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Putting the Pieces Back Together at Marian House

Marian House resident Patricia Bishop stands in the healing garden
Marian House resident Patricia Bishop stands in the healing garden - Steve Ruark
The four sculptures in the extensively landscaped courtyard in Waverly each presents a different one-word message to those who stop and look. Peace. Trust. Honesty. Integrity.
These words reflect the core values of Marian House, a 30-year-old nonprofit that has helped more than 1,000 women put their lives back together.
“Each of our women is like a puzzle,” Marian House Executive Director Katie Allston says. “They started in this world whole and complete, but their being and sense-of-self were shattered into pieces.”Founded by the Sisters of Mercy and School Sisters of Notre Dame, Marian House opened its doors in 1982 in the former St. Bernard’s Convent on Gorsuch Avenue.  Ten years later, the nonprofit built Marian House II in three row homes near the original site. That was followed by an additional location in the Pen Lucy neighborhood and a 19-unit apartment building known as Serenity Place, which opened in 2007.
More growth lies ahead. Marian House was recently awarded a $600,000 grant, renewable annually, from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development through the Mayor’s Office of Human Services. That raises its total operating budget by more than one-third, to $2.4 million. With that extra money, Marian House plans to take in double the number of women with children who reside in permanent housing. By this time next year, it expects to serve 30 additional women with children in permanent housing.  
“The women who will benefit from this grant are homeless with a history of trauma or incarceration,” Allston says.  “They will also have a history of mental illness, substance abuse or HIV.”
The 164 individuals at Marian House reside in transitional housing, where a woman may stay for up to 24 months. Once a woman arrives at Marian House, she is offered emergency management assistance and case workers help her set aside a modest amount of savings that will eventually serve as a security deposit if she moves into permanent housing.
“We consider a successful exit as someone who moves into permanent housing and is employed,” Marian House Grant Writer Elizabeth Keady says.
Johns Hopkins Hospital, Mercy Medical Center and McDonald’s are some of the employers who have hired former Marian House residents. Baltimore's Mercy Medical Center has hired eight women from the nonprofit as housekeepers and cafeteria workers, Employment Manager Demet Cress says. The entry-level positions are somewhat difficult to fill, Cress says, because you need individuals with the right skill set and the right attitude and personality.
Former Marian House residents volunteer their time helping current residents get back on their feet.
One of the women putting her life back together at Marian House is Renee Burns. Growing up in East Baltimore, Burns endured sexual abuse from family members and neighbors beginning at age six. The trauma and after-effects impacted every part of her life.
“I hadn’t accomplished anything before coming to Marian House,” says Burns, 44. “The staff taught me to trust again; they’ve given me the tools to be a survivor rather than a victim.”
Although Brooklyn, New York and Baltimore are about two hundred miles apart, Patricia Bishop spent many years traveling between the two because her daughter is in Baltimore. A former drug user and alcohol abuser, Bishop eventually moved to Baltimore and lived in the city for six months before coming to Marian House in February.
“I was really broken when I got here.  I still have a lot of work to do, but I’m on the right path,” Bishop says.“Marian House loves you until you love yourself back, while being clear that I’m responsible for my own recovery.”
She hopes to open up an addictions counseling program one day.

The nonprofit’s physical space plays a big part in Marian House’s success with the women it serves. The main building is bright, with warm colors and furnishings throughout the two-story structure. Artwork adorns the walls. Each individual room has a big sign on the door welcoming the woman who lives there.
Tough love is also a big component of the Marian House experience. Allston and her staff enforce a mandatory dinner policy as a means of giving women the discipline and structure they need to move forward with their lives.  “All our women must be back at the house by 6:30 p.m. each day to eat dinner together. There are consequences for anyone who doesn’t comply with this requirement.”
“Our expectations are high. The women who come to Marian House get pulled up. We help them get to a place where they don’t need help.”
Reflecting on the sculpture in the Marian House courtyard, Burns sees a powerful metaphor for what she and women like her experience during their time in the former convent. “The sculptures symbolize our transformation here. They start out rough; then with time and love, they become smooth.”

Paul Sturm coordinates the Baltimore Nonprofit Leaders Circles and teaches in the Nonprofit Management Program at Notre Dame of Maryland University.  He lives downtown where he feeds his addiction to crab cakes and Berger Cookies.

All photographs by STEVE RUARK except Katie Allston photo by Marshall Clarke / Marian House. Enlarge the photos to see the captions. 
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