When 18-year-old Keita arrived at Almost Home in February, she was homeless, depressed, and she had just had a baby. As she holds her now-5-month-old son, Terrell, she describes what she’s gained in the last several months. “They let me take some classes, and I’ve done some counseling,” she says. “I’ve become a better person. When I leave here, I know I’m gonna be a better person than when I came.”

Keita’s story isn’t unique. Almost Home accepts homeless mothers, ages 12 to 19; and offers them the basic necessities to live, as well as education, counseling, and the skills they’ll need to care for their children and lead independent and fulfilling lives.

Almost Home was started in 1993 by two nuns who belonged to the Fransiscan Sisters of Mary. Thanks to a donated home, they began taking in as many as five girls and their babies, “in response to a need that they saw in the healthcare field, of girls delivering babies without anywhere to go,” says Almost Home executive director Rhonda Gray. “We still find that the case. Girls will deliver and be discharged, and the nurse will call us saying that they don’t have anywhere to go.”

Since then, the organization has expanded to provide a home for 15 girls and as many as 25 children. Still more girls are usually on the waiting list to get in. One hundred percent of the girls are victims of sexual, physical or emotional abuse, Gray says. Often, they arrive without any possessions at all, with Almost Home providing them with clothing, person hygiene products and items for their babies. The girls and their children can stay for as long as two years, though that isn’t often the case. “As soon as you come to Almost Home, we start planning for you to leave,” Gray says.

The young women meet with case managers to create a plan of action based on their circumstances. Some girls hope to graduate from high school, go to college or find a job. They break down each goal into manageable steps, and go from there. Girls must go to either school or a job each day, and attend class at Almost Home four nights a week, each focusing on a specific topic: parenting, independent living skills, education, and mental health and personal development. They undergo room checks every morning, are responsible for their own laundry and must complete daily chores around the building. They work hard, and see the benefits. Almost Home helps them find housing after they leave, and has a continuum of care to assist the women for as long as eight years after, to make sure they are able to stay on track.

Outside her room, Keita has a list of her goals. At the top is to graduate from high school. After that, she says, she’s going to study to become a dental hygienist. And eventually a dentist.

“This is a sanctuary of hope cleverly disguised as a transitional housing program,” Gray says. “Girls come here because they need a place to live. They get here and realize this is a place to grow and transform their lives.”

Volunteer Spotlight: Marva Tolson

Marva Tolson’s volunteer title at Almost Home is ‘receptionist.’ She sits at the front desk and does many typical receptionist duties, like buzzing girls and staffers in and out of the building, and answering the phones. She helps the mothers get their babies into strollers and car seats, or helps out during meals. Her favorite thing, though, is to invite the girls into reception and sit down with them. Tolson talks with them, gives them advice, listens to them—whatever she can do, she says, to make their everyday life a little bit easier.

Tolson started volunteering at the center last year, after retiring from the ArmyReserveCenter, where she worked as an accountant. She says she likes the way the agency helps the girls better themselves through education, giving them the services they need to go to school and get careers.

“It’s going to create a generation of ladies who really have ambitions, are career-oriented and really want to better their lives,” Tolson says. “Even though they may have come out of situations that weren’t great, they have an interest in improving their lives and going on to be successful parents and ladies.”

A girl stops by and starts talking to Tolson about becoming a police officer. Tolson says that with her experience, she can give the girls insight on different careers. She loves watching the girls graduate from high school, receive their GEDs and get jobs.

“It’s a rewarding experience, when you’re out in the community and you meet some of the girls who’ve lived here,” she says. “They’re in school or working in the department stores…you meet them all over St. Louis. They’re all busy, really trying to make it.”

For more information, visit almosthomestl.org