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Homeless for the Holidays: Christmas at the ALPHA House

Mark Parker

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Patrice Hammill (second from left), President of ALPHA House, presents a check for $1,750. The check was for the remaining balance after Keller Williams bought all the girls' Christmas gifts. To Hammill's left is her son Noah. To her right is Julie Swigon, director of operations, and McKenzie Bresett, director of residential programs. Photos provided.

Thanks to the generosity of the community and dedicated staff, St. Peterburg’s ALPHA House not only provides housing and support services for pregnant teens, women and new mothers with infants but also ensures they experience the best Christmas possible.

According to its website, ALPHA House has provided housing and support services to over 3,000 women, teens and infants since its inception in 1979. The website states that around 90% of those who have called ALPHA House home successfully transitioned into permanent housing and independent living.

Jennifer Stracick, executive director for ALPHA House, explained that the organization does its best to provide its girls with the same Christmas they would find in a traditional home. Gifts are under the tree and off-limits until Christmas morning, and they prepare a special, family-style Christmas breakfast and dinner.

“It means that they feel loved and cared about,” said Stracick. “Yes, they are going to be happy for those gifts … but at the end of the day, for their emotional state of mind, I know that they feel loved and they feel cared for.”

Stracick said this Christmas would be a little merrier for the girls at ALPHA thanks to an outpouring of generosity from the surrounding community – specifically from two groups: Keller Williams Realty of Seminole and the St. Pete Fools Charities.

Stracick said Keller Williams gave the most and adopted the girls with their individual Christmas lists. Stracick said the Fools club was the second biggest donor, and the group of local businessmen and entrepreneurs rode in on their motorcycles with a police escort to drop off several gifts from an additional list she gave them.

Members of the St. Pete Fools social club supported Christmas at the ALPHA House for the second year.

Stracick added that a mom’s group recently stopped by to drop off all the side dishes for an elaborate Christmas dinner.

“So, these girls actually got everything they wanted,” she said. “We did very well this year.”

Sracick said donations were so generous this year they were able to provide a Christmas for girls that have graduated from the program and stay in close contact.

“That’s what it all boils down to,” she said. “It’s love, and that we care about them and their future, and we want them to have a good life as much as possible in spite of all the things that have happened to them.”

However, Stracick said they could not provide what the girls want the most – a loving family.

“We are what they need, but we are not what they want,” said Stracick. “They want a family; they want their family – and a lot of times that leads to them being very depressed.”

In addition to depression, Stracick said the lack of a family for the holidays leads to behavioral problems in the younger girls. She said this happens on most birthdays and holidays “because they are triggered by what they don’t have.”

The ones that do have a family member they can visit for the holidays often come back feeling worse, Stracick explained. She said they have an anticipatory expectation that things have changed in the time they’ve been away from their families, “and it’s just not like that.”

Stracick said that regardless of how bad the girls’ lives were at their previous “homes,” they still love whoever was supposed to take care of them. In addition to its homeless pregnant women, teens and new mothers, ALPHA also provides a home to girls in foster care. Stracick said that scenario is most pronounced in foster youth.

“I think if it were up to them, they would stay in that abusive environment – because that’s their family,” she said. “So, they long for that, regardless of the abuse.”

Stracick said that longing is not quite as evident in the adults, “but they still want that.”

Stracick explained that yearning for a family and love creates a cycle that is difficult to break with many of the younger girls. She said the girls look for love in all the wrong places. She added that always ends up causing more harm as they end up with people that treat them in a similar manner as their guardians. The girls often become pregnant, which exacerbates the problem.

One of the newest additions to the ALPHA House.

Stracick said there is sometimes judgment and a stigma surrounding teen pregnancies, but she wants people to understand the causes.

“The pregnancy is subsequent to abuse,” she said. “It’s about not being loved at home. And we’re all human; we all need to be loved – I don’t care who you are in this world.

“You all need that love – especially by a mom – and you get imbalanced because you don’t have that, or it’s distorted of what it should be.”

Stracick can attest to those statements because she was once one of those girls.

Stracick said she grew up with a negligent mom and an abusive stepfather. She said no one paid much attention to her at home, and she filled her time running the streets of St. Petersburg with an older crowd. She became pregnant at 15 but had no idea until she was seven months along and realized something was “wrong” with her body.

“That’s how much nobody paid attention to me,” said Stracick.

Stracick initially tried to take care of her son and thought she did well for her age. However, she said her stepfather was jealous of the attention the baby received and continued to make her life “a living hell.” She said he forced her to leave, and she and her newborn began staying with friends. With no help from her mother or social services, Stracick eventually relented and gave her son up for adoption.

Stracick said she then moved back into the home with her stepfather, only to experience an even greater level of trauma, trauma so severe that Stracick has completely erased those years from her memory.

“I ended up losing my memory from after that happened to age 18, or probably a little bit older,” said Stracick. “To this day, there are people who I guess I hung around with during that time who remember me fondly, who I have no recollection who they are.”

Stracick then decided to change her life by any means necessary and help others going through a similar situation.

She went to stay with an aunt in Buffalo, earned her GED, and then her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in social services. She eventually made her way back to St. Pete and saw an open position at the ALPHA House, offering more money than she made at a substance abuse center in Clearwater.

Stracick said she walked through the door of the ALPHA House, and the smell triggered her instantly.

The smell was a musty odor of unwashed used clothes, and as Stracick relayed, anyone that has grown up poor and received their clothes from donation centers can identify with that smell.

“It took me back to a time when I was a young girl and all the trauma of having to give up a child,” said Stracick. “I remember thinking to myself – this is not going to work out.”

Stracick still went through with the interview. She knew she could relate to the girls at ALPHA, “except they are able to keep their baby.” Stracick would take the position as a clinical director and quickly became the executive director.

Sixteen years later, she is still helping girls recover from the same things she experienced as a child.

“It lends for me to be a motivational speaker at times to these girls and say, ‘Hey, this happened to me. I was on the streets. I had nobody to help me,’” Stracick said. “I had to get my GED, and now I’m running an agency.

“So, we’re going to give you all the tools you need and a place to stay and all the support so you can do the same thing and keep your baby.”

According to its website, ALPHA House has provided housing and support services to over 3,000 women, teens and infants.

As people gather to celebrate Christmas in the coming days, Stracick hopes they are grateful for things often overlooked; family, consistent meals on their table, and someone to call when they are sad, happy, mad or just want to talk.

“These are things our girls don’t have,” she said. “So, don’t take them for granted.”

To learn more about ALPHA House, visit its website here.

 

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1 Comment

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    Judy Labas

    December 24, 2021at11:26 am

    Never new there was such a thing in St Pete. Would love to donate time. Let me know.

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