FRANKLIN, NJ - Mother's Day is about celebrating mothers for their strength and beauty, and the women at the Center for Great Expectations in New Jersey are as strong and beautiful as they come.
The women enrolled in the Franklin Township-based program have experienced everything from growing up with abusive parents and being involved in toxic relationships to struggling with substance addiction and raising children after teen pregnancies.
No matter what they have experienced or where their pain began, they all came to the Center for Great Expectations for a fresh start and to rebuild their lives around their greatest joy: their children.
"Prior to coming here I was in foster care because I originally got taken away from my mom," said Chardonney VanDunk, who is 19 and originally from Sussex. "They didn't find out that I was pregnant until 7 months." She was 15 years old at the time.
She gave birth to her son, Christopher while she was in foster care, but her foster parents couldn't handle raising a teenager and her baby.
She came to the Center for Great Expectations not long after with her infant son, Christopher, in tow. She has since graduated from the program and is now in one of the supportive housing units that the center offers.
She was a mother, though, long before she ever became pregnant.
"My mom has nine kids and is a heroin addict. All my life my dad was an alcoholic. He passed away when I was 13," VanDunk said. "I was helping her take care of all her kids. We were in shelters and moved around almost every two years."
The Center of Great Expectations offers stability and hope.
"That's the main reason why I came, because it was somewhere permanent," she said. "I didn't have to move around with my son every so often or worry about which foster home would keep us together."
The other women who spoke to MyCentralJersey.com on the Wednesday before Mother's Day are all adults still enrolled in the program.
"I have one daughter, Golden, she's 18-months-old," said Pearl McDougal, who is 35 and originally from Elizabeth. "She lives with me here."
Nicolette "Nikki" Weimer, who is 25 and originally from North Plainfield, has two children and is currently pregnant with her third. She enrolled in the program in February.
"I'm 25 and for the past two years I have been using heroin," she said. "I couldn't do it anymore. I definitely needed a rehabilitation program."
"I have four boys," said Jasmine Montero, who is 25 and originally from Newark. "They don't reside with me just yet, but through staying here they help you get your kids back."
All of the women have experienced trauma in their pasts.
"I was 13 when I first picked up marijuana and alcohol," Montero said. "It progressed when I was 21 after I had my third son. I started using other substances and I was sick and tired of being sick and tired. I came to this program in January 2013."
Montero graduated from the program in August, hit a bump in the road to recovery and relapsed, but then re-enrolled in the program. "They opened their doors back up for me," she said.
Confronting their issues can be challenging, but that's the only way they can overcome them.
"It was difficult," Montero said. "Prior to my relapse, I guess I was in denial, so coming back and sharing what I've been through and hearing what others have been through made me realize that in fact I do have a problem."
Now, the women are steadfast in their purpose: to heal.
"We're just focusing on recovery right now," Montero said. "Trying to maintain a clear head and regain clarity as to what we want to do with our future."
The birth of CGE
The Center for Great Expectations (CGE) provides care and treatment to mothers or expectant mothers struggling with addiction or mental health conditions. Located off of Dellwood Lane in Franklin Township, CGE provides residential treatment, outpatient treatment and day care facilities at its facilities to women ranging from all ages and as young as early teens.
What separates CGE from other treatment facilities is that it encourages women to push through the road to recovery with their young children at their sides as opposed to isolating mother from child. It also allows for women to stay enrolled in the programs for years, and even to return if they fall off the path, so that they can receive an education and find employment.
CGE began in 1998 at a little house in Somerville. Its founder, Peg Wright, partnered with Sister Rita Woehlcke to create the program.
Back then, it had six beds shared between two bedrooms. Now, each woman at CGE has their own spacious room with windows and individual bathrooms, similar to how a college dormitory is laid out.
"One of the big differences were that women couldn't come back after they had their children," said Peg Wright, president and CEO of CGE. "It wasn't really anything like it is now. We've really evolved over time."
"We're on the cutting edge in the state," she added. "There are no programs that really deliver this level of care to this population."
Adolescent girls are referred to CGE through the Department of Children and Families and adult women are mostly referred through the court system. Many women enrolled at CGE have had their children taken from them by the state. CGE offers help in reunifying their families by providing a space for the women to live in after they graduate the program.
"We started these programs with long-term residency when we realized that when they're graduated with the program, still continuing with their recovery, they still needed outpatient services," said Pam DeLuca, director of development. "So we began the supportive housing program."
The supportive housing program started with 16 units in Avalon Bay, Somerset, and grew to include an additional two units and another 10 units that are funded through a grant called Women In Supportive Housing, or the WISH program. There are 28 available apartments, but CGE is currently seeking grants and funding to add more.
There are currently eight women in the adult house, 12 teenagers in the adolescent house and 28 women living in the supportive housing units.
More info on CGE's mission and fundraising efforts can be found here: www.crowdrise.com/peoplehealpeople/fundraiser/centerforgreatexpectations
The supportive housing doesn't have a mandatory time limit.
"We like to give them at least five years to get on their feet," DeLuca said. It's goal is to help the women continue to grow "to be great moms and build a strong family."
Adult women are typically enrolled in CGE's program for six to nine months before they graduate and move onto supportive housing. Adolescents can be in the program for up to two years or longer depending on age.
The road to recovery
The programs at CGE aim to inspire the women to improve their lives by offering therapy, workshops in parenting and job skills, and by helping them get an education in order to get their children back.
McDougal lost custody of her daughter when she was six-months-old. Eight months later, she gained full custody of her child while she was enrolled at CGE.
"I experimented with weed first at 22 and then alcohol around 25 and it progressed," she said. Now, she has been sober for seven months. "I'm excited. No cigarettes, no alcohol. I'm doing pretty good."
She said she has never experienced any other program where staff members are so dedicated and focused on the patient's healing.
"I wouldn't want to be anywhere else but here while getting custody of my daughter and getting sober," McDougal said.
Weimer said she has found more support at CGE than at any other rehabilitation program she has been to.
"I had tried other rehabs, like the four to seven day rehab, and like a lot of people, the same day you come out you lose because it's not enough," Weimer said. "I was only court-ordered to do 30 days but I felt like personally I needed more than that."
"Most programs you can't have your children in the rehab, so the opportunity to do this and have your kids is just a great opportunity," she said.
Weimer is still progressing through CGE's program.
"I'm probably going to be here for more like nine to 12 months," she said, "because in my first month and a half of being here, I actually was diagnosed with cervical cancer."
She said that if it wasn't for CGE she would probably be trying to overdose because the news of her cancer diagnosis and her addiction were so hard.
But CGE is helping her overcome her difficulties and get her life back on track.
"It's great, I'm doing so good here," Weimer said. "I love it here."
Without CGE, VanDunk said she most likely would have never graduated high school.
"They pushed me to do my best," she said. "This place is amazing. Without them, I don't think I would have graduated."
VanDunk has come a long way since the days she was failing her high school classes. When she enrolled at CGE, she was urged by staff members to get involved with the Rutgers Youth Conference.
At first, she was wary of the idea, but to her surprise, she evolved from being a shy and introverted girl to a confident public speaker. She recently spoke before New Jersey congressional members in Trenton on topics involving children in state care and childhood trauma. She's also led workshops and demonstrations on how to help people by expressing themselves constructively.
Now, she wants to pursue a career where she will be able to help people for the rest of her life.
"That's another thing about this place," she said of CGE. "It's full of experiences."
An extended family
The success of the program can be partly attributed to the positive relationships that are formed between the women.
Many of the women have experienced similar hardships; some say they have been raped since before the age of 10 by family members or close friends, and others say they have had teenage pregnancies resulting from rapes.
Sharing their stories with each other allows for a certain kind of kinship that cannot be found elsewhere.
Coupled with CGE's regimented program, the women use these relationships to better themselves instead of cause harm, like the time Weimer relapsed with someone she had met at rehab the same day they were released.
"It hurts me to say it, but I 'd rather be here than home," she said of CGE.
Weimer was recently faced with the decision to terminate her pregnancy so that she could receive treatment for her cervical cancer. She chose to keep the baby.
"It was hard, I was really emotional, but I think I handled it well only because I had the support of CGE," she said. "I tell them all the time, 'We're such a family. We're a little sisterhood.'"
The other women agree. There's something special about CGE and its success.
"I ran so long from just the fear of life," Montero said. "This place helped me face my fears."