Beyond the Valley of Darkness

Just 18 months ago, Emily Sanders faced the most desperate days of her life. Nearing her ninth month of pregnancy, she reeled inside at her new reality. Living on the streets, ill and freezing during cold March rains, Emily, 35, knew a 911 call was the only choice for her and her baby.

“I was at Sutter General (Hospital) for about four or five days and I found out I had gestational diabetes” compounded with flu-like symptoms, Emily remembers, still tormented with memories of the domestic violence that led to her destitution.

When her health stabilized, the social worker asked Emily where she would go after release from the hospital.

“I started crying,” Emily confides, her voice tinged with the emotion and heartache of that fateful day. She confronted the fact, “I don’t have anywhere.”

In Emily’s valley of darkness and despair, the social worker offered life-changing news. A room was available at Bishop Gallegos Maternity Home (BGMH), a shelter for homeless pregnant women in Sacramento. Negative thoughts ran through Emily’s mind of what she had heard about shelters, but in tears she realized it was her only option. She called Paulette Wyllie, executive director of BGMH.

“She came and picked me up,” Emily says, continuing with slight embarrassment. “I only had what I had on and one change of clothing.”

Restoring the Soul

“We respect each individual’s personal journey and their history, preserving their dignity and humanity,” Paulette assures, further describing a philosophy of “meeting people where they are.”

Paulette conducted Emily’s intake process and what happened next marked the restoration of a soul. “She handed me a key,” Emily says, reprocessing her feelings and how it was a “big deal” to have her own room. All at once she experienced trust, space, compassion and opportunity.

“That’s when my journey begins,” Emily shares, overjoyed to have found BGMH and comforted in the thought, “God had that place for me.”

Paulette’s staff of five works diligently to provide the fundamentals of food, clothing, shelter and emotional support. The campus has two homes with 12 beds. Women typically have their own room as they enter their seventh or eighth month of pregnancy to get settled in and comfortable before the birth of their baby. It becomes a space “to call their own.”

Paulette, deeply invested in the mission of BGMH, sees God’s hand in her life too. “God led me here,” she asserts, confident that her broad experience and knowledge in social science, cultural anthropology and child development throughout her professional career now represent a beautifully adapted pathway to help the women grow, thrive and find their way back to a meaningful and successful life for themselves and their new babies. She accepted the executive director position just over two years ago.

Paulette values what she can learn from the womens’ personal histories and developmental details to unlock “not just who they are today but what happened along the way.” She believes when people understand the “why” behind their choices and brokenness, their understanding translates to awareness which lessens the chance of repeating a self-defeating cycle.

Emily, now 37, reflects that not too long ago she “was living a normal, everyday life and it happened to me.” She had attended Sacramento City College, maintained a home and logged an impressive employment record including eight years in property management. Then her dream-turned-nightmare relationship spiraled to a “horrific place of shame.” She became completely dependent on her boyfriend before recognizing her wrong turn into an abusive relationship.

“It can happen to anyone,” she exhales with residual disbelief but also poised awareness for a bright future.

“These women are survivors; they’re strong and smart with so many wonderful attributes,” Paulette notes, pondering on the relationships. “We get so much from them and it enlightens us as servants.”

Just over a month after Emily’s arrival at BGMH, little Brandon was born: happy, healthy, safe and sound. Her spirit was restored and the life of her baby boy secured.

Right Paths

Part of the BGMH equation to help women rebuild their lives involves directing them to vital services before and after the birth of their babies, some on site and some off site. “We work with community partners to provide classes – parenting, domestic violence workshops, AA meetings,” she says, segueing into a list of external services such as outpatient drug support, rehabilitation and transportation.

Emily valued these opportunities for growth, viewing them as tools that would lead to self-sufficiency. She remembers a session on grief and loss, and invaluable domestic violence workshops which taught her about herself. “I didn’t want to share,” she says, looking back on her old self and describing her arms-crossed-posture and initial disdain for any further vulnerability. But she did, later establishing a lifeline connection with her counselor.

Emily Sanders, with her son, Brandon, works on her college studies on her computer in her room.

Paulette relates how sustained support — even just a shoulder to cry on — can make all the difference as women learn to trust again. “You can let your guard down here because you’re with safe people,” she says.

Paulette also emphasizes a culture of gratitude and service, candidly stating that “a good example of gratitude” can be hard to find among those who have led homeless or troubled lives. Teaching, expecting and living with gratitude represents a critical right pathway which sets BGMH apart from typical shelters.

“Women develop bonds, help each other and establish healthy relationships,” she says, highlighting how communication, practical household chores and helping with meals in the kitchen also impart an important mindset of contribution. Residents understand that just as they are being served, they must eventually participate in serving others.

“We’re working on good stuff in here,” Paulette suggests, indicating that a unique sisterhood exists within their controlled environment. She believes if they can thrive at BGMH, they can thrive outside its walls.

The degrees of homelessness vary. Paulette describes “unsheltered conditions, living in a car or couch-surfing” as typical scenarios for young pregnant women before coming to BGMH. She sees women of all races and ethnicities, ages 18 and older. Many have fractured family relationships. “The last thing we want to do is put them back on the streets,” she emphasizes, underscoring the goals to set women up for success, reconcile family ties if possible, and help them qualify for either transitional living or their own home once they leave.

Spring of 2020 marked a welcome addition to a now-extended BGMH operation. A transitional living house opened, transforming the former St. Anne convent off Meadowview Road in Sacramento to a haven for women ready to take the next step. Limited accommodations and specific acceptance standards ensure selected residents’ continuance to a safe environment where they share like-minded objectives and commitments. They agree to either enter the workforce or pursue an educational course of action towards self-sufficiency while still enjoying support for their babies and access to all BGMH services.

Emily entered BGMH’s transitional living house grateful for the opportunity “to rebuild and recreate my life.” She found an online university and diligently pursues her bachelor’s degree in software development while caring for Brandon, who she regards as “my miracle, my saving grace.”

“There’s a life better than the one I brought him into,” Emily maintains, resolute to stay motivated. “Finishing school will give me the ability to give it to him,” she says, referring to financial stability but also to the larger “right path” afforded her by BGMH offerings.

“I say to the other girls, ‘do the right things and the right things will follow,’” Emily offers as a message of hope to women enduring similar circumstances. “Stay on the right path,” she adds.

The Gift of Faith

“I’ve always been spiritual,” Emily explains, citing she never aligned with a specific religion but welcomed the compassion of Catholicism and the call to love her brothers and sisters. “It was a connecting point for me,” she says, indicating that her natural curiosity led her to ask a lot of questions of Paulette during daily devotions, Scripture readings and discussions at BGMH.

Emily Sanders and her son, Brandon, with Paulette Wyllie, left, and Caitlin Dodie, Brandon’s godmother.

“Our foundation is service,” Paulette upholds, although with a firm clarification that service occurs within the context of Christian faith. As a catechist at Holy Spirit Parish in Sacramento, she acknowledges her faith-filled guidance happens “through a Catholic lens.” She enjoys sharing her faith, answering questions and delving into meaningful connections between Scripture and right living.

When Emily announced her decision to begin classes last fall in the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults at Holy Spirit Parish, Paulette was pleased. Emily’s proverbial “cup” overflowed with healing, the blessing of Brandon, and now, the gift of faith. On May 31, Pentecost Sunday, Emily entered the church, receiving the sacraments with Paulette as her sponsor. Brandon was baptized on the same day, with Caitlin Dodie, transitional home house manager, as his godmother, who Brandon adores.

“God worked in our lives and he continues,” Emily says of her experiences today, ever mindful of her blessings and the untold generosity shown to her. Her rebuilding process keeps her focused and hopeful to also help those in need someday. With faith and determination she trusts and surrenders to God: “I just follow his lead.”

Learn More

About Bishop Gallegos Maternity Home at www.bgmhsacramento.org.

BGMH is one of 17 Northern California charities that is supported by financial gifts to the diocese’s Annual Catholic Appeal. To donate to the ACA visit www.scd.org/annual-catholic-appeal.

(In header photo: Paulette Wyllie, executive director of Bishop Gallegos Maternity Home, in the living room of the home as Emily Sanders plays with her son, Brandon.)

Catholic Herald Issue