Each month, for seven and a half years and counting, mom and portraitist Keri Vaca makes time to photograph society’s most vulnerable women.
Her clients are homeless and pregnant. Virtually all were born into poverty, and many have battled addiction or are survivors of domestic violence.
But each sought support from a celebrated nonprofit called the Homeless Prenatal Program, founded 25 years ago by a nurse and Peace Corps volunteer named Martha Ryan.
HPP has helped these women achieve extraordinary results. Over 90 percent of their high-risk pregnancies result in healthy drug-free babies, exceeding the national average for all births, including low-risk pregnancies. Just as important, thousands of at-risk women have used HPP to find jobs and obtain permanent housing.
Martha Ryan models her approach on the refugee work she did 30 years ago in East Africa. In those camps, she would train female refugees to be healthcare providers in their communities. Not only did the women gain expertise, jobs and higher status, but when administering care to fellow refugees there was no cultural divide that often hinders outside aid workers.
The same strategy is in place at HPP, where over half of the group’s 80 staff are former clients who once needed support.
“We have a policy here: we don’t judge,” Ryan told The Huffington Post. “If more than half your staff had been homeless at one point in time, had sat in that office applying for aid, being judged — they know how it feels. There but for the grace of God, we could be in that position. So we don’t judge. We believe that our clients, given the opportunity, can turn their lives around. We value them, and we respect them. And when you combine all those things together, people feel good about themselves.”
Ryan believes that pregnancy can be a vital window of opportunity for at-risk women. “In the 25 years that I’ve been doing this work, I’ve never met a woman who really wanted to hurt her unborn child,” she said. “All women who are pregnant and continuing with their pregnancy want to have a healthy baby.” As a result, she said, they take extra effort seek out support and get access to information or resources they lack.