By Steve Flairty
There was a time in America’s past when unmarried, pregnant young ladies would “go away,” have their babies in a hospital and leave out the back door in order not to be seen. An adoption agency would systematically process the newborn to a waiting party, then receive payment for services. For those involved personally and for those presumed “guilty,“ the matter was one not to be discussed, mainly because of the humiliating stigma attached.
“The whole thing was considered a very shameful experience, and it was as if they made it as hard on the mother as they could,” noted Joan Smith, who has devoted her adult life to helping young, unwed mothers navigate this tumultuous time.
Smith, as an emergency room and labor-delivery nurse before she gave birth to her own two boys in the early ‘70s, saw her passion for human life and dignity develop roots. Along with her own physical complications that resulted in a miscarriage, the experiences motivated her to make it a nearly full-time avocation. “When I saw the first baby born, I knew that’s where I wanted to be,” said Smith.
Judging by her productive pro-life work – and success over many years – her instincts seem totally correct.
Smith left the nursing profession about the time that the Supreme Court ruled on the legality of abortion, but she did not leave the nurturing of young life. She spoke and participated frequently in groups and gatherings, passionately advocating pro-life issues. She was involved in PLUS Line, an organization for distressed young women with unplanned pregnancies to call for emergency guidance—started by both doctors and nurses, who, according to Smith, “were the ones who really started the pro-life movement..”
In 1989, she founded St. Elizabeth’s Regional Maternity Center, a Catholic Charities agency, in New Albany, Ind. Some philosophical differences with St. Elizabeth’s led Smith in 1997 to start a new work in nearby Jeffersonville called Noah’s Ark Children’s Village. The mission of the Noah’s Ark program was to provide a loving environment for abused or neglected foster children in a community-oriented setting.
In 2006, New Albany-native Smith, now living in Jeffersonville, took a look around the city of Louisville, where she attends church and has many friends. She explained that “there had been five maternity homes…and they had all closed their doors.” That fact set her focus on the unmet needs of this population in the city.
“When the last one closed, I said ‘I’m going to start a maternity home (in Louisville)’,” remarked Smith.
The Lifehouse Center is now thriving at 2710 Riedling Drive in Louisville. Smith is the director of the maternity home, a place of hope “… for pregnant young women who have made the courageous choice to have their babies and need our support.” There are currently spaces for 16 residents. The program is Christian-based, but inter-denominational.
House mothers live with the residents to offer guidance and support. For those who choose to place their baby for adoption, help is given in the process. Lifehouse takes no fee for the adoption, however.
“That might tend to influence the way we counsel the person,” Smith said. “It is important to know that by not charging for an adoption the mother can never say that we cared more for the baby than we did for her.”
No government money is used, and the non- profit maternity home deals with a cost of about $800 per day to operate. The money comes from gifts from private individuals, businesses and foundations.
Smith involves herself in Lifehouse work about 60 hours per week. “I fly by the seat of my pants a lot, but my training as an ER nurse has helped,” she said. “I believe with all my heart that God will provide.”
She speaks at churches, clubs and sometimes on radio shows. She has a reputation as open and transparent, both in regard to talking about admission for interested persons and to the public about the home‘s program.
But she also is known as being diplomatic. When the news broke that Lifehouse would become a part of the neighborhood, some nervous concern surfaced.
“Within two hours, I met in someone’s living room with the association’s members and they became very supportive, even offering to help,” said Smith.
The rules for staying at Lifehouse are strict, Smith admits, and some people are not suited for the high expectations. She’s even had to dismiss residents who didn’t cooperate.
“It hurts,” she said, “when you see the potential in some young women, and then to see them turn their back on what they can become as a mother.”
Dr. Dennis Kaufman, a part-time licensed pastoral counselor at Lifehouse who, along with Smith, founded the Center, praised Smith as both “visionary and energetic…a person who’s passion in these matters runs deep.”
Smith’s focus to help has found company with multitudes of others who support Lifehouse. She talked about people like Val Henson, a building contractor who has donated much of the work on the Riedling Drive house – “a house,” said Smith, “we had no money for when we bought.” There are more stories like a young man who mowed the lawn because he just wanted to help; an accountant keeps the books without pay; a woman who made the house’s curtains; and local chefs have provided meals for residents.
“My goal is to present the mission and hope that people want to be a part of it. Lifehouse is not me, or anything I did,” Smith said. “I’m just an instrument.”
Becky Edmonson, a friend, remarked, “She gets others excited about Lifehouse and they want to follow. What drives Joan is she has a calling from God. Her courage and strength comes from the Lord. The sacrifice is (that) the work never ends. You can only do what she has done if you have s supportive husband, and she does. I admire Joan because the work is hard and you can suffer from burnout, but she has built three homes, three separate ministries.”
Winnie Walker volunteers at Lifehouse, as well as formerly at Noah’s Ark. She knows Joan Smith well. “Joan is not just about ‘saving the children,’” said Walker. “She has a love for the family surrounding them. She has a willingness to sacrifice her pleasures and desires. She could be sitting home and playing golf, bridge or shopping. She lives her faith.”
Steve Flairty is a lifelong Kentuckian, teacher, public speaker and author of four books: a biography of Kentucky Afield host Tim Farmer and three in the Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes series. All of Steve’s books are available around the state or from the author. Steve is a senior correspondent for Kentucky Monthly as well as being a weekly KyForward contributor. Watch his KyForward columns for excerpts from all his books. His most recent book, Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes for Kids is now available at local bookstores, and Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes #3, Steve’s fifth book, will be released in early 2013. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or “friend” him on Facebook. (Steve’s photo by Ernie Stamper)
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