Kansas City Star, May 2009

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Raytown Woman Puts Christian Charity Into Direct Action, Takes in a Homeless Young Mother

Lee Hill Kavanaugh, The Kansas City Star 5/15/2009

Her phone rings at 10 p.m. The voice on the other end is quiet, uncertain. I just got picked up by the police. … Do you hate me? Donnette Siems takes a deep breath and looks down at Victoria’s baby cradled in her lap. Maddie. Seven pounds of hope. Big eyes and silky curls. A near copy of her mother. Innocent. Vulnerable. Helpless.

No, Victoria, I don’t hate you, Donnette says. What happened?

Donnette had expected this roller coaster to start, but right after a drug rehabilitation meeting? She didn’t think she was naive when she invited the very pregnant Victoria Taylor to stay with her family. At 55, Donnette isn’t afraid of risks. Almost three decades ago, she met her husband, Greg, who was then a helicopter pilot. They live on 10 acres in Raytown, in a two-story farmhouse with a wraparound porch and a high-back swing.

They raised four children here and baby-sit their grandsons two or three times a week. Their refrigerator door is covered with a collage of smiling faces of their children, their grandchildren, their friends’ children, and anyone who has ever stayed with them or visited their home.

Donnette and her husband sit in the third row at church most every Sunday morning. They host church groups in their home. Donnette has taken in troubled teens before, trying to help them find their way. She worked for years as a counselor for a crisis pregnancy center. More than a few members of the church call her Gram. Her invitation to Victoria came after some hard questions with her husband. Could they trust her? Would she follow their rule of no drugs in this house? They shouldn’t ever leave her alone in their home, should they? It was a risk.

But both agreed it was the best way to help an unborn baby stay safe, and an unloved woman see love. Now Victoria has blown it — and it feels like a sucker punch to Donnette. Lord, give me wisdom, she prays.

She knew the 21-year-old Victoria had big problems. Taken from her family at 3, adopted at 9, unadopted at 12 because the family couldn’t handle her. Months of no prenatal care, except for a recent emergency room visit in which tests found cocaine in her system.

But in the six weeks since Maddie’s birth, Victoria has tested clean. Each day, Donnette gives Victoria $5, just enough for bus fare to drug rehab classes, a candy bar and a soda.

I know I’ll drop dirty, Victoria says of her urine drug test the next morning. I’ll check myself in to my drug counselor, as soon as the police release me… She chokes back a sob of regret. Kiss Maddie for me.

Donnette hangs up and holds the baby close. Victoria has lost her way. But there’s been a glimmering of what could be. Small steps. The daily drug rehab classes. The regular routine of prescription meds for her bipolar illness and epilepsy. One-on-one counseling peeling back years of doubt and self-loathing.

Victoria was trying on this new role as a mother who cared, something she’d never had as a child growing up without a family, living in group homes most of her life. Even then, a social worker loved her so much that she kept a scrapbook of photos for Victoria, knowing it might be the only glimpse she would have of her childhood. Maybe now, in recovery, Victoria would see herself differently. See herself as a good person. See herself as
something more than a self-proclaimed loser.

Donnette places Maddie in her crib and rolls her into their bedroom. She prays again: Lord, show me how to love Victoria better. Tough love? Forgiveness? Give me the heart to see her as you do. Keep her safe this night.

Donnette belongs to a church called The River that made a commitment to help the hidden homeless — families living for months, even years, at Crown Lodge, a weekly hotel in Raytown, a little less than three miles from the church’s front door.

There are dozens of these hotels in the metro area, providing a refuge for families in crisis, a private living space for a price: a room with one double bed for $190 a week, or a two-bed room for $40 more.

Crown Lodge has rooms for 38 families. Their children ride the bus to school and navigate after-school lives in a motel-room world. These families are the working poor, who can’t save enough for utility deposits or down payments or rent, but who earn just enough to disqualify them for food stamps or other state or federal aid. Most are one life event from desperation.

The church is small, 300 members, but it committed itself to doing something about poverty. With permission from the Crown Lodge’s owners, church members cleaned up an old smoking lounge, tore out the carpet and replaced the ’70s disco gold-foil wallpaper, paying for it all themselves.

For nearly a year, the church has served a free Monday night supper at Crown Lodge, usually chicken and mashed potatoes, green beans and rolls from Niecie’s restaurant on 63rd Street. The aroma beckons strangers who form long lines. Meals free of forced prayer or pushy sermons. Just food. And kindness.

Donnette noticed Victoria early on. A teen shy with adults, but one who blossomed around young children, sitting on the floor with them, playing games before the meals, bubbling with laughter and hugs. Victoria, with alabaster skin that has rarely felt the sun. Crystal blue eyes and bright red hair — just like Donnette’s.

In the early meetings, Donnette couldn’t seem to connect with Victoria. Later she learned why. Victoria felt shame. Many of the people in her world earned money from drugs or by prostitution. Many times Victoria was stoned. Her friends had no pretense that they could do better. Their life just … was.

Often, the regulars at the Crown Lodge suppers disappear for months. Some are in jail. Others move on to another weekly hotel when complaints grow too numerous and the management asks them to leave. Victoria disappeared after her boyfriend was sent to prison.

But there was something at the Crown Lodge that she craved, something that has always lured her back. “It was almost like a family,” she says. And so at a Monday night supper in late January, Donnette noticed that she was back. But there was something different about her:
Victoria had a belly.

Donnette worried about this woman, so new to adulthood, who wasn’t sure who the father of her baby was, who had no birth plans, no doctor visits, not even a diaper bag prepared for the baby’s arrival. She had no one to help her. Victoria told Donnette she was trying to stay free of drugs, trying to eat better than the vending machine diet she was used to. Then she told Donnette about another baby, one born last year, stillborn at 24 weeks.
A girl she named Neveah — heaven spelled backward.

Victoria grieved the loss of the tiny soul, memorized her dead baby’s face, tried to push away the guilt that her choices may have caused the baby’s death. This one would be different, she told Donnette, rubbing her protruding stomach. Donnette asked Victoria “millions of questions,” learning about her depression and severe mood swings, her biological family, her rejection from her adopted family.

She was horrified that Victoria had no social services. No food stamps or health care. No identification or birth certificate. Everything lost in a jumble of group homes and juvenile stays, a carousel of hotel visits. At 21, she was too old for most pregnancy crisis centers in Kansas City, and too young to understand what was looming.

There were few options. In the quiet hours away from the hotel, Donnette prayed for guidance on Victoria and her baby. She asked something in prayer, she says, “that is dangerous to pray for.” “I asked the Lord to show me the one person I could really help. You shouldn’t ask that, unless you’re prepared to do what he wants. “For me, it’s one thing to give lip service to all the need, to wish somebody else would do something …” It was clear to Donnette what she should do. What wasn’t clear was if she could.

The morning after the night of Victoria’s phone call to Donnette, sunrise broke in a cloudless blue. But still no call from her. Donnette checked and rechecked her cell phone, hoping her battery hadn’t died, hoping the reception hadn’t wavered. She fed and dressed Maddie in a green ruffled dress, cradling her on her lap as she dialed numbers for the Independence jail. She had little patience for a recording asking her to leave a message. She’d already left several, all unanswered. She wasn’t sure what to do next.

Today was supposed to be Victoria’s day in Jackson County Family Court, when Donnette (who was appointed guardian for Maddie) and Victoria’s drug counselor were to testify about her progress. Not her failure. Donnette had another appointment scheduled earlier in the day. She was supposed to do a walk-through of a six-story abandoned hospital with her pastor and the real estate broker. The church needed wisdom for a decision.

This building could be a future way to reach the poor on a larger scale, a way to help hundreds of Victorias find their own victories against poverty.
The timing of it all was maddening to Donnette. What to do with Maddie? What if Victoria called? Rescheduling wasn’t an option. The investment company working with the church wanted an answer now. After calling her pastor, they decided Maddie would be OK, strapped in her car seat, carried by Donnette. And the cell reception in the building was good, the pastor said — if Victoria called.

The doors to Park Lane hospital, closed since 1999, creak open against the real estate agent’s push. Many of the hallways inside are dark, with a few tired bulbs glowing in the dim. There’s a reception area with three-story glass windows. An empty emergency room where the pastor had once
been a patient himself. But gone are the smells of plastic and antiseptics, replaced with odors of stale air, mold and wet carpet.

Donnette tries to focus on her pastor’s words as he tells of his vision for this place, a dream center, a place of transition, a place to heal broken lives.
“We’d keep this as the intake area … maybe knock this wall out to open up the space …” He talks of sheltering the working poor, families stuck in an endless cycle of poverty in Kansas City’s weekly hotels, unable to save for a down payment on a home. Another floor as a safe respite for those in the sex industry who want to get out. Donnette’s thoughts drift back to Victoria, who had little schooling past the eighth grade. Back to the little girl and the baby Victoria once was, a person with hope.

She thinks about how many people failed Victoria when she needed so much help. She wonders how many more children will lose their way as Victoria has. How easy it would be for Donnette to tell the courts that she’s through with this drama. To let go of this troubled woman with her beautiful baby. What’s that expression again? Let go and let God. She thinks about another expression, one her church spelled out on a billboard: “Our church is full of screw-ups. There is room for a few more.”

She looks at Maddie as the baby yawns and then sucks on her pacifier, so comfortable, so at peace in this place that might change even her future. And then Donnette’s phone rings, clattering, echoing, through the hallways. “Victoria! Where are you? Are you OK? … Maddie’s fine, she’s asleep, right here … ”

Donnette’s face softens as she holds the phone to her ear, listening to a story about what happened in the night. A confession of sorrow. Six weeks of promises, burned up with a whiff of crack. “It’s OK, Victoria… “It’s good to hear your voice, too… “Come home… “We’ll talk.”

About this story

Lee Hill Kavanaugh and Allison Long spent weeks talking to and observing families at the Crown Lodge in Raytown. Kavanaugh interviewed Donnette Siems and Victoria Taylor many times. She also interviewed friends, family members and others, including a minister, a social worker, the motel manager and law enforcement authorities. She and Long attended church functions and Monday evening meals. Dialogue that appears in quotation marks was heard by Kavanaugh; dialogue in italics was re-created through interviews with the participants.

Copyright © 2009 The Kansas City Star.

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