The Heery Center for Young Families, a part of Community Maternity Services, has been helping pregnant girls and young mothers for decades. (Photo provided)
The Heery Center for Young Families, a part of Community Maternity Services, has been helping pregnant girls and young mothers for decades. (Photo provided)

The kids are obsessed with the owl.

Inside the Heery Center for Young Families, a painted mural dedicated to Winnie the Pooh stretches across the center’s daycare wall. A gorgeous oak tree spreads its mighty branches, where Pooh and all of his friends — Tiger, Roo, Piglet, to name a few — are depicted playing. On the ceiling, Pooh’s friend, Owl, overlooks the room from his branch, which kids love to point to and look at.

Regina Middleton, program manager at the Heery Center, said that the mural (shown at r.) was painted by a former worker almost 20 years ago, and while a lot has changed at the center since it opened, the mural is still there.

“It’s timeless,” Middleton said. “The kids love it.”

The Heery Center, part of Catholic Charities’ Community Maternity Services program, has been a staple in providing community-based and residential services to children, youth and families for decades. The center offers specialized care to pregnant girls and young mothers (ages 12 to 21) who have been placed in county custody.

“We have clients who come in for different reasons,” Middleton said. “Abuse by a parent or guardian, or they become pregnant and come into our care, and while here we provide independent care.”

But overall, the center is a place for young girls new to motherhood to get some support. “It’s to make them feel like they do have a family because there are girls who come in who don’t have resources to go to,” Middleton added.

“They help us a lot with our kids,” a former Heery Center client told Catholic Charities. “They taught me how to change a diaper, how to feed them. Things that you can do by yourself when we move out. Some of us didn’t know — I didn’t know — how to be a parent. I was still too young and they helped me a lot with it.”

Last year, the Heery Center started undergoing renovations to the building. The funding came out of a capital campaign launched by Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Albany in 2017 in celebration of its 100th anniversary. As part of the centennial milestone, the capital campaign set out to improve Catholic Charities’ various agencies, increase outreach and renovate properties.

One anonymous donor was particularly drawn to the work of Community Maternity Services, and gifted a contribution to be used for CMS’s programs, including renovations for the Heery Center.

“When I found out we were going to do (renovations), I cried,” Middleton said. “It’s emotional because I feel like this is my (home), even though I don’t live here, this home is part of me as well.”

New countertops and cabinets were put into the kitchen, along with an industrial size fridge that can hold enough bottles for clients’ babies. The living room, dining space, foyer, and offices were redone, along with new flooring, new lighting and fresh paint. 

The Heery Center isn’t at full capacity now but has the space to serve 17 “beating hearts,” and approximately 20 pregnant or parenting young women and their children per year. A majority of the center’s young women will transition into community living, either through returning home safely to family, transitioning to the center’s Supervised Independent Living Program (an apartment-based program), or transitioning out of foster care and into their own apartment.

Now more than ever, the Heery Center’s support is a crucial need in the community. As the decision regarding Roe v. Wade looms, CMS wants expecting mothers to know that their services are always available.

“The work that the Heery Center, and Catholic Charities’ Community Maternity Services, provides is as important now as ever,” said Vincent Colonno, CEO of Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Albany, in an email. “There is no question that a major need exists in urban and rural communities across our 14-county Diocese.”

According to the most recent numbers from the New York State Department of Health, 209 teenagers ages 15-19 became pregnant in 2016 in Albany County. 

“We work to empower young and expectant mothers to build a life of their choosing for themselves and their children,” Colonno added. “I invite any mother or mom-to-be in need to give Catholic Charities a call. We’re here to help.”

Middleton, who has worked at the Heery Center for just shy of 25 years, is more the mom of the center than the manager.

She makes sure her staff is happy, the residence is clean and the clients are doing well.

“When I go home I never turn this place off,” Middleton said, who used to keep a legal pad on her nightstand in case she had ideas for the center. “I drove my husband crazy,” she laughed. “He’s like, ‘You’re waking me up at night!’ ”

The center has a caseworker, social worker and nurse on-site, along with weekly therapy for clients. Clients are all responsible for laundry, cleaning their room and attending school (locally or working on their GED), and some clients work jobs in their spare time.

Middleton said the center’s daycare is there for the girls to utilize whenever they’re in school or working, which the staff doesn’t mind: “We get to spend a lot of time with babies,” Middleton said with a smile. 

And it’s not all work and no play. The center hosts activity days for clients, from indoor spa days to making keychains or jewelry, or recently, a trip to The Pottery Place in Albany. 

“It’s not an easy job for the light-hearted,” Middleton said. “Some girls are more difficult than others, but I like the more difficult clients, especially once they come into their own and say thank you. It’s very rewarding.”

Middleton still gets phone calls from old clients, asking for advice or just saying hi, and there’s never a call she won’t take. 
“I do feel like I live here,” Middleton added. “I love it here; I wouldn’t have stayed as long as I have if I didn’t.”