Cleveland-based Christian maternity home eyes expansion

Staff Photo by Andrew Schwartz/ Foundation House Ministries clients and teachers gather for a class on self-esteem Tuesday at the nonprofit organization's Ooltewah location.

On Tuesday, a group of women were discussing self-esteem at Foundation House Ministries' satellite office in Ooltewah.

The Cleveland, Tennessee-based Christian nonprofit organization, which seeks to stabilize the lives of pregnant women and new mothers in crisis, expanded to the property in the spring. Now the group envisions further expansion, with plans to build more residences on its 10-acre property outside Cleveland.

"We need them badly," said Suzanne Burns, founder and executive director of Foundation House Ministries.

Three women – and their children – are living in the main house on the Bradley County property, Burns said at the Ooltewah location Tuesday.

"The challenge is bringing in new clients," she said.

In time, most residents achieve a measure of stability.

"Then you try to bring in someone who was in jail yesterday," she said.

This can be disruptive to the residents – and, Burns said, to the new client herself -- who may be in a heightened, reactive emotional state as she arrives to find "a gaggle of toddlers yelling, 'mine, mine, mine.'"

The 10-acre property features a house, cottage, gardens and a lot of untamed land, Burns said. She'd like to add modular structures – studio apartments, effectively – in which mothers can live with their children once they've put down some grounding stakes in their lives.

The structures would amount to six bedrooms cumulatively, at a cost of around $80,000, Burns said. At a recent fundraiser, the group raised about $20,000, and Burns said she believes between prior fundraising efforts, remaining fundraising needs and weather, construction is likely to start around April, meaning the structures would be ready around June.

After volunteering for years at pregnancy help centers, Burns said she felt many new mothers living in precarity -- homeless, addicted to drugs or with an abusive partner, for example -- needed a more holistic support system than what was offered in the region.

She established Foundation House Ministries in 2014, and since then tax records show the group has increased its donation revenue nearly every year as it established itself, first, Burns said, operating out of a friend's finished basement, then renting a house, then renting part of the 10-acre property it houses live-in clients on, before buying the property outright.

Earlier this year, Foundation House extended into a building owned by Ooltewah Baptist Church, which leases out the space rent-free. The office functions, in part, as a base of operations that non-live-in clients can more easily access, by bus, for example, from Chattanooga and its closer surrounding areas.

While Foundation House emerged out of a Christian impulse, Burns said she does not try to force religion on its clients, most of whom come in "biblically illiterate" and "anti-God" -- a product, she said, of their uncommonly challenging life circumstances, which may cause them to question the existence of a good almighty figure.

The group has worked with more than 600 women, Burns said. One of those was Ashley Neer, who now works as its client service coordinator, interviewing women to see if they are a good fit for the organization, among many other responsibilities.

On Tuesday, Neer was with Burns giving a tour for a donor and a Chattanooga Times Free Press reporter at the Ooltewah facility as they greeted the class on self-esteem.

Just a few years ago, things were going terribly for Neer. Already on probation and having lost custody of two children, she was pregnant with a third when, she said, law enforcement found her "in the wrong place at the wrong time."

Law enforcement raided the place. They found heroin. It wasn't hers, she said, but she still faced significant legal exposure.

Someone in recovery court recommended she check out Foundation House, and she said she joined around August 2018. She gave birth in October of that year. But facing several years of jail time, she felt little inclination to fix up her life, she said.

"I was like, what's the point?" she said.

Then, the court dismissed her case; investigators had found the heroin was fake, she said.

"The very next day, I was at 100," she said, committed to reorienting her life and transcending her drug problem.

She got her GED diploma, she said, and regained custody of her children.

"I had a heart change as soon as I felt like I was being given another chance," she said.

Sensing a great alignment, "I chose to surrender my life to the Lord," she said.

Neer moved out of Foundation House to get married in late 2019 – her anniversary was Wednesday, she said. She now attends Redemption to the Nations Church in Highland Park.

Contact Andrew Schwartz at aschwartz@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6431. Follow him on Twitter @aonSchwartz.