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Heart Change: Zionsville teacher serves inner-city mothers, children

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By Mark Ambrogi

Cathy Dwyer has always had a soft spot for babies. That led the Zionsville resident to volunteer with Heart Change Ministries.

“A friend of mine, Sarah Shaw, that was volunteering told me they needed help in the nursery, and that was the little hook that got me in,” Dwyer said.

Five years later she is involved way beyond that.

Heart Change Ministries was founded in February 2006 with the stated mission to help mothers in crisis and encourage them to be the women God created them to be.

“It’s a faith-based program for inner-city moms and preschoolers, primarily,” said Dwyer, who is now part of the nonprofit’s leadership team.

The target area is the Brookside neighborhood, on the east side of Indianapolis.

The faith-based nonprofit holds classes in the Oaks Academy Middle School, a former Indianapolis Public Schools building.

Classes are held Monday and Wednesday mornings for newcomers to the program.

“The longer they’re with us, we have a have a little more advanced class called Mothers University, which is three mornings a week,” Dwyer said. “There are basic classes for things such as parenting skills, health and nutrition and how to take care of their children.”

In addition, there is GED tutoring.

Dwyer said a free lunch is served after the classes, and even lunch becomes a learning exercise.

“Many of these moms never grew up eating around a table, so we teach engaging with your child,” Dwyer said. “We’re teaching basic life skills. Many of them didn’t have a loving mother themselves, so how do you learn how to take care of your own kids if you didn’t learn from your own mom? Most of them want to be good moms.”

Most are single mothers, Dwyer said.

Graduates from the program enter the work initiative, where they learn to make soaps covered by fabrics. The items are sold in a couple of boutiques in Indianapolis or during show home tours.

“Anything we make from selling the soaps goes back into paying the women,” Dwyer said.

The group gets referrals from Crisis Pregnancy Centers, some inner-city churches and the court systems. Most of the mothers are between 17 and 30 years old.

“Most have dropped out of high school and want a GED or want to become involved in the program,” Dwyer said. “We’re trying to help them help themselves. It’s been an eye-opening experience.”

Dwyer helps volunteers in a variety of areas.

“I started out working in the nursery holding babies because I love babies,” Dwyer said. “My son was out of the house, and it just grew and grew as you get more involved in the kids’ lives and the mothers’ lives. Now I teach a couple of classes, one for the beginning level, and one more advanced about relationships.”

Many of Dwyer’s Zionsville neighbors give her donated items for mothers. She also helps provide transportation to the school.

There is a full curriculum for the pre-schoolers. Dwyer has experience, as she taught high school French for several years. When the family moved to Zionsville 18 years ago, she became a part-time French teacher. She teaches one hour in the morning at Eagle Elementary before heading to her volunteer work.

“Most of the volunteers on the leadership team are between (age) 50 and 60 because the vast majority are in the same situation,” Dwyer said. “Their kids are raised and they’re in college or beyond. There a few exceptions to that.”

Making the move

Cindy Palmer, a former Carmel resident, is the nonprofit’s co-founder and serves as the managing director. Palmer and her husband moved to Brookside neighborhood in mid-May. Shaw, another ex-Carmel resident who serves as spiritual development director, also moved to Brookside. The neighborhood is called Covenant Community Housing.

There has been a Heart Change effort to buy up deserted homes in the Brookside area. A builder renovated the buildings for a very low fee, allowing them to rent the duplexes for some of the mothers and the children.

“There are four Heart Change volunteers, including me, living there,” said Palmer, who has four grown children. “There are a lot of things you can teach better as a neighbor. The idea is to have the mothers move into places where things are going to work right and the energy bills won’t be through the roof. The idea is the mothers are there to encourage one another. They can share things, like a lawn mower, and help one another. Our ladies live in surviving mode and we want them to live in thriving mode.”

For more, visit heartchangeindy.org.


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