During a Sunday morning church service about six months ago, Pastor Melodi Hawley met a couple at the altar.
The couple, well-known foster parents at I Heart Church, asked for prayer for their newest foster children — 6-week-old twins still suffering the effects of withdrawal from in utero drug exposure.
As Hawley cradled the infants in her arms and prayed for them, a seed was planted in her heart.
"I feel like there's a sense of urgency. I know we can't do everything, but we can do something."
With that motto in mind, she began brainstorming what has led to SafeHaven, a three-part plan — rehabilitation, support and prevention — to help mothers battling drug addiction and to help end the cycle of abuse.
As U.S. Rep. Evan Jenkins, R-W.Va., has said, babies are the most innocent victims of the opioid epidemic.
"We all love babies," Hawley agreed. "We all love kids. Our heart breaks for injustice done to children."
But she believes mothers are sometimes discarded in focus on the children.
"We have to begin to ask — how can we win the mother and the child, not just the child? Jesus cares. They're His daughters. I think many of them want out, they just don't know how to get out. We have to treat them with compassion instead of judgment."
She said one of the biggest barriers she's seen so far is a mother's fear that her children will be taken by Child Protective Services. By establishing relationships with these women, and truly meeting them where they're at, she believes successful outcomes can be achieved for both mothers and their babies.
"We have to be their advocates. Not their enemies."
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Here's her plan:
• Rehabilitation. The short-term plan is to build trusting relationships with pregnant women struggling with addiction, and to provide them with a sense of community and the resources they need to make the best decisions. Through periodic banquets, soon-to-be mothers will be invited to a judgment-free zone where they will receive a free catered dinner, pampering, baby items and educational information from licensed medical professionals. They can also receive counseling, prayer and a mentor. The first banquet is scheduled for Feb. 23 at 6 p.m. at I Heart Church, located on the hill above Buffalo Wild Wings.
The long-term goal is to establish a temporary residential facility, a "safe haven," where women can receive faith-based recovery under the supervision of a medical advisory board and counselors for the duration of their pregnancy and postpartum. Hawley said the facility would provide a balance of medical, spiritual and emotional support. She said SafeHaven is actively fundraising to make the facility a reality. She asks anyone who knows of a building or property that might meet their needs to reach out.
• Support. By May this year, Hawley plans to open a "Foster Closet," stocked with items needed when a foster family receives a child or children placed by the state. Community support groups, led by seasoned foster families, will also be available to support and encourage new foster parents.
The long-term goal is to create a network of resources and support groups for current and potential foster parents and adoptive families. SafeHaven also wants to provide trained volunteers and supplies to local hospital neonatal units to assist in their efforts to care for infants born with neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS).
• Prevention. In the short-term, SafeHaven wants to create a social media campaign called NotUs, using hashtags #NotUs and #SaveWV and a website NotUsWV.com, to empower teenagers to make a difference in the opioid epidemic. Hawley said youth believe they can change the world, and she believes they can, too. The campaign, which will launch in August this year, will utilize stories from those currently struggling with addiction and those in recovery.
The long-term goal is to purchase billboards in cities throughout the state, as well as television and radio commercials, to complement the social media campaign. Eventually, Hawley would like to see Millennial and Generation Z advocates teaching SafeHaven drug prevention curricula in the school system.
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When Hawley first moved to West Virginia, she knew there was a drug problem.
"But I didn't really understand how bad it was. When I ask a room full of 500 people, 'How many have a family member affected by drug addiction?', nearly every single hand in the room will go up."
Hawley, originally from Louisiana, moved to Beckley with her husband Brandon about six years ago. For their first 10 years of marriage, Melodi said she dreamed of moving here each time they visited Brandon's family.
"We had people who told us we were crazy for moving to West Virginia. They told us, 'It's impoverished' and 'You'll never make it,' but we love it. I loved it before I ever lived here."
Wearing a dainty silver necklace with a mountain range pendant, she has embraced West Virginia — and all of its flaws — as her home.
While in Louisiana, she and Brandon did community outreach at halfway houses, prison release programs and addiction treatment centers. They came to Beckley with plans of establishing a church, a place where locals could gather and send positivity back into their community.
On Aug. 19, 2012, the Hawleys opened the doors at I Heart Church, a place Melodi truly hopes people "heart."
"I think people should love church. It's an expression of God's love," she said. "We want to answer the call of a hurting community. True religion is caring for everyone."
It's a space where hundreds flock each week to hear words of inspiration, to connect with their community members, and to request prayer in the darkest of days.
Ever since she cradled the tiny twins withdrawing in their first weeks of life, she knew she had to do something.
"If we want to save these babies, we have to reach the moms. We have to meet them where they are. Jesus did that. He came down and met us where we are. We have to get our hands dirty. Bend down, show kindness and get in the mess and help someone out of it."
For more information, visit safehavenwv.com. To register for the Feb. 23 banquet, text the word SAFEHAVEN to 304-860-7956.
— Email: email@example.com and follow on Twitter @WendyHoldren