Moms come to Madonna Place for help, stay for community

Norwich — In the days before Christmas, Main Street’s Madonna Place was busy with mothers signing in and out of its downtown family support center. Some make a quick stop to pick up free diapers and formula, while others sit for hours in the nonprofit agency’s play room, chitchatting as their children pretend they’re chefs with mini kitchen sets and plastic food.

Whether it’s a short visit or a morninglong stay, the parents who visit Madonna Place are there for similar reasons — often to receive the judgment-free support and attention, whether through a simple hello or listening ear, of the center’s dedicated staff of professional counselors and nurses. All of it is free, and no appointment is necessary.

“Sometimes it feels like a train station where people are constantly coming in and out. But there is something here that keeps them coming back here to us long term,” said Wendy Yagarich, director of clinical services. “It’s a very unique place. It’s a place that’s focused on children, their development, their safety, their growth. There is no other place quite like it in all southeastern Connecticut.”

Founded in 1987, Madonna Place began as a community center — a place where struggling mothers could come to meet other mothers.

“It was a place where these mothers could gain parenting skills from a nurse coordinator,” Executive Director Nancy Gentes said, “a place that could provide emotional support and resources to mothers so they could be better parents.”

Over 30 years later, as the agency has continued to grow, so has that vision.

Acting as the central hub to the operation, the agency’s downtown location, otherwise known as the family support center, offers a space where parents can come with their children to utilize play rooms, a kitchen, a computer with internet, and a donation closet, among other services. While there, parents can talk with one another, or with staff for informal counseling. Conversation can be light, or it can be a chance for parents to vent about their personal problems, either with one another or with a professional. And those in need of further professional help are referred by agency staff to other specialized services, such as Department of Children and Families or United Way.

Branching off the family support center are the agency’s five other programs, which include intensive child development education and in-home parenting support.

Overseeing all that is Gentes, who has been with the agency since 1991 and who manages the 1,100-plus clients that come in on an annual basis, as well as a staff of 23.

The overall idea, Gentes said, is that while parents receive specialized services from other agencies, Madonna Place continues to provide a home base, so to speak.

While sitting in the center's foyer space on a recent morning, Yagarich added to that idea. “It’s the design of the safety net here, a place where you can go, that’s safe, for you and your kids, that makes this place special,” she said. “A lot of social services out there are very short term. But Madonna Place is dedicated to the long-term growth of our clients. Because we’ve been here for so long, we’ve seen clients when they were 6, 7 or 8 years old who have come back later and said, ‘I graduated high school.’ Yet, they were homeless as children. Now they are able to come into the community and contribute. That’s amazing to me.”

While visiting Madonna Place on a recent morning with her 2-year-old daughter, single mother Carmen Cruz said Madonna Place has provided a constant source of support in her life since she first started taking English classes at the agency six years ago. Originally drawn in by those classes, Cruz has since integrated herself in the agency’s community, despite those classes since being canceled due to funding cuts. For her, Madonna Place offered a judgment-free space to receive counseling and support after her first husband died and while coping with the abandonment of her second husband.

“She comes here to be in a community. It’s a safe space for her daughter to play,” said a Spanish/English translator who works at the center and was translating for Cruz, who still can't speak English fluently. “Plus, she says they have helped her raise her autistic son, who is now 11. She says she wouldn’t have been able to do that without this place.”

For another mother who declined to give her name, Madonna Place has been her go-to place since it first opened in 1987. While sitting among glittering arts and crafts in the agency’s kitchen, she explained she first came to the agency to receive free diapers and formula while struggling to take care of her first-born daughter. She kept coming back for the emotional support she received, however, and still comes regularly before working shifts at Mohegan Sun, even though her five children are now adults.

“The atmosphere is relaxing, you just relax. It gives me the opportunity to get my mind together,” the woman said. “They’ve helped me through a lot of tough times. I’ve been through domestic abuse. I was homeless for three months. They’ve helped me find a new place and they’ve helped me get through those difficult situations. I’ve been through a lot, but I’m still standing because of this place.”

m.biekert@theday.com

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