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'I was homeless': Burnaby mom reflects on journey that brought her and baby to Aunt Leah's House

Twelve years ago, Sherry Michell was 16 and had a newborn baby. They had no place to live, so Michell agreed to go Aunt Leah's House. She says her stay there with her infant daughter changed her life.

When Sherry Michell and her baby girl arrived at “the baby house” in Burnaby 12 years ago, she was scared.

She was just 16, and she hadn’t wanted to tell her social worker what had been happening at home or that she had been couch surfing with her infant daughter for weeks and had run out of couches.

The family member she’d been living with had told her that going to Ministry of Children and Family Development would mean losing her daughter and being placed in foster care.

“She just made it sound like a horror story,” Michell says.

But Michell had run out of options.

“I was homeless,” she says.

So she checked herself in to MCFD, which put her up in a hotel for a night before giving her a choice: she and her daughter could be placed in separate foster homes or she could enroll in a program for young moms like her.

For Michell, it wasn’t even a question.

“I wasn’t going to give her up,” she says of her baby girl.

The program she was offered that day was Thresholds, and it was run out of nondescript house in Burnaby – Aunt Leah’s House.

For the young moms who lived there with Michell 12 years ago, it was known simply as “the baby house.”

Keeping families together

Aunt Leah’s celebrates its 35th anniversary this year, and the house Michell lived in back when she was a teenager has been replaced by a brand new one that can now house five young moms and their babies.

A small crowd was on hand Thursday for the official opening.

“For 35 years over 400 families have called Aunt Leah's House home,” Aunt Leah's Foundation executive director Jacqueline Dupuis told the crowd. “Together we will continue to provide comfortable beginnings for vulnerable mothers and babies, helping to reunite and keep families together." 

Aunt Leah’s House in Burnaby was the first home operated by Aunt Leah’s Place, a New Westminster-based non-profit dedicated to helping prevent kids in foster care from becoming homeless and moms in need from losing custody of their children.

The new Aunt Leah’s House was built with a combined investment of more than $1 million, including funds from the federal and provincial governments, Aunt Leah’s Foundation, Vancity Community Foundation and private donors.

New beginning

At Aunt Leah’s, moms who are at risk of becoming homeless or losing custody of their children learn important life skills and take part in pre-employment training and education programs designed to lead to employment and self-sufficiency.

It’s also a peaceful place for vulnerable moms to call home – and, for Michell and her daughter, that was life-changing.

“That’s when I actually started to be able to enjoy my time with her,” she says. “It gave me a sense of peace. I was able to finally relax and start raising her.”

Today, Michell’s daughter is nearly 13 years old, and Michell is “beyond proud.”

“She is just amazing. She’s very smart, very intelligent, very happy. She’s just great. I did a good job with her.”

For other young moms who find themselves in the same situation she was in 12 years ago, Michell has this advice.

“Aunt Leah’s is life-changing. Don’t be scared to go there. If you don’t have a family, they can be your family. They’re still my family after 12 years. They’ve supported me for many years.”

Follow Cornelia Naylor on Twitter @CorNaylor
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