BURLINGTON — The pregnant young women who filled the beds at the Home for Friendless Women in Burlington 125 years ago were sent by families filled with shame, who would often claim their daughter was away visiting a relative. During their stay, the women could pick a wedding ring from a bowl near the home’s front door so that people wouldn’t stare at them when they went downtown. Rarely did they keep their baby. At the hospital, they all checked in with the same last name, Lund.
Today, chances are overwhelming that the women living at Lund are fighting a heroin or opiate addiction, and are either pregnant or about to lose custody of their child to the state. Those pregnant are given options on adoption or keeping their child, and they face a much better chance of keeping their child because of the myriad social services and government programs that were not available in 1890.
It’s hard to imagine the 10 “compassionate and resourceful” women who convinced the Vermont Legislature back then (decades before women won the right to vote) to open a home for unwed mothers (“socially abused and rejected women,” they called them) would recognize the program they started today, with its growth and expansion of services, but in some respects, the purpose is the same — helping young women and their children in a time of critical need.
“Even though much has changed, we’re still true to our original mission,” said Barbara Rachelson, the agency’s executive director for 18 years, at an anniversary celebration at the agency’s offices Monday. In its 45,625-day history, the agency has gone from being solely a home for unwed mothers to a complex social services agency that serves 5,000 people a year, is now also the state’s largest nonprofit adoption agency (several others have closed), while continuing to provide services to expectant mothers, before and after birth, including drug treatment.
‘A place worthy of respect and dignity’
In 1927, the home was renamed after a tireless supporter, Elizabeth Lund, the wife of Dr. William Lund, who had given $100,000 the year before. In 1989, it became the Lund Family Center and then just Lund in 2012. Among its clients, the mother of serial killer Ted Bundy, who was born in the women’s shelter in Burlington in 1946. (The building where he was born is gone, now the site of an office building on Shelburne Road, and Lund’s new residential building is on the property right behind it.)
A lot has changed even under Rachelson’s leadership. When she arrived in 1997, there were 35 employees and a budget of $1 million. Today, there are more than 100 staff and the budget is approximately $7 million. When she started, Rachelson said inspectors were constantly saying the bathrooms needed to be fixed where the 18 young women lived; staff members refused to shower there. Following a capital campaign, the building where the 26 women and their children live today is “a place worthy of respect and dignity.”
“We don’t want people to feel like they deserve crap because they are poor or have been abused or are struggling with addiction,’’ said Rachelson, who is also a state representative.
One big change for Lund has been the expansion into substance abuse treatment programs, a move the agency made in the early 2000s before the heroin epidemic exploded. Today, 22 of the 26 women living at the Lund residential program are fighting opiate addiction, according to Brian Southworth, Lund’s associate director of clinical services. And there’s a waiting list that could refill every bed.
Megan Clodgo of Colchester went to Lund in 2014 after she found out she was pregnant and was already hooked on heroin. A college graduate, a high school varsity athlete on the honor roll, she had been the assistant director of a 60-child day care center, overseeing a staff of 15, and knew some of the day care kids had come from Lund moms.
“I believed I was empathetic, yet I still felt a divide between their lives and mine. I believed I was above addiction,” she said. Later, she talked about her addiction to heroin: “I had it pretty well managed, until I didn’t have it managed. It happened pretty quickly.”
When she found out she was pregnant, she decided she had to get sober. She lived in the Lund home for eight months, got clean, and now has 16-month-old twin boys.
As an indicator of how Lund’s services have expanded, Clodgo also took part in programs to teach her parenting skills and to help her get a job.
“Lund has given me so much,” Clodgo said. “It is because of Lund that I can confidently say I’m an amazing parent, a better daughter, sister and friend, and I’m proud of who I am.”
A little over a year ago, Chelsea Mitchell of Burlington came to Lund, close to losing her now 3-year-old daughter, Serena, she said, because of addiction. Lund gave her “the caring push I needed in my life,” she stopped using drugs, and now “I’m able to be the Mommy she deserves.”
Gov. Peter Shumlin said Lund is needed more than ever because of doctors who “pass this stuff out like candy” and he decried recent federal drug agency approvals to allow doctors to prescribe painkillers to children and the introduction of a new painkiller that he says could have devastating effects.
“Ask Megan and Chelsea and others if that’s impacted their lives,” Shumlin said of the overprescribing of opiates.
The governor said he was proud of “the women who have the courage to come here, to do the hard work for their kids, for their future.”
Rachelson said while society is more accepting of single mothers — she credits the loosening of views in the 1970s — but she said many expectant moms still feel shame, particularly if they are fighting an addiction. But she said people should not judge pregnant young women; she told of a child raped by her stepfather and a girl prostituted by her mother.
“We don’t know when we see somebody,” she said, adding people should remain non-judgmental because “who knows what we would do if we had the same thing happen to us in our lives.”
“I think mental health and substance abuse are one of the last frontiers of stigma and shame. We don’t blame diabetics so much for eating sugar, nor should we. We need to figure out how to sort of normalize addiction” as a health problem, she said.
Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger praised the governor and other public officials for speaking out and confronting the heroin problem publicly.
“It is amazing that any organization can stay relevant for 125 years when you consider all the change the city has undergone in that time and the nation has undergone in this time,” but he said the stories of addiction showed how critical the agency remains today.
Weinberger has another reason to be a Lund fan. Two years ago, he and his wife adopted a little girl through Lund, three-hour-old Ada Champlain Weinberger.
Rachelson said Lund helped with approximately 150 adoptions involving the state and older children, as well 30 newborns like the Weinbergers’ child.
“Lund was right there for us,” the mayor said later.