“He will have the most amazing set of lungs.”
Paul Stefan James lived for only forty-two minutes – with a heartbeat, but never taking a breath. It seemed like a cruel coincidence that his mother’s Chicken Soup for a Mother’s Soul calendar had those words to offer on his birth date.
But within about a human gestational period, a maternity home would open in his name, and the first baby born to a mother housed there arrived a year after Paul’s birthday. “This is his lungs,” said Paul’s father, Randy James, standing in the hearth of one of the four maternity homes run by the Paul Stefan Foundation in the state of Virginia. “And it is amazing.”
“I was just told to drop the subject and drop the baby as soon as possible,” Shama Khan, one of the mothers who have called a Paul Stefan home her temporary residence, remembers. Shama’s family was ashamed of her and her unwed pregnancy and just wanted it to be gone. Feeling as if she had no other options, Shama went, alone, for an abortion.
“After what seemed like an eternity in the waiting room,” she recalls, “I was then taken into an exam room and asked to watch a short video in preparation for the ‘procedure.’ The video made it seem like it was a quick in-and-out procedure and that I’d have my life ‘back to normal’ in no time. Next the doctor laid me on the exam table and began the exam and ultrasound. I couldn’t see anything but could hear a swishing sound. I asked what that sound was and the doctor replied it was a heartbeat. I thought to myself, ‘A heartbeat? Really? At only 5-7 weeks?’”
That perception made her too tense for the procedure. She took it as a sign that she was going to do whatever it took to see her pregnancy through.
“My income was not enough to support me and my newborn. . . .I had the ability to give birth to my child but not the means to raise her. I nearly fell into depression. The thought of adopting out my firstborn was tearing me apart. Seriously, were there no other options? Section 8 housing was closed in the state of Virginia, low-income housing was being offered only after placing my name on a three-year waiting list, and most shelters in the area were full and only offered a 30-day solution. I had WIC and a few other benefits but no place to live. I was a paycheck away from being on the street; in reality I would be homeless as soon as my time in the family home ran out.”
Khan’s case is an example of the Paul Stefan Foundation’s flexibility, working with women where they are, making the world they find themselves in as welcoming to their choice to embrace their child’s life – either to care for them at one of the foundation’s own facilities, or to put them in a loving family’s arms.
Normally a woman will be pregnant when she is taken in. Shama Khan had already had her child, and was living in a home courtesy of Catholic Charities. Having welcomed life, she did not have the resources on her own to support herself and her child, but she was willing to work. The mission of the Paul Stefan homes is to make sure that these moms have a fighting chance.
“People say miracles don’t happen,” Randy reflects. But he feels like he is living one.
Which obviously does not mean he has an easy life or is without suffering.
When Randy and his wife Evelyn were told that the baby she was carrying would be “incompatible with life,” a doctor – who, like Randy and Evelyn, is Catholic – suggested terminating the pregnancy. But they wouldn’t, and Randy says that “yes” to life put them on a path through a whole series of life-saving yeses.
Their story is, in many ways, rooted in the Nativity: “Just like Mary said ‘yes,’ we just said yes and followed the course. We have no ideas why God picked us; we just keep praying for us daily. It has been like a light was out there, showing us where to go. He opens doors.”
And there’s certainly that at the Paul Stefan homes: open doors. Mothers are referred from Catholic Charities and social services, and they come on their own, after Googling “maternity home.” They come from Chicago, New York, Iowa. They come from all around Virginia.
It weighs on Randy that there are three abortion centers in Charlottesville and no homes. They’d like “to open up a couple more to fill the state,” and have expansion plans into Pittsburgh and Cincinnati.
“Yes” is a constant in the story of the Paul Stefan Foundation. The homes are warm, welcoming, child-friendly environments, but not free babysitting or free rides. Staff helps make connections to job skills, education, and transportation, helping women know what services are available to them.
Frequently these young mothers have been “abandoned by those who love them the most,” Evelyn notes. Taking baby steps, guided by a loving hand, will get them moving forward.
“One of the things we have in common is the brokenness and suffering,” the James’ parish priest, Fr. Stefan Starzynski, who is spiritual adviser for the homes (which serve women of all faiths and no faith), tells me.
We argue a lot about abortion, especially during presidential campaigns and elections. At homes like Paul Stefan’s or the Visitation Mission in uptown Manhattan or Maggie’s Place in Phoenix and Cleveland or the Northwest Center in Washington, D.C., or Good Counsel in New Jersey, all rhetoric stops, the healing begins, and life is lived with love.