Providing a Safe Space for Women to Transform
“Living at the McAuley Residence literally saved my life. I learned that staying in recovery and being a good mother in recovery were both possible and within reach.”
This is how Nicole*, a single mother from western Maine, summed up her recent experience at the McAuley Residence in Portland, one of two transitional housing programs run by Northern Light Mercy Hospital.
“In the first phase, we work very closely with women to help them become stabilized, in their recovery and in their physical, emotional and mental health needs,” says Skahan. This intensive phase may include medical appointments, addiction treatment and getting connected with individualized resources.
Phase two focuses on the family. The residences two-generational approach includes services and interventions for both mothers and their children. “If a mother has been separated from her child, we’ll work very closely with CPS to ensure that assessments are carried out,” says Skahan. Learning new habits at McAuley can be a huge motivating factor for mothers to work with CPS and/ or the courts to reunify with their children, she adds.
Founded by the Sisters of Mercy over three decades ago, McAuley’s mission is to provide comprehensive support to women with and without children through programming focused on recovery from drug and alcohol dependency.
“At McAuley we do powerful work to help women and their families transform their lives based on best practices for addiction recovery. Our two-generational model provides a sacred space for these women and their children to become whole,” says former Executive Director Melissa Skahan, now vice president of mission integration at Northern Light Mercy Hospital.
When women in recovery and their children find a place at McAuley, it becomes their new home for up to two years, the typical time it takes to complete the residence’s three-phase program. Portland’s McAuley Residence provides apartment-style living while Bangor offers private rooms and shared common areas. Women may live in the residence alone or with their children.
It’s often the case that women entering the McAuley program are struggling with other serious issues beyond addiction recovery. “Women may come to us from a place of generational addiction and undiagnosed and untreated mental illness and mental health issues. Some have been sex-trafficked or sexually abused or experienced domestic violence. They may have been homeless or had their children taken away by Child Protective Services (CPS),” says Skahan.
Taking into account these traumatic backgrounds and recovery needs, the program residents move through consists of three structured holistic phases, coordinated to achieve family reunification, independence, health, housing, and sobriety.
McAuley’s third phase solidifies the support system that will stay with the woman when she is ready to transition out of the program. This can include building a network of recovery groups, addiction treatment support, therapy, and career/life planning guidance. The goal is for this team to be part of a woman’s recovery long after she’s moved on from McAuley.
“One of the unique things is that we don’t provide treatment onsite. This is intentional. When women leave here we don’t want it to also mean they need to leave their treatment team behind. Losing support is a huge danger for women in recovery, so our approach is to build the best external treatment team for our residents. After they complete our program, we want the only difference to be where they lay their head at night,” Skahan says.
A day in the life
So, what does a typical day at the McAuley look like?
On any given day, residents may be found taking cooking classes or attending workshops on healthy eating or career planning. They may be coming and going to appointments and treatments offsite. Other programming may include yoga class or taking part in one-on-one coaching on a range of topics from parenting skills and family budgeting to re-entering higher education. In total, women take part in 35 hours of programming per week.
“What we’re doing is providing women with the opportunities to develop and reinforce healthy routines for themselves and their children,” Skahan says.
There’s remarkable evidence that this holistic approach to recovery works, and works well. According to program statistics, 80 percent of women remain sober once they complete the McAuley program, and 95 percent of families remain reunited.
“It’s so rewarding to watch these women have the opportunity to flourish and to reunify with their families and then reenter higher education and the workplace. These women are truly transforming their lives for the better,” Skahan says.
McAuley gave this mom wings
Nicole lived at McAuley with her young daughter joining her about halfway through the program. Before McAuley, and before entering recovery, Nicole had been couch surfing with friends while leaving her daughter in the care of relatives.
McAuley represented the first place Nicole and her daughter could call home together.
“When I was using, I didn’t want my daughter to see all that so she stayed off and on with my mom and sister. First, I got sober, then my daughter came to live with me. McAuley programs give moms so much help and support, and children receive support too. I learned how to be the mom I always wanted to be and am now able to give my daughter a good home,” Nicole explained.
Nicole described an activity she and her daughter completed together not long after the end of her time at McAuley, which to her symbolized the deep transformation she and her child, and the other women and children she met, experienced at McAuley.
According to Nicole, “My daughter and I raised two Monarch butterflies, starting from caterpillars. We watched the caterpillars go into their cocoons and then form these golden chrysalises, and finally, the butterflies emerged. When they spread their wings for the first time, my daughter pointed at them and said, ‘Mommy, they’re just like us!’ I gave her a hug and agreed.”
*Last name and certain identifying characteristics omitted for privacy.