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Corsages and brunch - for homeless moms

For 13 years, Eva Mendez's life has been shadowed by instability, including nine years of homelessness. But during that time she has cherished the comforting certainty of one stable holiday: a gala Mother's Day celebration given especially for impoverished mothers.

This Sunday will be no exception. At noon, Mrs. Mendez will enter a festively decorated church basement on Boston's upscale Newbury Street. There she will join 200 homeless and low-income women for a dinner that includes steak, scallops, stuffed mushrooms, and chocolate torte.

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"It's the best Mother's Day you've ever seen," says Mendez, her eyes sparkling. "They're going to have those little shrimp cocktails stuck in a cup, and they have dancing and music." The event is sponsored by the Women's Lunch Place, a day shelter in Boston.

Giving homeless women "the best Mother's Day" has become the goal of a small but growing number of charitable groups across the country.

At a time when families, particularly women and children, constitute the fastest-growing and most invisible part of the homeless population, celebrations like this offer a day of respite and tribute, an acknowledgment that maternal ties deserve honoring, whatever the harsh circumstances of a woman's life.

"Homelessness sometimes takes away a feeling of being worthy of a personal connection or a sense that they have anything to give," says Jane Alexander, cofounder of the Women's Lunch Place. "Mother's Day is our way of affirming that, in the best sense, these women have not failed."

At the Women's Lunch Place, floral centerpieces will decorate tables covered with purple and white linens. A five-piece orchestra will play songs from the 1940s, and guests will receive corsages and gifts donated by local merchants. Children are welcome.

Many of the women traditionally wear outfits newly chosen from clothes donated to the shelter. "They really come transformed," says Ms. Alexander.

"Sometimes it's the first time they've seen each other in a dress. There's a lot of ribbing. They say, 'You've got legs!' "

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A similar spirit prevails in San Francisco, where 25 young mothers, all residents of Hamilton Family Center, an emergency shelter, will begin Mother's Day preparations Sunday morning. Hair stylists and makeup artists will set up a temporary salon at the shelter, then treat the women to makeovers.

"The mothers are really proud to have their kids see them looking good," says Dorothy Kawesch, a board member. "Their kids look at them with pride in their eyes. These women have their need for dignity, just like everyone else."

Later the women will be chauffeured to a downtown restaurant for brunch, served by owner Harry Denton. While they celebrate, their children will be cared for at the shelter.

"The bottom line is, this is a day of pampering," says Ms. Kawesch. "It really is an identifying day for them. They don't have the house, the home, the domesticity that is usually associated with being a mom. But this day is one when they get to affirm a reality: 'I am a mother.' "

That affirmation takes a poetic form at the Mary Jane Home Enrichment Center in Philadelphia. When 65 homeless mothers gather for a Mother's Day dinner, some will read poems they have written about motherhood.

Located in a blighted area of north Philadelphia that executive director Edna Williams likens to "a third-world-country zone," the center serves women whose problems include addiction to cocaine or alcohol. During the Mother's Day fete, Ms. Williams plays what she describes as "spiritual tapes on a boom box. We say, 'Let God help you.' We win them like that, and they come." The group also sings "songs of praise."

Undeterred by a modest budget, Williams and her staff make pink and white crepe-paper corsages for the women.

Mother's Day, she says, is not about receiving new gifts in fancy wrapping. "It's about taking a brown paper bag and using a magic marker to draw a picture on it, and putting a nice pair of shoes in it. Or you take aluminum foil and put a bottle of perfume in it." All items have been donated.

"Ninety-five percent of the time we improvise, but we still get the job done," says Williams.

On a grander scale, tomorrow the Volunteers of America will hold "I Remember Mama" luncheons in 22 cities, from New Orleans to Sheridan, Wyo., and from San Diego to Rochester, N.Y. The events will honor older low-income mothers who would otherwise be alone.

At the group's Boston site, women over the age of 100 will gather at one table. Elderly Chinese, Hispanic, and Russian women, all accompanied by translators, will also attend. And two tables will be reserved for grandmothers who are raising grandchildren.

"Some of the grandmothers raising their grandchildren, they're the backbone of so much of the community," says Leslie Ahern, a Volunteers of America staff member. "They keep the kids going to school and out of gangs, and they clean our offices at night. But where are they honored, where are they heralded?"

Ms. Ahern recalls the appreciation one participant expressed last year. "She said to me, 'You know, honey, I cleaned here at the Park Plaza [Hotel] for over 10 years. I never dreamed I'd be here in the ballroom as a guest. Thank you, honey.' "

For Mendez, who began attending the Women's Lunch Place events when she had no permanent address, Sunday's party will serve as a reminder of the progress she has made in recent years. Although her life is more stable now - she lives in a subsidized apartment and serves as the "main baby sitter" for grandchildren while their parents work - she values the friendship and support she finds at the Mother's Day gala.

As Alexander explains, "In a place where there isn't power and status and money, where there are no traditional signs of success, acts of kindness and generosity and compassion are our true gifts to each other on a daily basis. If you look at the larger aspect of Mother's Day, it's really a celebration of nurturance and a maternal kind of love. We see that all the time here."

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