It’s not unusual for first-time visitors to miss the Elizabeth House because they’re expecting some type of facility or some place more clinical.
They’re not looking for a house that matches all the others in its central Pasadena neighborhood, the place where La Cañada Flintridge’s Kate Rhymer has always felt right at home among women who are receiving not only much-needed shelter, but equally important support and love.
Since 1994, the two-story residence has served as a safe spot for the region’s homeless women and their children. Rhymer — who was honored at the organization’s annual gala this spring — has been integral to its function.
Elizabeth House seeks to end the cycle of homelessness and abuse for many pregnant women and new mothers via comprehensive care management, counseling, education and enrichment classes, prenatal care and other related resources — including a healthy family atmosphere.
“It’s such a family feel,” Rhymer said. “Once you walk in the door, you realize it is a home, and it’s a home in so many ways.”
The women staying at Elizabeth House at any one time eat dinner together, like a family, four nights a week. “[Executive Director] Debbie [Unruh] will tell you that the dining room table is the most important piece of furniture we have,” Rhymer said. “Eating dinner family-style is a real bonding piece of the program.”
They also have the opportunity to bond with mentors, some of whom will be with them at the birth of their babies, offering support and care that the women wouldn’t otherwise have as their children enter the world.
Rhymer was in the delivery room recently, having been asked by a woman whom she is mentoring to join her for what turned out to be a three-day-long delivery.
“I just couldn’t imagine her being there by herself,” Rhymer said. “I tag-teamed with one of our doulas who works with us and made sure somebody was there — and that was the whole point of Debbie starting the program. Women shouldn’t be by themselves.”
Rhymer’s first visit to Elizabeth House was with the Girl Scouts years earlier, but she jumped in wholeheartedly in 2008. Since then, Rhymer has contributed as a mentor, a volunteer coordinator, a financial contributor, a board member and overall “cheerleader.”
“I’m the connector,” Rhymer said. “My husband used to say, ‘You collect people, don’t you?’”
Rhymer lost her husband, Don, at 51, in 2012 after a three-year battle with head and neck cancer.
She said she didn’t discuss her loss with the women at Elizabeth House, but that being there, helping others with their problems, proved cathartic.
“She found something that so touched her heart, to give back to,” Unruh said. “Kate really embodies a person that just really gets it — to be a listening ear and to create a nonjudgmental space with [the women] and to encourage and empathize with them, to explore their dreams, their skills, their motherhood, just to really walk alongside them.”
“Kate is a phenomenal person,” said Terri Bright, the director of programs.
“She leads with her heart. It’s rare that you find people like Kate who give so wholeheartedly. I respect her very much, I admire her and I’m definitely very, very pleased to call her one of my dear, dear friends.”
For all of that, Rhymer was pleasantly surprised to be honored for her volunteerism at this year’s gala, a successful event that was attended by her three adult children. In retrospect, that should have been a clue, Rhymer joked, but it wasn’t until she’d been recognized did she connect the dots.
She visits either Elizabeth House or the Alumni House for women who’ve moved out a few times a week, she says. Donating her time to coordinate the roles of volunteers, fitting them with duties that make the most sense for their skills and schedules.
“We look for people who are willing to either jump in and be at the house and just walk through the door and say, ‘What can I help with?’” Rhymer said. “‘Do you need me to answer phones? Change diapers? Drive somebody to a doctor’s appointment? Take somebody to court? Hold babies while mom takes a shower?’ And other volunteers help with our events, our alumni workshops, our Christmas party. It’s a broad base.”
And so she has a request: Visit elizabethhouse.net, read about the volunteer opportunities available, and come, see if you can spot Elizabeth House on your first visit.