Defying the odds at the White Shield Center

Apr 10, 2018 | by Captain Jared Arnold

A Salvation Army facility in Oregon recently received a donation with a note attached.

“Fifty-seven years ago, you took me in at 17 years old, pregnant and frightened. You sheltered me, fed me, and delivered my son. I was one of those girls who kept her baby. He has been a blessing since the day he was born. He is educated, and a wonderful husband and father. He is a small business owner in Eugene, Oregon, and successful. Thank you.”

Donations often come with a message. Donors support The Salvation Army for various reasons; for many, it’s because the organization helped them or someone they know.

The writer of the note, Anna, was a young woman in The Salvation Army White Shield Center, in Portland, Ore., which has helped vulnerable girls and young women since its inception in 1899. The Salvation Army purchased the center in 1920. It began as a maternity hospital and home for marginalized girls and young women; many were pregnant and “unwed.”

White Shield Center Director Diane Brandsma recalled what is was like for these young women in the 20th century.

“From the early 1900s past mid-century, it was not uncommon for an unmarried, pregnant, young woman to be sent away from her home and community to White Shield to deliver her baby,” Brandsma said. “Pressure from family and society typically led to the woman giving up the baby for adoption.”

Brandsma continued painting a picture of that era, when the woman’s relatives often would invent a cover story to explain her absence from the community, such as an extended visit with a family member in another state, or attendance at a boarding school.

“Friends and family members would discourage her from telling the truth—to never speak of it and carry on her life as if nothing had happened,” Brandsma said.

Occasionally, some families created space for the unexpected child to return, and young mothers like Anna would raise their babies against the odds.

“Thousands of untold stories exist, bearing myriad memories and emotions,” Brandsma said.

After the maternity hospital closed in the early 1970s, the White Shield Center adapted to the change and continued its efforts, with a residential treatment approach, to meet the needs of girls and young women from 12-21—those marginalized due to abuse, abandonment, neglect, addiction, poverty, and racism.  

About half of the girls and young women referred to and placed at White Shield Center are pregnant or parenting a child under the age of 4. The other half are girls and young women who are not pregnant but whose behavior and emotional reactions to their traumatic histories necessitate a safe, structured and nurturing environment. According to Brandsma, all White Shield Center residents receive life skills training, mentoring, education and mental health or addictions counseling, and pregnant teens and young moms receive access to prenatal care, parenting skills training and day care.

“Anna chose to keep her son—defying the odds,” Brandsma said. “Over the years, thousands of young women have walked the halls at White Shield Center, the choices different for each one. The common thread is their remarkable resilience, despite the odds.”  

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