Latoya Greenwood bows her head in prayer, and leads the table in grace.
It is a simple dinner - pork chops, candied yams, stuffing - prepared by one of the residents of the home. The conversation centers on jobs and housing. Tequilla Kitt, who's going to construction school, talks about buying a cordless drill. Her two-year-old son, Raekwon Brock, circles the table, unwilling to stand still even for a bite.
"He's not a good eater," Ms. Kitt says with motherly concern. "That's why he's so thin."
The women eat and clean up quickly; it's time to get the kids ready for bed.
Here at Guiding Star Ministries, a home for unwed mothers in the West Oak Lane section of northeast Philadelphia, life has strict parameters: chores, curfews, counseling, Bible study, limits on telephone use. But it's a roof over their heads - and a place to prepare for a future on their own. The women must be at least 18 and have no substance-abuse problems.
In the days before legal abortion, and today's readier acceptance of out-of-wedlock child-bearing, such homes were common, even if discussed only in hushed tones. After Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court ruling that legalized abortion 25 years ago, demand for such homes plummeted.
Now, the numbers may be rising again, according to Loving and Caring, a Lancaster, Pa., organization that advises homes for unwed mothers. The group's files show 532 such homes nationwide - some housing women only through childbirth, the others offering longer-term care - but a spokeswoman says the figures aren't comprehensive. There is no national clearinghouse of information on this issue.
Homes like Guiding Star, located in a former rectory next to St. Benedict's Catholic Church, represent the flip side in the abortion debate: The women who are choosing, despite difficult circumstances, to go forward with an unplanned pregnancy and either raise their babies themselves or give them up for adoption.
Guiding Star, and other places like it, also represents abortion foes' answer to charges that the pro-life movement only cares about babies until they're born. Guiding Star, in fact, often takes in women who have already had their babies and need help. But for all the women, the focus is on building productive lives.
"Sometimes when a daughter comes home pregnant, the parents' first reaction is, 'You have to go,' " says Denise Miller, Guiding Star's house director. "The founders wanted someplace safe where a woman could sit back and think about her options."
Abortion, however, is not on the list. For those considering adoption, a local agency called Bethany Christian Services sends a counselor to Guiding Star weekly to discuss possibilities.
Ms. Greenwood, mother of a six-month-old boy, Nyim, says she knew from the start she'd have her baby and raise him.
"I don't believe in abortion," says the pretty young woman, offering her son a bottle of formula. "I'm a Christian, and that's how I was raised."
Greenwood had already been out of her mother's house and on her own for several years - "I've lived in 13 places since I was 16," she reports - when she got pregnant. She was working at a grocery store, but developed complications in the pregnancy and lost her job, she says.
So she moved in with a girlfriend. A few months after Nyim was born, her friend asked her to leave. Greenwood was ready to go live in a shelter when a local family-support service suggested she contact Guiding Star.
She's been here since September and can stay for 18 months, the limit all the women face. But Greenwood is eager to go to medical-records school, find a good job, and support herself and her son. Like the other women, she collects welfare, $158 every two weeks, which is dispersed according to the house rules: 35 percent to Guiding Star for rent, 35 percent into a personal savings account, and the rest for pocket money. Her food stamps are pooled with the other residents' for the house groceries.
Nyim's father has been in jail since Greenwood was 2-1/2 months pregnant. She says when he's out, he plans to get a job and join his family.
Tequilla Kitt, mother of Raekwon, the rambunctious two-year-old, is nearing the end of her 18 months and is something of an elder stateswoman among the four women currently at Guiding Star. Her story is similar to Greenwood's: she didn't get along with her family, moved from place to place, and wound up on the street after the baby was born.
She, too, identifies her religious beliefs as simply "Christian." In fact, none of the women here is Roman Catholic, though the house last year came under the auspices of the St. Vincent de Paul Society, a Catholic organization. (Other funds come from donations and pro-life groups.)
Ms. Kitt speaks about the stresses of group living, and about the 12 girls who have left Guiding Star during her time there because of personal problems. "I'd rather have my own place," says Kitt, an assertive, self-possessed young woman.
She complains that her boyfriend, Raekwon's father, is too controlling. "He calls every day and asks what I'm wearing," she says, explaining that because she's in carpentry school with a group of men, he's worried some other guy will make a move on his woman. Kitt says she'll marry him someday, but for now, "I'm looking out for me and my son." She's given up having sex until she's married, she says, because when you have sex, you have to be prepared to have a baby. She calls abortion "disgusting."
Denise Miller, the house director, is clearly proud of "the girls." Her story is a lesson in how to recover from early, unwed motherhood and go on to lead a productive life. As a college student 16 years ago, she got pregnant, had her daughter, and dropped out - despite her mother's advice to have an abortion.
Ms. Miller is now an executive secretary at Lincoln University near Philadelphia, and runs Guiding Star on the side, usually dropping by in the evening to check on things. A resident runs the house during the day.
Maternity homes like Guiding Star get little attention in the media, say abortion opponents, because they choose to spend money on services, not public relations. But interest in setting up such homes is on the rise, says Carol Risser of the group Loving and Caring. She bases her judgment on the increase in calls in the past few years by people requesting materials.
* Parts 1 and 2 of this series ran Wednesday and Thursday.