RUSKIN – Though their circumstances may differ, the eyes of every woman who walks through the doors of the Mary & Martha House tell the same story.
“You can see the pain and the suffering in their eyes,” said Laurie Herring, program development director for the nonprofit shelter for women and children in Ruskin. “It doesn’t matter what background they come from. Homelessness doesn’t discriminate. Homelessness doesn’t care how much education you have or who you are. It can hit anybody at any time.”
For the past 30 years, the Mary & Martha House has reached out to hundreds of women and children living in cars, on the streets or in abusive homes.
“These women have taken an important step in coming to us for help,” said Herring. “Now it’s our job to be a light for them, to show them they are worthy and have gifts they can use to improve their lives.”
Located in a modest ranch home, Mary & Martha House provides emergency shelter for women in crisis and their children. Families are given a bedroom to share and assigned kitchen cabinets and a refrigerator so they can prepare their own meals. Mothers also are provided with resources to apply for and obtain a job, parenting classes, nutrition classes and help managing their finances so they can eventually establish a home of their own.
“We’re always full,” said Herring, adding the number of residents at Mary & Martha House isn’t disclosed to ensure the privacy and protection of the families. “As soon as one family moves out, another moves in. That’s how great the need is,” said Herring, noting that the shelter serves women from all over Hillsborough County.
But the constant shuffling of furniture and belongings takes its toll on the facility. So two years ago Herring launched a program that gives service organizations an opportunity to adopt and redecorate a room at Mary & Martha House.
“For some of these families, this is the first space of their own they’ve had in a long time, and we want it to be as cheerful and homelike as possible,” Herring said. “We want these women who have been beaten down to know how special they are. Providing them with a freshly painted and decorated room with the own linens and towels tells them that they are important.”
One of the organizations that took Herring up on her offer to redecorate a room at Mary & Martha House is the Aqua Viva Divas chapter of the Blue Thong Society, led by Kings Point resident Dana Dittmar, executive director of the Sun City Center Area Chamber of Commerce.
Founded in San Diego eight years ago, the national Blue Thong Society was formed to give working women with established careers and families an opportunity to network, socialize and make an impact on their communities. The “blue thong” refers to the casual beach sandals the middle-aged members feel they have earned the right to wear after years of working to build careers while managing families.
Intrigued by the mission of the society and the prospect of getting together with like-minded women, Dittmar formed the first Tampa Bay chapter in 2007. The chapter now has more than 20 members who participate in the American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life, community food drives, the annual Walk to End Alzheimer’s and events to benefit pediatric cancer programs.
It was member Jennifer McCafferty of Jen’s Market in South Shore who suggested the chapter adopt and redecorate a room at the Mary & Martha House for its latest project.
“We love to shop and decorate, and Mary & Martha House is such a worthy cause,” she said.
Opting for a beach theme, members shopped for linens, towels, curtains, rugs and accessories, and then gathered at the Mary & Martha House shelter on Nov. 14 to clean and paint the bedroom and accompanying bathroom for the family.
“We received a lot of help from Home Depot, which donated all the paint and painting supplies,” said Dittmar. The home improvement store also sent over associates Sharon Teufel and Nicole Lynch, who refurbished the children’s swing set, cleaned window screens and performed other chores.
At the end of the day, the women left with pale blue, paint-spattered clothing and a sense of accomplishment.
“The beach theme is peaceful and relaxing,” said McCafferty. “I hope this helps give this family a nice place to stay while they’re working on starting over.”
Any organization interested in adopting and redecorating a room at Mary & Martha House can contact Herring at (813) 641-7027.
D’Ann Lawrence White is a freelance writer who can be reached at [email protected]