On July 9, First Lady Melania Trump made an unannounced visit to The Mary Elizabeth House, a ministry focused on “supporting the positive development of young, single mothers and their children through life-skills training, education and workforce guidance, counseling and housing.”
In a statement to The Daily Citizen, the First Lady said, “It is important that, even in these challenging times, we find ways to help and connect with people and acknowledge the important work that is being done in countless communities across the United States. Ministries like The Mary Elizabeth House are providing the support and valuable life skills that help to serve and lift up families and their communities to keep our children safe.”
During the visit, the First Lady delivered a donation of boxed lunches, Be Best tote bags (the First Lady’s initiative focusing on children), and other items. She has also sent the ministry a donation of vegetables and produce from the White House Kitchen Garden.
Additionally, the First Lady “met with staff of the Mary Elizabeth House, mothers, and their children. Mrs. Trump spent time engaging with children at the community playground and handing out boxed lunches and Be Best items as a show of her appreciation for the work of the dedicated staff, and home for young women in and out of the child welfare system.”
For Dr. Carolyn Graham, the CEO of The Mary Elizabeth House, the visit was entirely unexpected.
“I don’t know why, but I never envisioned that it would be the First Lady visiting,” Dr. Graham said in an interview with The Daily Citizen.
“Everybody was so excited, and she was so engaging and accessible. She talked with the young women, she listened to them, she heard their stories and responded to them. She was very present for them, which was really very important to them. She was not the formal person you see on the TV. She’s very approachable. She was on the playground with the mothers and children laughing and talking. The image that I got, from both the girls and the staff, was that she was just there with them, and that’s so important for these young women for people to be present for them because they are so often overlooked.”
Most of the young women that The Mary Elizabeth House ministers to are teens within the foster system or young women who have aged out without a safety net. The ministry aims to give them the skills and strengths to successfully adapt to living independently. They also support young mothers by providing an early childhood development program and home management skills, like cooking.”
“The way our society works is that many of the young women are expected to find jobs and go to school in the absence of childcare,” Dr. Graham explained. “There is no way you can pursue any of your life dreams or any of the necessary training that you require if you do not have adequate and appropriate childcare. So, we have a childcare center that operates roughly 12 hours a day. We work with our children to ensure that they acquire the necessary skills and are ready to learn when they enter schools.”
One of the most important programs is one that is generally overlooked by many, reaching out to young women who have aged out of the system without any support. This program grew out of a mentoring program that Dr. Graham designed at her church, where she was an associate pastor. A young woman that she mentored, named Peggy, confided that she was about to age out of the system with no place to go.
“Peggy’s story is always close to my heart,” Dr. Graham said. “And that is what informed this work and continues to inform it. When I feel low at times, I will remember Peggy, and the Peggys in our ministry who’s lives we are now trying to heal and to touch and to mend. There are a lot of Peggy’s out here, and once they leave the cloistered environment of the foster care system, they have nothing. That really is the body of work that I want to stretch and grow in for these young women who are out here with little or nothing and no serious skills to fall back on in order to have meaningful jobs and meaningful work.”
The program is still evolving, and Dr. Graham is looking for community members in the Washington D.C. area to help mentor and support these young women for a two to three-year period.
The First Lady’s visit was part of a show of support for the recent Executive Order signed by President Donald Trump, which aims to strengthen America’s child welfare system. In a statement to The Daily Citizen on her recent activities, the White House said, “Mrs. Trump continues to advocate for supporting child welfare in order to improve the lives and well-being of children and youth in foster care.”
For Dr. Graham, the need to help support young families and keep families together as much as possible is the driving force of her work.
“It’s extremely important, and I fundamentally believe that we really need to rethink taking children away from families,” Dr. Graham said. “We need to figure out how to work with families, except in cases where you’re dealing with extreme cases of abuse. If you look at the research, it says that these kids, when they age out and have no place else to go, they go home and back to their families. Our work really has to be around healing families. So, how can we support that mother? How can we help her be the best mother that she can be?”
The First Lady’s visit will hopefully help bring light not only onto Dr. Graham’s work and that of The Mary Elizabeth House, but also highlight the need to support young women, like Peggy, who are about to age out and don’t have a safety net.
“The First Lady is welcome any time,” Dr. Graham said. “And we look forward to getting all the fresh produce from the White House Kitchen Garden that we can get.”
Photo from @FLOTUS
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