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Hannah House Residential Program for Pregnant Teens and Young Moms to Shut its Doors Dec. 31

Natasha Bruso, 21, of Windsor, sits surrounded by family and friends with her son, Hayden, after opening presents at his second birthday party on Friday. While pregnant with  Hayden, Natasha lived at Hannah House, a residential facility in Lebanon that teaches parenting and self-reliance to teen mothers. Hannah House will close at the end of the year due to a decline in the number of residents and in state funding. (Valley News - James M. Patterson)

Natasha Bruso, 21, of Windsor, sits surrounded by family and friends with her son, Hayden, after opening presents at his second birthday party on Friday. While pregnant with Hayden, Natasha lived at Hannah House, a residential facility in Lebanon that teaches parenting and self-reliance to teen mothers. Hannah House will close at the end of the year due to a decline in the number of residents and in state funding. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »

Lebanon — When Natasha Bruso arrived at Hannah House in November 2010, she was pregnant, homeless and scared. The nonprofit took her in “pro bono,” she said — there would be no state reimbursement for her stay. In the cozy three-story house in downtown Lebanon, staff members taught the 19-year-old about parenting, helped her write a budget, and showed her how to “be stable.”

“They would all help me with anything,” she said.

By the time Bruso left, five months later, she had really changed. The difference?

“Confidence in myself in being an adult and being a mom,” said Bruso, who now shares an apartment in Windsor with her 1-year-old son, Hayden, and his father, Trevor Mullen.

These days, Bruso is taking college classes online and working full-time as a prep cook at EBAs in Hanover. But like many former Hannah House residents, she stays in touch with the staff there, calling every week or so for advice or just to say hi. And she’s grateful for the help she received.

“Everybody has that rough spot in their life, and that was mine,” she said. “Hannah House does a lot of good for people who need it.”

But soon, the program that helped Bruso over that rough spot will no longer be available.

On Dec. 31, Hannah House will close its residential program for pregnant and parenting teens and young adults. The last resident will soon be relocated, bringing to an end 25 years of providing around-the-clock care for young mothers, moms-to-be and their children. For the time being, at least, the nonprofit will also close its day care facility.

Citing financial woes, the board announced last month that it would lay off staff at the end of the year and begin a reorganization in 2013.

Last week, board President Barbara Callahan called the closing “devastating” and said the nonprofit hopes to continue to offer other services. “My dream is to still have a strong outreach program and day care,” she said.

Laying off employees, who are “like a family,” was difficult, Callahan said, but the decision was purely financial.

The nine full-time and several part-time staff members have “a wealth of expertise and experience,” she said, and the board would like to rehire them, if possible. “As we know what the programs (will be), they are certainly our first choice.”

Since it opened in November 1987, the 19th-century house on the tidy Abbott Street has been home to girls from New Hampshire and Vermont and their young children in difficult times. Many were referred from outside of the Upper Valley, often from Manchester and Nashua, to receive the intensive help Hannah House offered. During their stays, which ranged from a few months to two years, they made the place their own. Some painted their bedrooms — one is pale green, another, bright yellow. They shared chores. They went to school or worked or both. They ate dinner together at a large kitchen table — really four small wooden tables pushed together — a reminder of years past when the house was full.

As of a few years ago, the most recent numbers available, Hannah House had worked with more than 650 babies and young children and 600 teens and young adults in its residential and outreach programs. For two decades, its six bedrooms were usually occupied. But recently, the house has been much quieter, largely due to a nationwide effort to keep at-risk teens closer to home.

The new approach is less expensive, and in some cases, a good solution, Callahan said. But she and staff members worry about how it will affect the small, vulnerable group of young people who, for a variety of reasons, cannot stay with their families or in their communities.

Financial Woes

The nonprofit, which Callahan said has an annual budget of about $650,000, has been struggling for a few years now. According to federal tax records, in 2010, the agency’s expenses exceeded its revenues by about $158,000. The previous year, that number was $118,000, and in 2008, the red ink totaled about $92,000.

There are several reasons for the crunch, Callahan said.

Hannah House has had fewer residents overall, as teen pregnancy rates have decreased across the country, and New Hampshire and Vermont have the lowest and second-lowest rates, respectively. Public funding has dramatically decreased, and referrals from state agencies have fallen by more than 50 percent over the past four years, she said.

In an attempt to keep pregnant, at-risk teens in permanent housing in their own communities, many states, including Vermont and New Hampshire, have begun placing them with foster families or relatives, rather than in residential programs like Hannah House. The move has led to a decline in the number of referrals — and the amount of funding — residential programs receive.

Hannah House, which has room for six girls and seven children, has seen a sharp decrease.

“In the last four years, the numbers have definitely dipped,” Callahan said. “Prior to that, we were full almost all the time.”

Considering those factors, the closing was inevitable, Callahan said. But she wished it didn’t have to be so abrupt.

Like several other nonprofit organizations, Hannah House is awaiting money from New Hampshire, the balance of past payments the state made to the agencies at a rate that was lower than promised.

Had Hannah House already received the funds, about $230,000, they might have been able to make a “more graceful” transition, she said.

As it was, they hung on as best they could, stretching the budget “as far as it would possibly go.” Eventually, she said, they ran through their reserve fund and let some bills slide in order to pay staff.

Callahan said she hopes the money will enable Hannah House to pay off its “not insurmountable” liabilities, which she said would be between $50,000 and $60,000, depending on how much the organization has to pay its staff in terms of accrued vacation time and other costs. Tax records show the nonprofit’s net assets falling from $354,000 at the beginning of 2009 to $116,000 at the end of 2010.

Transitioning

It’s too early to say what Hannah House will look like after it’s reorganized. It may share programs or even merge with a nonprofit with a similar mission, such as WISE, said Callahan, who has “chatted very briefly” about the idea with the Lebanon organization. WISE provides advocacy and crisis services to people affected by domestic and sexual violence. A telephone message left at WISE on Friday afternoon was not returned.

The transition will take shape under new leadership, as the board last month laid of all of its employees, effective Dec. 31, including the longtime executive director, Randy Walker.

The board tapped Hilde Ojibway, former executive director of Good Neighbor Health Clinic, to serve as interim executive director.

Ojibway, with her extensive experience with nonprofits, “will guide us through the next stage,” Callahan said. That will include determining what programs are needed for young parents and pregnant girls in the Upper Valley, and figuring out how to fund them.

Walker, who joined Hannah House in 1995, said the closing was “a tough thing,” but it wasn’t entirely unexpected.

“Certainly the writing was on the wall,” he said Friday, pointing out that other similar residential programs have also closed recently. “I think the cash flow was a big reason the board made that decision.”

Still, he said, the timing was something of a shock.

With fewer referrals coming in, Walker and his staff were looking for funding sources that would allow them to continue offer services to young people, including those who were not state-referred but would benefit from the structure of a residential program.

“We had been tasked to come up with a plan to see what we (could do),” he said. “We thought we had six to nine months to put that plan into effect, but that didn’t happen.”

Walker, who earned about $51,000 in 2010 as executive director, said he and the board agreed that he would not oversee the transition.

“I don’t think that they wanted me to be the one to do the reorganizing,” he said. “When I found out what their plans were, I said I wasn’t the one to do it.”

Callahan said Walker has done “a great job.”

“Randy’s … given his heart and soul to it,” she said. “It’s just a natural progression to get a fresh leadership.”

The board is also looking to the community for ideas, Callahan said, and plans to host a public forum sometime in early January to discuss the needs of teen parents.

‘Shock and Sadness’

Cheryl O’Donnell, an 18-year employee of Hannah House, said she felt “shock and sadness” when she heard the house would close.

“I’ve loved working there,” said O’Donnell, who supervises the day care program. “It’s a really special place with a really neat staff.”

The day care center, which accepts infants and children from 6 weeks to a few years old, was initially created for the children of residents and girls receiving outreach services. But three years ago, with the number of residents falling, it opened up to the community.

The center, which is licensed for eight children, has generally been full ever since, Callahan said.

At the time Hannah House announced that it was closing, the center had about five families on the waiting list.

“It was kind of home-ish,” and parents liked its small size and caring staff, O’Donnell said. With the impending closing, some families have found new child care options, but “probably half” are still scrambling to made arrangements.

The Bradford, Vt., resident has already found a new job, working at a day care in Chelsea. “I was very lucky,” she said.

Other employees, however, are still deciding what to do next.

Charlene Hjermstad, of Danbury, N.H., said she isn’t sure what her next will move will be, but being “passionate about teens,” she will likely look for a job in the same field.

Hjermstad, a residential staff supervisor, has worked at Hannah House for 21 years. Like Walker, she said the timing was a surprise, but the closing itself was not.

“We were all very aware that the (number of) residents had dropped in the house,” Hjermstad said.

But she’s concerned about what will happen to those who would have been served by Hannah House. Over the course of two decades, she’s seen worrisome changes in the young people they serve. Some struggle with mental health and substance abuse issues, or are victims of physical or sexual abuse.

“It’s a multitude of issues,” she said. “Being pregnant and parenting is low on the list.”

Even though it’s a still few weeks off, the closing has already hurt.

Last week, the house was empty but for two young mothers and their children. Both girls were attending Ledyard Charter School, which they loved, Hjermstad said.

“They were so committed,” she said. “They’d get up and walk to school. They did really well.”

Now, the state of New Hampshire is looking for a foster home for the last resident, a 15-year-old girl from Rochester, N.H., and her baby boy.

Late last week, the other resident, a 17-year-old mother of two, moved back to her mom’s place in Keene.

Because it’s “not an appropriate setting,” she couldn’t take her children, Hjermstad said, and she has no neighbors or other family members to stay with. With no other options, her two sons, ages 6 months and 21 months, were placed in foster care.

“The idea is she will get them back in the future,” Hjermstad said. “The plan was to stay at Hannah House.”

Aimee Caruso can be reached at acaruso@vnews.com or 603-727-3210.