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A ‘Miraculous Way’ for Student Moms

6/1/2017

by SueAnn Howell

North Carolina Knights support a unique residence for single mothers pursuing a college education

Two mothers who live at MiraVia’s residence for college student moms, located on the campus of Belmont Abbey College in Belmont, N.C., walk with their babies in front of the Abbey Basilica of Mary Help of Christians. Sister Mary Raphael, DVM, who assists at the residence, pushes a stroller at left. Photo by Megan Whiteside/courtesy of MiraVia

Babies are usually a rare sight on college campuses, but at Belmont Abbey College scholars pushing strollers are now commonplace. Nestled in a wooded area of the campus in Belmont, N.C., just outside of Charlotte, lies the first residential facility ever built exclusively for pregnant college students and their children.

The home is a place of hope built in 2012 by MiraVia, a Charlotte-based ministry to pregnant women, in collaboration with the Knights of Columbus in North Carolina, Belmont Abbey and the college.

“The pro-life community has come together here in a way that’s never been seen before to provide a visible solution to an often invisible problem,” explained Debbie Capen, MiraVia’s newly appointed executive director and the home’s former residential director. “At colleges across America, pregnant students are choosing abortion because they can’t find any other choice. We are here to change that.”

The name MiraVia is derived from Latin and means “miraculous way.” Originally called Room at the Inn and officially renamed in 2013, the organization opened its doors in 1994, offering free services to pregnant women in Charlotte. The Belmont facility now serves women wanting to build independent, healthy lives for themselves and their children, without having to drop out of college.

FAITH IN ACTION

The home at Belmont Abbey College began as an inspiration of Benedictine Abbot Placid Solari, the chancellor of Belmont Abbey College, when he learned that Room at the Inn served mostly college-aged women. The organization’s board of directors began a strategic plan in 2004, which eventually led to the first maternity home for college student mothers, a particularly vulnerable population that often feels they have to choose between college education and their unborn children.

The Benedictine monks of Belmont Abbey readily agreed to lease the four acres needed for the ambitious project.

“Belmont Abbey has sponsored the college since its founding and thus the welfare of students is particularly important to our monastic community,” said Abbot Solari. “The belief in the sanctity of human life taught by our Catholic faith needs to be expressed in actions, and we were happy to set aside a parcel of our property for this good work.”

When MiraVia’s capital campaign for the project was launched in the summer of 2008, letters of support were issued from Belmont Abbey College and the bishops of North Carolina. The Knights of Columbus of North Carolina was fast to reply.

“The first pledge came from the North Carolina State Council for $35,000,” recalled Jeannie Wray, former executive director of MiraVia. “And local councils joined in from all over the state pledging their support.”

Deacon Tom McGahey, a past grand knight of Rev. Msgr. Joseph A. Kerin Council 12654 in Huntersville, N.C., helped rally councils statewide to raise funds for the residential facility.

“Colleges don’t offer day care, allow mother-baby housing or provide counseling that supports life choices. As a result, babies are at risk and mothers are left without support,” McGahey explained. “Without the ability to continue in their education, they are almost destined for poverty.”

Tom Mathis, a past grand knight of Bishop Michael Begley Council 770 in Charlotte, also assisted with fundraising efforts. Now a member of the MiraVia board of directors, Mathis initially contacted the organization in 2008 to offer his help on a more immediate level.

“I made an appointment with Jeannie Wray to volunteer in whatever way MiraVia needed my help. I was thinking she would ask me to mow the lawn; instead she asked me to work with Tom to continue building K of C support for the project,” Mathis recalled.

“The Knights have been leaders in the pro-life arena, so Jeannie, Deacon Tom and I thought they would welcome the opportunity to support the building,” he continued. “It is a model of holistic support for the mother and her family that resonates beyond just the pro-life community.”

BREAKING NEW GROUND

North Carolina Knights collectively raised $500,000 toward the construction of MiraVia’s maternity home on the campus of Belmont Abbey College. The official groundbreaking took place June 20, 2011, with Bishop Peter Jugis and clergy of the Diocese of Charlotte, together with Abbot Solari, the monks of Belmont Abbey, national pro-life leaders and state and local K of C representatives in attendance.

“The students who live on this campus get to see the reality that there are options,” Belmont Abbey College president William Thierfelder said at the groundbreaking. “They’ll see we are not a materialistic society and we don’t have to be relativists — that we are here and that we can do good. My hope is that our students will get to participate. They will come to see that pro-life is the norm, not the exception.”

The Belmont facility was completed just over a year later.

Abbot Solari, who serves on MiraVia’s board of directors, spoke on behalf of the monks during his remarks before the ribbon-cutting July 16, 2012. Like Thierfelder, he said that the monks hoped the new home would “be a witness to our own students.”

He also thanked Jeannie Wray and Cindy Brown, former executive directors of Room at the Inn, for their “visionary leadership” that led to the initiative.

This past March, when Supreme Knight Carl A. Anderson received the inaugural Benedict Leadership Award at Belmont Abbey College, Thierfelder accompanied the supreme knight on a visit to the MiraVia residence.

They toured the 10,000-square-foot facility, which can house up to 15 mothers, 15 infants and four toddlers for free for up to two years. Each mother has a private bedroom and bathroom and shares the kitchen, dining room and laundry room with other residents. Administrative and counseling offices and quarters for residential managers are on site.

Residents do not have to be Catholic or even students at Belmont Abbey College, though the college offers full tuition scholarships to student mothers at MiraVia. Others commute to colleges or universities in the Charlotte area.

Sister Mary Raphael of the Daughters of the Virgin Mother, a religious community that has evolved along with MiraVia, helps to provide emotional and spiritual support for the mothers, care for the babies and prepare meals.

“I have learned so much about spiritual motherhood from their courage and selfless decisions made for their own dignity as women and for their babies,” Sister Mary Raphael said. “And nothing melts your heart like the little ones trying to make the sign of the cross or the occasional carrot flung onto our plates by little hands.”

MiraVia resident Aña and her daughter, Lana, are pictured at the Belmont home with Debbie Capen, MiraVia executive director, and Tom Mathis, a board member of MiraVia and past grand knight of Bishop Michael Begley Council 770 in Charlotte. Photo by Nathan Abplanalp Photography

MOTHERS AND KNIGHTS

MiraVia’s first resident was Bianca, who gave birth to her son, Kasen, in 2013 while living at the Belmont home.

“I didn’t believe it at first,” she said. “I thought, ‘It can’t be real. There’s no way there’s a place that will help me go to school, help me pay for my baby’s diapers, his food, give me a place to stay, give me a crib and my own bathroom — all for free.’”

After spending 22 months there, Bianca and her little boy moved on to the next chapter of their lives in the summer of 2015. Bianca graduated from UNC-Charlotte, is now married and hopes to pursue a law degree.

Aña was 19 and a student at a local community college when she found out she was pregnant. She considered adoption for her unborn child, yet after giving birth to little Lana 20 months ago she decided to keep her daughter.

“MiraVia was the perfect place to go for emotional support as well as financial assistance and childcare,” said Aña, who herself was adopted from Kazakhstan. “It gave me the opportunity to grow and it took away a lot of stress. I was able to focus on the main goal of raising my child and making a plan.”

Now 21, Aña just “graduated” from the home in May. She completed her studies at nearby Gaston College and will begin a nursing program this fall to pursue her dreams of becoming a medical researcher.

“I’m really proud of every one of our young women who completed their degrees,” Wray said. “They work hard to be good mothers. In the face of all of their difficulties, they understood the gift (of MiraVia) and worked hard to achieve their goals.”

Currently, MiraVia has openings at the Belmont residence, and the staff is eager to serve women from any region.

The organization also continues to provide material support, professional counseling and other services for women in the Charlotte area who are not in need of residential help. To date, more than 7,000 women have received some kind of assistance through Room at the Inn/MiraVia.

And together with local Catholic schools, parishes and others, North Carolina Knights have been very supportive from the beginning. According to Mathis, the Knights regularly assist MiraVia with “toy drives at Christmas, food and diaper drives, and ‘baby shower collections,’ in addition to financial support of operations.”

From personal experience, Debbie Capen knows she can count on the Knights. She remembers the friends from her father’s council being there for her family when he died. She was in the eighth grade at the time, and her father’s K of C life insurance policy provided financial stability for her family, allowing her to go to college.

“What a beautiful thing to see the Knights coming to the assistance of these young mothers,” she said. “It’s a real life example of men stepping up and being there when we need them most.”


SUEANN HOWELL is senior reporter with the Catholic News Herald, the newspaper of the Diocese of Charlotte, N.C.