Over the past 41 years, Dr. James Pugh transformed Casa Teresa, a fledgling shelter for pregnant women, into a life-changing series of shelter-based programs that have both shaped and redirected the lives of more than 6,400 women and their children. The nonprofit offers educational, social, emotional and job training, with an emphasis on helping participants during their hour of need and fostering continued success.
Two years ago, Lisa Wood partnered with Casa Teresa, taking the reins as CEO and further creating an environment of love, compassion and support for pregnant women.
We recently spoke with James and Lisa about Casa Teresa, the misconceptions many people have about women in need, and their organization’s plans to impart the kind of lifelong skills required to break troubled cycles and create families that can thrive in the long term.
“Once you come to Casa Teresa, you’re always a part of Casa Teresa. We’re always here for our alumni, no matter what challenges they may face.” — Lisa Wood
How has Casa Teresa grown and changed over the past 40 years?
James: Casa Teresa was founded in 1976 by Neill and Sally Sullivan, devout Catholics who opened the original shelter as a spiritual calling. Through her background as a social worker, Sally identified an unfulfilled need to help women who were pregnant, alone and without support. Casa Teresa has grown from a four-unit building plus cottage to a facility that can house up to 43 women and children today.
Lisa: In the past year alone, Casa Teresa has served 150 pregnant women, children and babies as they worked through the shelter’s parenting program, and nurtured another 12 as they worked through the shelter’s life-changing transformation program, which helps women develop the skills necessary to face life post-pregnancy as a productive member of their respective communities.
What mission does Casa Teresa serve?
James: The overarching goal of each of these programs is to break the unhealthy cycles many women have been exposed to earlier in their lives and to provide them with the skills they’ll need to thrive as mothers, income earners and members of society. We want our mothers to leave these programs as self-sufficiently as possible.
Our outcomes have been very successful. In general, 70 percent of our moms do very well when they leave. Most have developed a strong sense of stability and direction. Among those who don’t immediately thrive, many take the lessons they learned while in residency and apply them — essentially picking themselves up and starting over again — successfully upon a second attempt.
What’s the biggest misconception about women who are pregnant and homeless?
James: Sadly, there are many. One widely held inaccurate belief is that many of the women we serve come from similar backgrounds — in actuality, we house women from many different socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds.
One recent resident grew up in wealthy Orange County. From the outside she appeared to have been given every advantage, but she was in need of support. No matter their background, nine in 10 of our women suffered early traumatic childhood abuse. People often don’t realize the disadvantages those type of life experiences create.
Some residents come to us with substance abuse dependencies, with mental health concerns or as survivors of domestic abuse. And because of those experiences, our women often lack the tools, love or basic needs many of the rest of us take for granted as we enter young adulthood. That’s the basic misunderstanding.
Specifically, how has Casa Teresa enhanced the life paths of its residents?
James: Because of their backgrounds, many residents can’t advocate for themselves when they enter our programs. For example, one woman who came to us was severely abused both as a child and as an adult partner. While in our residency, she gave birth to a daughter who had very low birth weight and was diagnosed with “failure to thrive.”
While being treated in the intensive care unit, the nursing staff inaccurately assumed the baby’s ailments were a result of abuse by the mother. The police and even child protective services were involved. We stood by this new mother’s side, advocated for her and helped her cope with the stressful and emotional toll of that experience.
In the end, the child was diagnosed with a medical ailment — a digestive problem that hadn’t been previously diagnosed — but that period in between was tormenting for the mother. She was so thankful when she left our program that she promised to do something worthwhile with her life. Today she’s a pediatrician in Arizona. And she’s far from being our only success story.
Lisa: We’ve helped countless other bright women who simply needed some support so they could overcome their challenges and get on with their lives. We have graduates who went on to become lawyers, therapists, nurses, accountants and more.
What’s next for Casa Teresa?
James: It’s an exciting time, and it’s been a wonderful 41-year journey. Going forward, we plan to expand our ability to move women into full-time, permanent housing. We also plan to strengthen ties with program graduates to make sure we’re continually available as a resource, as needed, and to find partners who can help us create programs of continued success in a non-enabling way.