Chopping rosemary and squeezing lemons, members of the Junior Service League of DeLand stand shoulder to shoulder with residents of Visitation House, a protected home in DeLand for pregnant women in need.
Laughter from the kitchen and the smell of dinner drift into the modest living room, where the two groups of women swap stories about pregnancy and child-rearing. Since 2007, JSL has been preparing healthful meals for the residents who come and go from the protected home. But the recipes aren’t the only thing being shared.
“I didn’t feel like I was being judged for where I was or what I was doing there because the ladies had it in their heart to step up and serve us,” said Amanda Gambelunghe, 29, a former Visitation House resident. “They talked to us about our experiences and what we were going through. They were just full of joy to be there with us.”
Gambelunghe’s first two months of pregnancy were far from joyful. The first-time mother was homeless and enduring an abusive relationship.
Sometimes Gambelunghe would find late-night work stocking shelves at Walmart and earn enough for a motel. Other nights, she slept in frigid temperatures in the bushes or on a park bench.
Floating between Sanford, Orlando and DeLand as a homeless pregnant woman, Gambelunghe finally reached out to her sister, Rachel, who told her about Visitation House, a facility owned by the parish of St. Peter Catholic Church in DeLand.
There was a housemother in charge, and other women in similar situations living there. Gambelunghe felt like this was the chance she needed.
“I felt safe there. I knew you couldn’t just go on the website and find the address,” said Gambelunghe, who needed to keep her distance from the baby’s father. “Once I realized what a blessing it was, that Visitation House provided me … I was able to start all over, able to start from scratch. I had nothing.”
JSL member Jessica Puckett, who led the meal project for two years, remembers sitting around the Visitation House table, and often brought her own children.
Puckett endured a difficult pregnancy herself and found it easy to connect to women from different backgrounds.
“One of the women living there had given birth and was back to work within three weeks,” Puckett said. “I think my surprise and awe was written on my face, and I will never forget her gleaming look of achievement and hard work.”
Residents of Visitation House must be 18 years or older and free from current substance abuse. According to current housemother Anne Grinstead, the home “provides housing and basic living for pregnant women who choose life and feel that they have no resources to have a healthy baby.”
To ensure that the women are ready for life after Visitation House, a 12-week life-skills curriculum is set in motion.
The residents graduate through phases of learning about healthy and responsible living, with rules for household chores, personal hygiene, and behavior inside and outside the home.
Grinstead took over for Donna White, the housemother for the past 10 years. She is the live-in employee who keeps it all on schedule.
One curriculum component is grocery shopping and making healthful choices. The women are set up on food stamps and WIC, and Grinstead always assists on the first shopping trip.
“After that, I let them make those lifestyle choices. I have to let them go,” Grinstead said. “I let them realize their choices matter.”
Funds to support daily operations at Visitation House come via events at St. Peter’s like the Mardi Gras-themed Fat Friday or the baby-bottle drive, where parish members collect spare change in bottles.
Last year’s baby-bottle drive earned nearly $8,000, according to current Visitation House board President Richard Peterson. He and other members of the advisory board work with Grinstead to make sure the home runs smoothly.
“The support of the parish and the pride which the parish has for this home is immeasurable,” Peterson said. “The outpouring of support of JSL has been terrific.”
Funds for JSL projects are raised at the annual Wild Wild West Charity Event that takes place in the Tommy Lawrence Arena at the Volusia County Fairgrounds. This year’s event is set for Saturday, Aug. 25.
Aside from providing dinners monthly for the moms-to-be, the Junior Service League recently paid to have the windows replaced at Visitation House, and new mattresses brought in when the old ones were no longer fit.
As for Gambelunghe, her story is one of success. Her baby was adopted while she lived at Visitation House.
She currently works at a local detox and mental-health facility and is engaged to her fiance, James Wagar.
They are expecting their first child together, a little girl.