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Kenyon: Hannah House Closing Is a Step in the Wrong Direction

After spending the last few years as a stay-at-home mom, Michelle Scelza starts work next week at the Visiting Nurse Association in West Lebanon as a health care data analyst.

Sitting in the living room of her ranch-style home in Hartland, I waited for her to explain the new job in layman’s terms (the layman being me). But her husband, Chris, picking up on my complete lack of techno-savvy, piped in from the kitchen, where he was making lunch for their 20-month-old son, Vin.

“She’s a geek,” he cracked.

Talk about turning your life around.

After growing up in Wells River with a mother and stepfather, who had their own struggles, Michelle quit Blue Mountain Union High School at age 16 and boarded a bus for Florida. All she carried was a backpack.

At 19, she fled Florida — and an abusive relationship — with the same single bag of belongings. But this time, when she got back on the bus, she was five months pregnant. Shortly after returning to the Upper Valley, she heard about Hannah House, a group home in downtown Lebanon for pregnant teens and young single mothers.

“I had no money. No family,” she said. “All I had was a box of baby clothes that I bought at a yard sale with money I made baby-sitting.”

On her first visit to Hannah House, Michelle met Kim Therrien, the nonprofit’s outreach case manager. At 19, Michelle was too old to move into Hannah House (the age cutoff was 18), so Therrien came up with an alternative. She found Michelle a federally subsidized apartment in Lebanon. Well aware that Michelle’s job prospects were severely limited without a high school diploma, Hannah House arranged for a tutor to help her prepare for the GED, the high school equivalency exam.

When her son Zeek was born, Michelle didn’t have a ride home from the hospital. Therrien picked them up. After Michelle was hired as a receptionist at Listen, she dropped off her son each morning at Hannah House’s day care center.

“Hannah House did everything for me,” said Michelle.

And hundreds of other girls during the last 25 years. But as you might have already heard, Hannah House is shutting down due to financial difficulties. In recent years the nonprofit, with an annual budget of about $650,000, has finished in the red more often than not.

The last teen and baby to occupy the six-bedroom house moved out a few days before Christmas to live with a relative, which is the way government social service agencies in New Hampshire and Vermont want it. Instead of paying Hannah House, the states are placing pregnant teens and young mothers with foster families and relatives.

The move away from group homes is supposed to save taxpayers a few bucks and be better for young mothers. Maybe it will in the short term. I’m just not so sure about the long run.

I can’t help but wonder what’s going to happen in the future to young women who find themselves facing the same predicament that Michelle Scelza once did. What if she had shown up unannounced at Hannah House’s door a dozen years ago and nobody was home?

“I can’t imagine what my life would have been like without Hannah House,” she told me. “I would have been living on the street.”

After growing up in a family that Michelle said was “dysfunctional, to say the least,” Hannah House gave her the confidence and coping skills to “break the cycle” of poverty and substance abuse that plagued her family.

“I didn’t know that I could lead a different life,” she said. “I thought the way I grew up was normal.”

Evidence that the lessons she learned in Hannah House’s parenting classes have stuck occupies her living room book shelves. They overflow with children’s books. Vin pulled Five Little Ducks from a shelf and handed it to me.

“That’s one of his favorites, along with Goodnight Moon,” said Michelle. “The people at Hannah House taught me how important it was to read to my son. They kept giving me books.”

Michelle and Chris read at least two books to Vincent before bedtime. The couple, who met while both worked for a computer programming company, have also made reading a priority with his older brothers, Zeek, 11, and Drake, 8.

In Michelle’s case, it’s the classic I-want-my-kids-to-have-what-I-didn’t story. She and Chris bought their first home. Last summer, they took a family vacation to the White Mountains for a week. Now that she’s returning to a full-time job outside the home, she won’t be with the kids as much. But it’s important that they see the mom-with-a-career side of her, too. “I want my kids to be proud of who I am,” said Michelle, who turns 31 next month.

Hannah House’s governing board is undecided on what the future has in store for the three-story house at 10 Abbott St. The organization could team up with another nonprofit to continue its mission of helping needy young people. (A shelter for homeless teens, perhaps?) Or the house could be sold, and the proceeds used to benefit other social service providers.

Randy Walker, who headed up Hannah House for 17 years, says the goal was always the same: Get pregnant teens and young mothers to the next step.

Not all have gone as far as Michelle, he acknowledged. With some, the progress came more in baby steps, or taking two steps forward and one back.

And in any case, I can’t see that shuttering Hannah House is a step in the right direction.