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MaRiH Center in Alexandria has served mother and child since 1974

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Stephen and Elena did not feel ready to be parents. Then they visited the MaRiH Center in Alexandria, where they were met with encouragement and support. “Had it not been for the MaRiH Center, I’m not sure my partner and I would be parents today,” said Stephen, whose name has been changed due to the sensitive nature of the topic, in a recent MaRiH newsletter. “I will never forget the joy and excitement I felt at the hospital when the baby finally arrived. It was one of the most beautiful things I had ever experienced.” 

Stephen and Elena are one of the many couples served by the MaRiH Center, which opened its doors to pregnant women in need in 1974. The name, pronounced ma-rye-ah, is an acronym for “Mary, a rose in haste,” taken from the Gospel of Luke where Mary goes in haste to visit her pregnant cousin Elizabeth. MaRiH was founded by the late Joan Coleman, who had a great dedication to the cause, said longtime volunteer Shirley St. Cin. “Joan used to say, ‘We’ll sell the furniture if that’s what we have to do to be able to help this girl,’ ” she said. “And she meant it.” 

Much has changed in society since the clinic opened decades ago. Women today have greater access to birth control, the morning-after pill, high-quality pregnancy tests and the abortion pill, said St. Cin. Many of the families they now serve are Hispanic or Middle Eastern, said Beth Gilles-Whitehead, director of the center. But the mission of providing emotional and material support has stayed the same. 

On a recent Thursday morning, visitors were greeted by the sight of toys for clients’ children, realistic fetal models and two volunteers manning the front desk. In the back rooms of the center, strollers, cribs and other baby supplies waited to be built, repaired or claimed by families in need.

In a room lined with boxes of clothes, volunteer Joan Niles bundled seasonal clothing together for boys and girls up to 2 years of age. The task includes a lot of oohing and ahhing over adorable baby clothes, admitted St. Cin as Niles held up a frilly white dress. Niles ensures each outfit matches and that the clothes are undamaged and stain-free. Otherwise, they’ll take them home to wash and mend. “Our rule is we don’t pack clothes we wouldn’t put on our own babies,” said St. Cin. 

The bundles also include blankets, diapers, towels, bibs and socks. It’s a gesture that says, “we love you, we love your baby, here’s how to get started,” said Gilles-Whitehead. “It’s really important to us that the mama feels loved and she knows we love her, and in conjunction her child.” While MaRiH is not a medical clinic, the all-volunteer staff works to get women the medical care they need. 

Many of the women feel like they have to get an abortion, said Gilles-Whitehead, a parishioner of St. Philip Church in Falls Church. “I'm continually surprised in a world where we say we have choices that seven out of 10 women who come to us say, ‘No, I really can’t (have a baby), my boyfriend is going to leave me or my parents will kick me out,’ ” said Gilles-Whitehead. “We can help them to see that yes, it is their choice, to choose to be the mom that they already are.”

MaRiH volunteers don’t preach or give gruesome facts about abortion, said Gilles-Whitehead. But they do try to present the bigger picture to pregnant women. “When they are in crisis or in shock, their lens is very small. It’s our honor and privilege to say, ‘Hey, let’s just open that up a little bit. Let's take it one day at a time. Let's see what’s going on with your health. Let's get more information,’ ” she said. “To see what she values and empower her and find out about her goals and dreams. Tell them that they can’t be fired from their jobs, things they hadn't thought about.”

The pandemic has been an especially busy time for the center. “We never closed for one day,” said Gilles-Whitehead. “So many people were out of work and didn’t have diapers, didn't have clothes, didn’t have formula. We said we’re going to ask our donors to step up and they did and we just kept helping. God’s generosity will never be outdone.”

One of the best parts of working at the center is the relationships — between volunteers and between volunteers and clients, said St. Cin, who has been at the center since 1998. “I love children, I was a kindergarten teacher, I have children of my own. Children have been the most important thing of my life, so when I saw the need, I just immediately was drawn to it,” she said. “We stay with these girls for as long as they need us or want us. There is one girl that I hear from every Mother's Day and her little boy must be 6 years old now. It really is special.”


© Arlington Catholic Herald 2021