In the late 1990’s, the administrator of a downtown Catholic Church in Dubuque received a phone call. A woman and her dog had been sleeping in nearby Jackson Park, he was told. Could anyone help?

“The irony of this story is that they could find a shelter for the dog, but there was no place for the woman to stay,” says Michelle Brown. “Nationwide, our country has more animal shelters than shelters for people.” Brown is Executive Director of Maria House and Teresa Shelter in Dubuque – two innovative housing initiatives for women and their children.

On Wednesday, March 14, 2007, family and friends joined Divine Word College in honoring Michelle Brown as the 2006 recipient of the Matthew 25 Award – presented annually to someone engaged in front-line ministries with the “least among us” in the spirit of the gospel of St. Matthew, Chapter 25. Award recipients minister among immigrants and refugees, street people, AIDS victims, inner-city youth, prisoners – all those who live at the margins of our society and still lack a public voice. Rev. Michael Hutchins, DWC president, says, “This award offers recognition and affirmation, and renews and inspires our own ideals, reminding us all of the higher values and mission of our college.”    

If you stop in at Maria House, you may see a toddler who offers to share his toys with you – beaming proudly as he takes each one out of the playroom toy box. You might see his mother, making coffee in the Maria House kitchen. A middle-aged, grandmotherly woman may be sitting on the sofa in the playroom, supervising the toddler. You’ll feel like you are in someone’s warm and secure home. And you’ll wonder: Where would they be, if they couldn’t stay here?

The seed for Maria House was planted and nurtured by six Catholic women religious congregations in the Dubuque area. With the help of local community leaders, it came to fruition in June of 1999 with the formation of Opening Doors. This non-profit corporation offers hospitality and opportunity to women, alone or with children, who need emergency or transitional housing and related support services.

“The women at Maria House are no different than you or me,” Brown says. “The only difference is that we have family support – a safety net – to catch us when we fall. They don’t.”

A licensed social worker with twenty years of experience in human services and mental health, Brown also has her license in Intensive Psychiatric Rehabilitation. As a clinical case manager for ten years with the Gannon Center Community Support program, she saw a real need for temporary housing in the area. And Maria House seemed like one of the solutions. “I had a sense of vision of what this place could be,” says Brown. “I wanted to step up to the challenge.”

Maria House opened its doors to its first resident on September 25, 2000, with Brown at the helm – after putting in long hours coordinating the renovation with community and local business support. Brown says that the addition of qualified, caring staff members helps make her job easier, and today Maria House has a team of twelve employees. “My family has also been a great source of help and support,” she adds.

After an initial assessment, each new resident at Maria House sets goals, abides by certain rules, and learns life skills for independent living. Women are expected to stay at least six months, but not longer than two years, and they must either work or attend school. “Many women are so beaten down, they can’t speak for themselves when they come here,” Brown says. “We want them to leave having found their own voice – a sense of who they are and who they can become.”

Brown shares a story about a former Maria House resident named Cathy. “She was one of our first residents, coming here in October of 2000 with her two children – a daughter, age 17, and a son, 10, after leaving an abusive relationship,” she says. “Her family became our family, with all the trials of dealing with a teenager who rebelled against our 9:00 curfew – along with the joys of helping that same teen pick out her first prom dress!” 

Cathy and her children stayed at Maria House for a year, working hard to develop their own independent lives. She and her daughter both began college at the same time. “Cathy works full-time now, is on the auxiliary police force, and also works part-time helping out at Teresa Shelter,” Brown says, adding that “she gives back what she has received, offering hope and inspiration to those who need it.” In December of 2005, Cathy and her son, now in high school, purchased their first home through the Heart Program. “She has,” Brown says, “come full circle.”

Another young woman, unable to speak English, arrived at Maria House with two school-age children and a 3-year-old.  After completing ESL classes, she trained as a certified nursing assistant and found a full-time job as a CNA. She also ended an abusive relationship and moved her family to an apartment. “Because of the emotional strength and self-worth that she learned here,” Brown says, “she can depend on herself now.”

Brown has strong feelings about helping women at Maria House achieve their full potential. “One of the things I love about this profession is that we teach them the skills to do things for themselves; to advocate for themselves and build a network of support. We don’t do for them,” she says. “For example, we give them bus tickets and route schedules; then we expect them to plan accordingly and get themselves where they need to go.”

“And the court system looks favorably on us,” Brown adds. “Many women come here with addictions and resulting legal problems. Their children may be in foster care.” She says that “we are often the last ditch effort in helping a mother reunite and rebuild a relationship with her children. We provide a safe and structured environment to foster that process.”

Brown and the Maria House staff are proud of the success stories their residents embody. “But once in awhile,” Brown says, “we have to make the difficult decision to ask someone to leave. If they break the rules, we give them several chances – but sometimes we have no choice. This tough love is the hardest part of my job.” She shares a letter addressed to her and the staff at Maria House – written by a young woman who was finally asked to leave.

“I truly have never had that experience of acceptance until now…I have confidence now. I feel full of hope…and strength and honor. Thank you for giving me back my life…I love you all.”

But perhaps Jamie, a smiling young woman who is the mother of chubby-cheeked Damon, sums it up best: “…Maria House greeted my little boy and me with open arms…for the first time I have some hope about my son’s future. I am going to college to be a legal assistant and Maria House has given me a stable home so I can live up to my potential as a student and a mom…without the Maria House we would be lost.”

 “We are a work in progress,” Brown says. “We continually strive to develop and improve our program.” This spring, the first meeting of a new group of Iowa emergency and transition shelters will be held in Dubuque – one of Michelle’s visions – to further the goal of improving shelters statewide. “We’ll meet every quarter to institute policy-making, implement consistency and share ideas, support and strength. We want Maria House to be the best shelter it can be,” says Brown, “always keeping in mind our goal of the empowerment of women and children.”

How does Brown feel about receiving the Matthew 25 award?

“I am honored,” she says. “My religion, my church and my family are very important to me. My parents were an example of service to others. I’ve tried to live my life by Matthew 25 principles, and to follow in their footsteps.” 

“But,” Brown adds, “our entire staff at Maria House should be getting this award. And it’s not just us, either. It’s the two little boys from Prescott school who raised $5.00 for Maria House; it’s the woman who gives us $35.00 each month when she can’t afford to; it’s all those who help in any way they can – a whole community of caring, wonderful people.”