They may come from different walks of life, but the young women at Elizabeth House and the Tournament of Roses 2018 Royal Court have bonded recently in unexpected ways, eager to ask questions, learn from each other or just have a good giggle.
In its quest to realize this year’s theme of “making a difference” the Royal Court has begun a new tradition — selecting its own charity of choice. The court unanimously voted for Elizabeth House, a nonprofit that provides housing and support services for at-risk or homeless women who are pregnant.
“It was a group decision, but Elizabeth House was definitely the clear winner,” said Princess Lauren Buehner of Arcadia High School. “Once we all found out the mission of the charity and the incredible work they’ve been doing, everyone was on board.”
The court has spent time with Elizabeth House members in recent months, at first coming just to meet the girls, and then returning to help wrap presents and decorate for the nonprofit’s annual alumni Christmas party.
Elizabeth House member Scarlett Gallegos said she was surprised and happy to get to know the Royal Court.
“They are all so pretty! And they are so nice, like soooo nice … we were all listening to Christmas music and they were dancing and singing. We asked each other a lot of questions and we talked about family and stuff. We were just sharing … it was pretty much girl time. They’re fun and goofy, too.”
Gallegos came to Elizabeth House a few months ago, after finding out she was pregnant and had no place to live. Her ex-boyfriend tried to kill her when she revealed she was pregnant with his child, and her own father wouldn’t speak to her, he was so angry. Her mother, with whom she’d only recently been reacquainted, was living in a sober living facility, where they don’t allow children.
Elizabeth House threw her a lifeline, she said.
“My boyfriend was really abusive and it was a bad environment for me. I couldn’t imagine myself having a baby there,” she said, recounting how afraid she was at ending up on the street. They don’t allow pregnant women at most local shelters.
“This is honestly one of the best experiences I’ve ever had, because I really feel like I have a home. I’m comfortable, I’m not afraid something bad is going to happen to me and I know I’m safe,” Gallegos said, adding that now she is excited to be a new mom. “All the women there have so much love, it’s crazy. I’ve never been loved by so many people before.”
Elizabeth House offers support classes on parenting, bonding and health, as well as counseling, something Gallegos said has been instrumental in helping her recognize healthy relationships. Staff there also encourages its members to complete their schooling and consider career paths.
With its help, Gallegos, at 28 weeks pregnant, is working to complete her GED. She hopes to continue on to college and dreams of being a counselor or drug therapist.
“My goal is to be done with the GED by the time my little girl comes,” she said.
Most recently, Gallegos caught up with members of the Royal Court at Elizabeth House’s annual alumni Christmas party, where more than 250 former members, many now married with large families, joined with their spouses and little ones for a festive day with a large meal, a visit from Santa, gifts and plenty of homemade baked sweets.
Little ones dressed in their Christmas best ran and played. One volunteer swept up a curly haired toddler who ran for the door, giggling as she was wrangled in a bear hug. “This is what we do here … we do babies,” she said, laughing.
In its 23 years, Elizabeth House has served 1,079 moms and babies, not only just helping them through early motherhood, but committing to walk alongside them for the rest of their lives with support services. In 2015, the nonprofit was able to purchase a second home, kicking off a capital campaign to pay off the loan by July 2018. The second location, called the Alumni Center, will allow Elizabeth House to establish a permanent service site for alumni families, increase the number of families for whom they can give shelter, and begin a new community wellness program to extend services to at-risk pregnant women who do not need shelter but do need help, including health care, pre-/post-natal care, counseling, parenting classes, professional development and mentorship.
The Royal Court’s choosing of Elizabeth House will undoubtedly help the nonprofit reach its $1.2 million goal by July, said Debbie Unruh, founder and executive director. She said the news of the court choosing her nonprofit came as a total surprise.
“We were just thrilled … it came as a total surprise. I found out about it just about a week before the coronation — they called out of the blue and asked if we could come with our display table,” said Unruh, noting that other organizations are suddenly aware of the nonprofit’s work. “It’s been wonderful. It’s giving us exposure to a completely other dimension of the public. The girls speak about us everywhere they go.”
Several Royal Court members, meanwhile, knew about Elizabeth House through previous volunteer efforts, and were eager to bring the nonprofit to the forefront of conversation in “making a difference” in women’s lives, they said.
“We all wanted to focus on a nonprofit about women, for women, and this one really incorporates all of the things we’re passionate about into one,” said Rose Queen Isabella Marez of La Salle High School. “What’s surprised me the most are just how young some of these women are, and even though they are going through this very hard time, this struggle, they are very strong. They can handle this at only 18 and still be able to enjoy this time in their lives even facing these struggles.”
The princesses passed out candy canes to admiring little girls, and cooed at more than a few babies.
“These women have lived through some really hard times in their lives, but they’re so positive and they have such an optimistic outlook on life, and that is really inspiring to me,” said Princess Georgia Cervenka, a senior at La Cañada High School.
“And their babies are sooooo adorable!” said Princess Julianne Lauenstein, also a senior at La Cañada High School. “I think these women are very strong people; they might have had tough journeys but they’re pushing on and taking it day by day and I think that’s something we all can learn from.”
As the princesses gushed over her 2-month-old daughter, Zariah, Zhane VanDemark, talked of meeting the Royal Court at Elizabeth House, noting how curious she was about the girls.
“I really wanted to know how the process worked and how they ended up on the Rose Court … I hadn’t really known much about the tradition,” she said. “They asked me a lot of questions too, they seem to really care.”
VanDemark is transitioning out of Elizabeth House, and excited to begin her new adventure as a young mom with her baby’s father, Bruce. She came to the house after having been homeless for a time, frequenting shelters. She couldn’t live with her mom, who struggles with mental illness.
During some of the prenatal care she was getting through the nonprofit, VanDemark discovered a career passion: becoming an ultrasound technician. VanDemark knows she’ll be coming back to Elizabeth House, who is helping her find paths to community college. Through the new Alumni Center, she can use a resource library where classes and support group meetings are held.
And though Elizabeth House is “on track” to reaching its $1.2 million goal, Unruh notes she always has a larger project in mind for all the at-risk women who are alone and pregnant, or already with children and facing homelessness.
“Housing,” Unruh said, without skipping a beat. “We would love to own an apartment complex where we can house the girls and help them transition.”
To volunteer, donate or learn more about Elizabeth House, visit elizabethhouse.net.