Having started in 1983 with one nursery in a wing of Deaconess Hospital (which later became Forest Park Hospital) Saint Louis Crisis Nursery has grown to provide a safe haven for 7,272 children in 2011, says CEO DiAnne Mueller. “Two wonderful groups of women came together to make a difference: Junior League of St. Louis and the Coalition of 100 Black Women,” she says. “They wanted to do something to help children in crisis, and discovered that on a national level, crisis nurseries were just starting. We were the first one in the state of Missouri.”
The organization now has five crisis nurseries throughout the metropolitan area, along with six outreach centers and an administrative office. The mission is to prevent child abuse by assisting families with young children who are in crisis, Mueller says, adding that the most common reason for parents to bring their children in is overwhelming stress. “What that looks like is often a young single parent, usually the mother, living in poverty with no one to help her—no friends, no family or religious community. She’ll call because she needs a break: She needs to go to a doctor’s appointment or needs to look for a home, and we’re there to step in and care for the children.”
One woman recently was diagnosed with Stage IV breast cancer, and she needed help caring for her two young children while undergoing treatment, Mueller recalls. Social workers from the Nursery’s family empowerment program were able to bring supplies to her home, such as food, clean sheets and personal hygiene items, since she was often too ill to leave the home. In the end, the Nursery started a new program to automatically offer those services to any parent who is seriously ill or terminal. “They’re things we take for granted, like a robe or hand lotion, but when families are living in poverty, that’s not in their world,” Mueller says. “When you don’t have food to eat, you’re not going to spend money on yourself, so we’re starting a program to meet those basic needs,” The Nursery also helps with counseling, support, and helps find a permanent place for the children if the parent is terminal, she notes.
“A lot of people don’t understand the depth of what we do—we’re not just a daycare center,” Mueller says. “We provide a therapeutic environment for the kids, help them learn new skills, work on their self-esteem, deal with their emotions and help them figure out how to stay safe. We work with kids who never get to go outside to play because it’s not safe; there are gun fights going on and drive-by shootings. They can’t even stand in front of windows and look outside.” Though the care is for a short-term time period, it is mutually agreed upon by the parents and the Nursery, and services are provided free, thanks to donations from individuals and corporations in the community.
Last year, more than 6,200 families called Crisis Nursery’s 24-hour help line, which provides trained professionals around the clock, whether it’s to solve a problem, provide access to resources or just to listen. “We feel that it’s an honor and privilege to serve families and that they feel comfortable and confident sharing their struggles with us,” Mueller says.
Mueller sums it up, saying it’s about seeing the needs of families and meeting them. “I love that we’re able to be so comprehensive, it’s like we wrap our arms around these families and walk with them in their journey of being the best parent and raising the most amazing children they can.”
Volunteer: Joe Kramer
A volunteer for Saint Louis Crisis Nursery for eight years, Joe Kramer says he’s found his niche. After working for 30 years at Anheuser- Busch, followed by seven years with Sara Lee Bakery Group, Kramer retired and started looking for a way to give back to the community. “I did try a couple of other places,” he says. “But I started working with the Nursery and it was satisfying, so I decided to spend more time there. That’s where I want to be every Friday because I feel good doing it and the kids get something out of me being there. Kids are so much more fun than adults, and they get more pleasure out of your silliness.”
And so that’s where he is every Friday, holding babies, reading or throwing a ball. “This morning, we took them out back with some water balloons, and the kids had a great time,” Kramer says. “You don’t know what kind of situations they’re in—I don’t ask—but they’re there because they have a family issue going on, and yet you can see them laughing and smiling, and know how much fun they’re having.”
Kramer says he would encourage anyone to volunteer for Crisis Nursery, especially men. “It doesn’t have to be a lot of time—even an hour or two just to stop by and hold a baby and do one-on- one with a 2- or 3-year-old boy, because they often don’t have a lot of male exposure in their families.”
The Nursery is a win for everyone involved, he says—from the volunteers to the kids and the parents. “It’s an island in the ocean for these parents that they can have Crisis Nursery for a short-term basis, for those two to three days, so it’s there when they run into a problem. It’s a relief for those parents that the kids can go to a safe place while they get back on their feet.”