Saturday, 04 August 2012 16:10

Mary Ellenís Hearth; Providing Hope and Help to Homeless Mothers and Children

Written by  Rachel Fisher
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For more than 100 years, Nellie Burge Community Center has committed to meeting the needs of under served women and children in the River Region. Originally established by a group of women at Court Street UMC in 1904 as the North Montgomery Settlement House, it began as a day nursery to assist working mothers. Ten years later, they expanded their services to needy women, children and families. At the turn of the millennia, a state-of-the-art day care facility opened and began a new chapter for the center. Nearly a decade later, the Nellie Burge Community Center was on the brink of closing. Longtime board members like Harriet Owen were committed to continuing the legacy of the center.


“We needed a new vision,” said Owen. “And Mary Ellen’s Hearth is the vision God gave us.”

Named after Mary Ellen Bullard, a well-loved woman among the United Methodist Church whose greatest passion was the Nellie Burge Community Center, Mary Ellen’s Hearth will fill a tremendous void in the River Region among homeless women and their children. Their mission, in short, is to provide hope, help and healing to homeless women and children through Christian love and values.

And it’s not what you might expect.

“Mary Ellen’s Hearth is not a quick fix. It is a transitional home,” explains board member Kim Bullard, daughter-in-law to the home’s namesake. “This is a place where the women and children can stay up to two years. During that time they will receive life skills training, counseling and many other things to help them get on their feet for a new future and a new life.”

No Place Like Home
Perhaps Dorothy said it best when she clicked her red sparking shoes together, closed her eyes and said with all the hope and determination she could muster, “There’s no place like home.” And it’s true. There is no place like the places we call home. But what about the hundreds of women in our city who have no place to call home besides the streets and abandoned houses scattered throughout West Montgomery?

This is a reality for more than 300 women in Montgomery alone. Ten percent of the 600 total homeless in Montgomery are children. Until now, there has been no facility of any kind to serve the needs of this demographic.

Opening on August 1st, Mary Ellen’s Hearth will be the only place in the River Region providing a true home to homeless women and their children together. They will initially host 10 families of three to five and have a plan to expand in coming years as the funds become available. These women can live at Mary Ellen’s Hearth from six months to two years.

“Most of the women who will come here have only had bad options,” says Scott Key, President of the Board. “There is nothing fiercer than a woman set on caring for her children because she will do anything to make sure they are cared for.” Mary Ellen’s Hearth hopes to be the good option these women have been looking for.

In a word, the facilities at Mary Ellen’s Hearth are beautiful. With the help of generous donors and local business owners, each room is completely furnished with brand new furniture and lovely décor.

“What we want to provide is a nurturing home environment,” says Joetta Davis, a board member who has worked with the homeless for many years. Davis explains the state-of-the-art facilities, like a fully equipped kitchen, laundry rooms and showers will help the women focus on gaining independence in a place where they feel safe. “We have provided them with the same things we would want in our own home” says Davis. The look on their faces when they walk in their rooms is one of the things she is anticipating the most.

But a finely furnished living space is not the only thing Mary Ellen’s Hearth hopes to give the women.

“At risk families need structure,” explains Executive Director, Debbie Dobbins. “We want to give them hope coupled with goals to help them endure the process and stay the course to independence.”

Committed to the Process
Dobbins, whose 30 years of social work in non profit arenas for at risk children and their families has taught her the process of transformation is most important. “I really believe in the process of what we do with people,” says Dobbins, “The way we nurture them and show them a way out is the one thing we have to keep ourselves and them focused on.”

Dobbins and her small staff, as well as the board, are committed to this process by providing different areas of hope, help and healing.
For the first week the women are at Mary Ellen’s Hearth, Dobbins says they will simply allow them to rest. After the first week, Dobbins and her staff will meet with the women to set goals with them. “These will be their goals for themselves,” says Davis. “Not our goals for them. We are just the cheerleaders.”

Along with setting goals, Dobbins says they will work with the women and connect them to different programs where they can find job skills training and education. Davis explains that she hopes to see the women begin to revive the dreams they once had for their life.

“We will do whatever we have to do to get them where they want to go,” says Dobbins.

There will be classes on how to be a nurturing parent as well as a class for the children to teach them about how to help and respect their mother. They will also provide classes on budgeting, safety, boundaries in relationships, how to feed their children nutritional food, plus help for writing resumes and interviews. Each woman will have chores and be a part of the family atmosphere. Ultimately, all of these things are a part of building a support system that Dobbins says is vital for their success.

“If we were to become homeless, our family would take us in,” says Dobbins. “But these women don’t have that and we hope to help build that support system with them.”

Dobbins and Davis both agree that one of the most important aspects of the process of hope, help and healing for these women will be the Mentor Program. Under the leadership of Davis, they will help connect the women to other women in the community who want to mentor and disciple them as they work through the challenges and experience the joy of life transformation.

“It’s important for all women to have someone to talk to and confide in, and we want the same thing for the women at Mary Ellen’s Hearth,” says Davis.
The children will attend public schools and be tutored every day after school. Dobbins hopes to have different students from local high schools and colleges commit to at least one day a week to meet with individual children to help them in their studies.

The staff will be small, Dobbins says, in order to keep the vision central. They recently hired a Program Manager and plan to hire an Outreach Coordinator to walk alongside the women as they transition out of Mary Ellen’s Hearth. The Board of Directors is also heavily involved and is what Dobbins calls, “a working board.”

“Most boards aren’t as involved as ours is,” says Dobbins. “Each member of the board has something to contribute whether it is finance expertise, interior design, construction or any number of things.”

But despite having an outstanding Board of Directors and an experienced staff, there is still something missing. Dobbins and Davis say that something is volunteers.

“Anyone can be involved,” says Dobbins. From contributing financially to being a mentor, tutor, or being a part of the prayer team, Dobbins and the board want to invite anyone to be a part of the ministry at Mary Ellen’s Hearth.

“The love, the grace and the mercy of Christ is poured out freely here,” says Davis. “And we are committed to pouring that same love that has been poured out on us into the lives of all who call this place Home.”

If you want to be involved contact Debbie Dobbins at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it or (334) 264-4108. Or you may visit their website at

Rachel Fisher loves learning what God is doing in the world and writing about it. Rachel and her husband, Chase, are members of Strong Tower at Washington Park, a church plant of Common Ground Ministries.

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