Fontebella Maternity Shelter

Contributing Writer Emily ClarkSeptember 6, 2012 

It was a story unlike any other Susan Hoff had encountered before. A woman in her early twenties had been living with her boyfriend when she got pregnant. The boyfriend didn’t want anything to do with the baby and kicked her out. The woman’s father said he would allow her, but not the baby, to move back in with him. He even offered to pay for an abortion. With no other options and nowhere else to turn, the woman faced a desperate choice.

“We never did hear back from that young woman, and I never forgot about her,” Susan recalled plaintively, now more than 10 years later. “We feared that she probably ended up having an abortion, even though that’s not what she really wanted.”

Shelters for the homeless remain scarce in the Metro East, Susan explained, and there were absolutely no residential services for expectant single mothers in the area a decade ago. The need for a home offering shelter to women facing an unplanned or crisis pregnancy - a place where they could find love and care in a safe and positive, home-like setting - was one that pressed hard on her heart.

In 2007, Susan’s vision came one step closer to reality when a good friend and her husband announced they would be retiring and moving to another state. The couple generously offered to donate their home in O’Fallon, Ill., in support of the project, and three years later, Fontebella Maternity Shelter opened the doors to its first guest.

“We believe that young women who find themselves in a crisis pregnancy deserve a chance to bring their child into the world and to work to learn the skills for taking on the most important job they will ever have,” reads the online welcome at Still the only maternity shelter in the Metro East, Fontebella provides much more than a place to sleep. The organization has partnered with dozens of volunteers and professionals in the community to offer GED preparation, tutoring, parenting skills training, counseling, personal finance management and a host of other resources for its residents.

“Probably 90 percent of the ladies who have come to us did not come from a healthy family relationship,” Susan said. “What most of us take for granted, they don’t even have a clue about. They’ve been in survival mode for most of their lives. When they leave our home, many of the ladies tell us this has been the most ‘normal’ their lives have ever been.”

In January, Susan received a letter from a young woman named Marie, who had lived at Fontebella for several months. She wrote: “You provided me with the atmosphere where I could grow and develop, as well as the needed time to attend school and prepare myself and my new baby for our life ahead. I believe that because of your kindness and generous support I am now able and better equipped to take care of my little girl and to provide the home life, along with the financial support, that is required to give my baby a chance to grow and be prosperous.”

Over the past two years, Susan and her team have witnessed a number of “success stories” like Marie’s, with some former residents going on to college, while others secured full-time jobs to provide for their babies. Many have rebuilt relationships with their parents that were once strained, and a few have gotten married. Through it all, the name Fontebella, which means “beautiful source of life” in Italian, has proved very fitting.

“Originally, we thought ‘beautiful source of life’ was life for the babies, but it has turned out to mean life for so many more,” Susan beamed. “It’s a new life for the young ladies who come to us. It’s new life for the community that has embraced us, and for our volunteers, who feel like it has brightened their lives because they know they’re part of something that’s really good. It has been a beautiful source of life in so many ways.”

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