEldowney home. Burnam had spent a week or two there as a foster child some years before.
“I’ve known Connie my whole, entire life. When I heard about Rustic Hope, I didn’t realize it was Connie,” she said.
McEldowney and her husband, Craig, along with their five biological children — they now also have three adopted children — had been welcoming needy people into their home for years before she formalized operations by creating the nonprofit.
It all started in 2001 when Connie, a Catholic, went with a church group to Dayton to pray for an hour on the site of an abortion clinic.
“In that one hour, 15 girls went in,” McEldowney said. “They didn’t look like what I thought they would look like. I thought they would look evil, but they looked like my daughter, my sister. They looked scared. No one looked like they wanted to be there. They wore sunglasses, kept their heads down and their hoodies up.”
McEldowney found herself imagining what they felt like. It was the first time she had put herself in another’s shoes. It led her to pray an unexpected prayer.
“I prayed that God would use me to be a better option. That’s a scary prayer: ‘God, use me,’ because he does,” she said.
The answer didn’t come right away. She didn’t know what to do, but she kept praying. And then, one day, it was clear: “If these girls need a place to go, we’re it. If we want people to be pro-life, we have to let them into our home.”
The family’s original plan was to take in pregnant girls who needed help.
“We had eight kids. I wasn’t sure what we could provide, but I knew we had extra beds. We had a place to sleep,” McEldowney said.
She and Craig, an engineer at Stolle Machinery, consulted a lawyer and in 2006, Rustic Hope grew from those extra beds. They gave information about their willingness to help to Job and Family Services departments, doctors, high school counselors and places where young girls would go with a crisis pregnancy. And the phone calls came. And came. And came. They increased from about one a week to five to 10 a day.
They were referrals or they were from women who needed advice or diapers or a ride to an appointment.
Rustic Hope is now housed in a huge pole barn on the McEldowney property. The barn is filled with used furniture, baby clothes, shoes, stacks and stacks of diapers and other essentials. The items are available at no cost to single mothers.
“I joke that we’re a recycling center,” McEldowney said. Often, moms who take clothing for their newborns bring it back six months later so someone else can have it.
The organization’s services include temporary housing, transportation, food, clothing, baby supplies, daycare, adoption information, post abortive counseling and parenting classes. During this May alone, 200 mothers used those services. They came from Mercer, Auglaize, Darke, Miami and Montgomery, in addition to Shelby County.
“Girls have lived with us from Texas, Kentucky, Tennessee,” McEldowney said. “We can comfortably have four moms and their babies in our house.” They have been referred by social service agencies, emergency rooms, even restaurants, where a destitute woman might order something small and sit with it all day. That’s a sign to restaurant workers that she might be homeless and troubled.
Although single mothers of all ages are welcome to Rustic Hope’s other services, McEldowney will give a free place to live only to teens.
“Older women, those in their 20s, don’t want rules,” she said. The teens who live in the McEldowney home must abide by the same rules her children do. She encourages them to go to church — any church. And they must do chores.
For Burnam, now 20, it’s more than worth it. Her son, Rowan, was born Dec. 10.
“I had depression really bad. Connie can sense when something’s off. She’s there for me to talk to and makes sure my mind is in the right direction. She’s like a mom. She taught me how to save money. She taught me that Rowan comes first. I don’t need the silly little things that I’d get before. I was a hothead before. She’s mellowed me out. I grew up while I was here,” Burnam, who holds down two jobs, said.
Of the almost 50 women who have stayed in her home through the years, McEldowney has had to ask just two of them to leave.
“They were sneaking in drugs and boyfriends. We gave them five or six chances, but they were reckless and it was dangerous for my kids,” she said. But she didn’t just throw them out. She found other places for them to go.
Her children have all been supportive of their parents’ efforts to help others, even though they knew when they left for college, they’d just lost their bedrooms. And Rustic Hope has grown through the help of many, many volunteers and just as many donors. No one gets paid. Volunteers sort and rack clothes, diapers and shoes. They assist with transportation and groceries. Several service clubs and other organizations have fundraisers to support the work.
And individuals donate all kinds of items.
“We’ve had cars donated that we were able to give to single moms to get to and from work,” McEldowney said. She’ll never forget the first time it happened. A girl had called and needed help. McEldowney never says no. She always says she’ll see what she can do. This girl asked for a car and the Rustic Hope director didn’t give any indication on the phone how impossible that was. But when they hung up, McEldowney looked at her husband and said, “Who does she think we are? We can’t do a car!”
The words were not out of her mouth before the phone rang again. It was a man she’d never met.
“I have a car I want to donate somewhere. Do you guys take cars?” he said.
And that’s when McEldowney heard another voice in her head. That’s when she heard God say, “This isn’t about what you can do. This is about what I can do.” Her caller got the car. And God has been providing what Rustic Hope’s clients need ever since.
The same kind of serendipitous giving provided the $50,000 two years ago to build the 1,500-square-foot pole barn when donated merchandise overflowed the McEldowney garage. It has provided what McEldowney calls shepherding homes, places other than her house where young women can stay.
Rustic Hope works in concert with several other agencies, including Elizabeth’s New Life Center Women’s Center, New Choices, Agape Distribution and FISH.
Although there’s no doubt the creature comforts that can be found in the pole barn along Simon Road are appreciated by those who need them, what may be most appreciated is what is right there in the Russia organization’s name: hope.
“It’s a nonjudging, loving, full of faith place to be,” Burnam said.
From the very first phone call a young woman receives from McEldowney — “I’m Connie. I heard that you’re pregnant. How can I help you?” — to when that young woman can successfully live by herself with her child — “I think I could be on my own (now) and be a good mother,” Burnam said — Rustic Hope supports her value and her child’s value because, McEldowney says, “Every life matters.”
She likes to quote Mother Teresa: “Three things in human life are important. The first is to be kind. The second is to be kind. The third is to be kind.”
Reach the writer at 937-538-4824.