COLUMBIA — In 2003, Mike Hentges had settled in for a dreary, 22-hour bus trip to Columbia after a march against abortion in Washington, D.C.
He began to think about women who found themselves pregnant with nowhere to turn — women without a family support system, home or job. He knew they could find help during a pregnancy, but what would they do after the baby was born?
"There is a void in the pro-life movement," Hentges said. "We're quick to tell them to have their children and slow to help them after the child is born."
For the next six years, he kept returning to the idea, tossing it out, then thinking about it again.
"It kept coming back to me that there needed to be a home in the central Missouri area to shelter women who choose life for their babies," Hentges said.
He finally confided in his wife in 2009, then brought the idea to a group of Catholic men he meets with weekly. He told them he felt he was being called to open a house that could offer women and their children a place to live while they saved money and became self-reliant.
By the spring of 2010, St. Raymond's Society was a reality.
The St. Raymond's Society owns a home for women in Jefferson City. The property, which it previously rented and has now purchased, provided a home and support system for 19 women and their children in the past year.
Hentges named the Society after his father, Raymond. St. Raymond is also the patron saint of unborn babies, newborn babies and expectant mothers, Hentges said.
Now the organization, which is funded by donations from the community and staffed entirely by volunteers, is looking to buy a property in Columbia.
A welcoming place to land
The six-bedroom home in Jefferson City had to be remodeled slightly to accommodate five women and their children at a time. One room is occupied by the "house mother." The first resident moved in before renovation was complete.
Krystle Good, diagnosed with cervical cancer and pregnant with her third child, heard about St. Raymond's Society through Birthright of Mid Missouri, a pregnancy resource center. She met Hentges when he brought her an application for a room in the house.
A few weeks later, she was told the sheriff would arrive that evening to evict her family from their Jefferson City home. Hentges found a group of volunteers to help move her family into St. Raymond's.
"He didn't want my kids to see the sheriff," Good said. "He didn't want us to go through that."
Good and her children moved into the home in February 2012 and stayed for three months. With the help of St. Raymond's Society and the family environment it provided, she received her GED and is now enrolled in Metro Business College to become a computer specialist.
"I promised Mike that I would get my GED," Good said. "I even wrote it on a piece of paper. ... We made goals, we did things in that house, so I had to finish that goal. I had to keep my promise."
Women and their children can stay in the St. Raymond's home for up to a year, but Hentges said the average stay is about three months. St. Raymond's volunteers help them learn to budget their money and find job opportunities. The organization, with help from other house guests, also provides child care while the women go to school or interviews.
From mobility to stability
Hentges' friend Steve Smith committed immediately to help Hentges start St. Raymond's four years ago.
Initially, the two men worked as a mobile organization in both Jefferson City and Columbia. They partnered with pregnancy resources such as Birthright and Love INC, offering families help when needed. Sometimes that meant paying for a hotel or assisting with utility bills or job searches.
"It can be a very small thing that needs to be done," Smith said.
Smith remembered one couple who were expecting their second child. They were considering abortion because the father had lost his job, the heat had been turned off, and there would be no way to warm their home through the winter.
Hentges and Smith filled the family's propane tank and helped the father find a job. The following spring, they received a picture of the couple's baby girl.
Today, the two divide responsibilities for the project. Hentges takes care of the structure of the nonprofit organization, finances and procedures. Smith focuses on networking and expansion.
The men's differing priorities help keep the organization in check. While Smith runs with the idea of becoming a national organization 10 years down the line, Hentges reminds him to focus on the local responsibilities they currently have.
"I'm kind of the accelerator; Mike's the brake," Smith said. "He's a little more cautious, but that has also saved us on things."
Growing up in a family of faith
Hentges was raised in a Catholic family, the youngest of five children.
"They (our parents) did a good job of building our family on the foundation of God," he said. "They exhibited what it meant to live as a Christian in this world, and they gave a great example of what it meant to serve one another and love your neighbor."
He wanted his parents' name to be connected to his organization and began to search for saints called Raymond, his father's name.
"When I pulled up the story (of Saint Raymond Nonnatus), the first line I saw was 'patron saint of unborn babies, newborn babies and expectant mothers,'" Hentges said.
"His story kind of parallels what we do. He spent his entire life trying to free people from lives of doom, trying to free people from lives of slavery.
"We're trying to save the mother and get her help, so she is able to make a stable life for herself. If we can do that, then the baby is saved."
Hentges said balancing his time between his family, work and St. Raymond's has been a test of his faith.
"I think God has shown us that we give it what we can, and he will bless that time that we give and return it to us multiplied," he said.
Founders say it's not about politics
Smith said some people have been hesitant to offer support to St. Raymond's because of its connection to the anti-abortion movement.
One woman, an attorney, approached Hentges and Smith to express interest in the program but hesitated and said she was pro-choice. Smith asked if she wanted to help a woman who chose to keep her baby, and the woman said yes. St. Raymond's Society called on her to provide legal advice in the wrongful termination case of a woman they were helping.
"This isn't a battle with anybody," Smith said. "We have the best interest of the woman and the child at heart."
The mission is to support mothers, Hentges said. "If we can convey that support to them while they're still in decision-making mode, it might help them make a good decision, an informed decision and not one out of fear.
"We want to actually follow through on our pro-life commitment and stand with them and say, 'If you choose to have this child, we will walk with you until you are able to walk on your own.'"
There has also been talk of expanding beyond Columbia and Jefferson City to Springfield and elsewhere, Hentges said.
The idea of St. Raymond's Society becoming bigger is scary, he said, but he is prepared to see it grow.
"Where it goes from there isn't up to me," he said.