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ALPHA provides real solutions for unwed mothers

Nature's infinite wisdom provides a time of maturity when the human child leaves the nest to step toward independence and responsibility. Ideally that time comes gradually. Ideally it is a joyous time, one filled with excitement and aspirations, but not everyone leaves home ideally. Sometimes the moment to leave comes quickly in the context of disagreement. Not infrequently it comes after long periods of abuse, anger, frustration and failure. Those conditions precede a loss of self-esteem and degradation. Leaving becomes an escape rather than a choice and the young persons' flight is premature. They leave wrapped in distrust, defensiveness and hopelessness without education or life skills. For most of them the event charts their destiny until they either run out of people and places or confront a problem that won't go away with time.

These young people are tragic commodities of dysfunctional families and, since 1982, ALPHA "A Beginning" of Tampa Inc. has assisted more than 16,000 of them. ALPHA is a non-profit, non-denominational United Way Agency for unwed pregnant women, also serving as the only licensed maternity home in Hillsborough County.

The clients come in all sizes and colors from the street, detention centers (including jail), on referral from other agencies, churches, shelters and by word of mouth. Ninety-eight percent are at poverty level, 95 percent are teen-agers. They arrive at ALPHA frightened, confused and in desperate need of help from someone to offer encouragement and the resources to back it up.

Stabilization begins with a safe place to live in confidentiality. ALPHA shelters 20 women in a new (1989) facility with 10,000 square feet of space. It was built at a cost of $1-million and has a mortgage of $200,000. An achievement of this magnitude would not have been possible without a strong community support and a belief in the agency's ability. The house is continuously filled with an average waiting list of six. The statistics indicate the need for the service.

Other services at ALPHA include free pregnancy testing, a 24-hour crisis line, a clothes closet providing baby and maternity clothing, diapers, infant food and formula and baby furniture. The in-residence programs are designed to do much more than provide a temporary solution to the client problems. Clients attend daily counseling sessions, classes in life skills and values, health and hygiene, nutrition, parenting, care of the newborn, adoption options and career planning. They explore educational opportunities (everyone attends school) and job markets as well as assisting their community through volunteer efforts at local agencies. The total curriculum is administered by a professional staff and assisted by more than 100 volunteers who serve in various capacities not the least of which is their presence as role models.

ALPHA's goal is to help each client achieve autonomy, knowing that without it their lifestyle remains self-defeating. Each service and program is relevant to the agency identity but the most crucial is the counseling. It encompasses in-resident and outreach service providing individual, group and family counseling.

Although pregnancy is the commonalty at ALPHA it is never assumed that each client has the same needs. The counseling program serves as a vehicle of selective individual planning and focuses on realistic attainable goals. These goals become measuring sticks of progress after they leave ALPHA. A six-month follow-up program ensures continuity.

ALPHA has expansion capabilities based on finances. The newest program is a Transition Home contiguous to the main facility. The home is for women who place their babies for adoption and single homeless women in need of stabilization. Short-term shelters overflow on any given night and twice the number of those in the shelters are on the streets. Most can be categorized as alcohol and/or substance abusers, and those who have been abandoned and/or abused. Many are single parents who have lost custody of their children to the state department of Health and Rehabilitative Services. They too need more than a temporary solution. They need counseling and alternatives in the form of education and job opportunities. ALPHA's Transition Home will provide those needs until they can return to society as useful citizens.

The measure of any program is its success rate. We are proud at ALPHA when former residents and clients write or visit to say: "I will graduate this semester," "Things are great with my family," "Although placing Baby Joe for adoption was a hard decision I realize it was the best for both of us," "I've been promoted at work," and "Thanks ALPHA! You helped me realize that my life is important."

- Rosalie Hennessey is executive director of ALPHA "A beginning" of Tampa, Inc.

- This is one in a series of guest columns on social service agencies that receive money from the United Way of Greater Tampa. The United Way's annual fund-raising campaign began Sept. 11 and will run through Nov. 16. The agency hopes to raise $10-million this year to distribute to 43 agencies.