August 23, 2013

House parent retires after 24 years and 400 babies

After serving as a house parent for 24 years at St. Elizabeth Catholic Charities’ crisis pregnancy center in New Albany, Melinda Spalding retired on May 31 to enjoy more time at home. (Submitted photo)

After serving as a house parent for 24 years at St. Elizabeth Catholic Charities’ crisis pregnancy center in New Albany, Melinda Spalding retired on May 31 to enjoy more time at home. (Submitted photo)

By Natalie Hoefer

It was a spring day in 1989 when Melinda Spalding walked to Mass at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church in New Albany. She was restless.

“I was blessed with a wonderful husband and children,” Spalding recalls, “but I wanted to be more well-rounded. I didn’t want an office job—I have too much energy to sit all day. As I walked to church, I thought, ‘I have just got to find something for me.’ ”

That very day in the parish bulletin, Spalding saw an announcement seeking a house parent at the new St. Elizabeth Home for crisis pregnancies in New Albany, later renamed St. Elizabeth Catholic Charities.

Now, 24 years and more than 400 babies later, Spalding has retired from her job as a house parent at the home for pregnant teenagers.

But for Spalding, being a house parent “was never a job. It was a calling.”

Katie Owens, her supervisor for the last five years, describes Spalding’s role.

“She helped manage the home and made sure the girls had what they needed and got what they needed to ensure a healthy pregnancy and baby. She helped them learn independent living skills and how to care for a child. She encouraged them to live a healthier life for themselves and their children.”

Those life skills were often quite basic.

“We had one little girl from Wisconsin who came from a successful family,” Spalding recalls. “She didn’t know how to cook, and she said she wanted to learn. She didn’t even know how to make Jell-O! So we started there, and then worked up to boxed things like cakes and meals.”

Of all her duties, Spalding says, listening was the most important—and the most powerful.

“[The girls] would always talk to me. I never was judgmental. I would listen to them and guide them.”

Owens attests to Spalding’s skill as a listener.

“Melinda was known to sit up all night talking to a scared or upset resident. She connected to the residents on a level that made them comfortable, and they respected her.

“And Melinda was always very happy and could make anyone smile,” Owens adds.

Mark Casper, agency director for St. Elizabeth Catholic Charities, refers to Spalding as “the happy mother most of these girls never had.”

Spalding, a mother of three grown children and grandmother of eight with another on the way, says she knows that “when you push a young person, they’ll go the opposite way.” So when it came to her Catholic faith, she took a delicate but honest approach.

“I told the girls, ‘I’m religious. I won’t push it, but if you ask me I’ll tell you.’

“We all ate dinner together like a family, and I never hid my prayer [before the meal],” says Spalding. “Some would say ‘I don’t believe in God’ or ‘I never went to church.’ I’d suggest, ‘Why don’t you say thank you for just one thing?’ And soon they were praying!”

Given the nature of the girls’ situations and backgrounds, Spalding had to rely strongly on her faith at times.

“This one girl came. She’d been on the street, this was her fourth child, she did drugs.

“One day she said, ‘I’ve got to leave.’ I told her to just stick it out one more day, give us one more chance. She had someone pick her up anyway,” Spalding recounts.

“Then I got a call that my brother died. When I came back [to work], they told me this girl had gotten back on drugs and lost her life and the life of her baby. That was the hardest day of my whole life,” Spalding admits, the hurt still obvious in her voice.

But there are many positive stories, too.

“The little girl that couldn’t cook, she went to school, had her baby, and now she’s studying to become a doctor,” says Spalding with a bit of house parent pride. “She calls every Mother’s Day, she sends flowers, she calls on birthdays and holidays.”

Looking back on Spalding’s time at St. Elizabeth Home, which merged with Catholic Charities in New Albany to become St. Elizabeth Catholic Charities in 2003, Casper says Spalding was a foundation of the establishment.

“She saw it from a staff of two or three people with not so many policies and procedures and regulations. Now there is a staff of 30 and seven buildings—they built the buildings around her!

“She bridges the gap to the early days. We’ll miss her.”

While Spalding intends to volunteer at St. Elizabeth Catholic Charities when the weather is colder, she plans to spend her retirement being outdoors and active at the farm she and her husband, Donald, dubbed “Little Rock Ranch” in Ramsey.

“I like doing stuff—growing vegetables, planting herbs, raising organic chickens, landscaping and especially horseback riding.”

She also hopes to hit the highway with her husband and their horses to ride in different states. Illinois, Tennessee and Wyoming top the list.

Of her 24 years as a house parent, Spalding says she feels blessed.

“Every day, I prayed on the way [to work] for God to give me the energy to help these girls and touch just one person’s life. Between day one and the day I retired, there were over 400 babies born. So I did touch a lot of people’s lives.

“I did my calling.” †

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