Sheltering Homeless Moms: Q&A with Kathy DiFiore

Kathy DiFiore is the founder of Several Sources shelters in New Jersey, a network of four residential shelters for homeless teenage mothers and one daytime shelter for homeless and abused women. She also operates a 24-hour national hotline (1-800-662-2678) and five informative websites which receive about a million visitors a year.

Ms. DiFiore started her work in 1981, when she turned her own home into a shelter for unwed teenage mothers and their babies after recovering herself from an abusive marriage and period of homelessness. She has an undergraduate degree in Psychology from the University of Rochester (1969), an MBA from NYU (1979), and is currently studying for her doctorate in education. Encouraged in her work by a friendship with Mother Teresa of Calcutta, she was recognized at the White House by President Ronald Reagan in 1988. From 1970 to 1978, she was a member of the New York State Advisory Committee to the U.S. Civil Rights Committee.

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In the 2014 movie “Gimme Shelter,” DiFiore was portrayed by actress Ann Dowd. Filmed with real girls at DiFiore’s shelters, the movie tells the true story of an unwed pregnant teenager played by Vanessa Hudgens. The pro-life tale also stars Rosario Dawson, James Earl Jones, and Brendan Fraser.

On March 28, I interviewed Ms. DiFiore by email about her life and work.

How did it feel to see Vanessa Hudgens, James Earl Jones, Brendan Fraser, Rosario Dawson, and other movie stars portray your life’s work on film?

The blessings poured from heaven each and every day. The stars could not have been more kind, compassionate and understanding. You can just try to imagine working with all those babies, who got tired and needed diapers changed. Vanessa bonded with the real moms and babies during her ten day stay before the filming. By the time "Gimme Shelter" was over she truly had difficulty giving “her” baby back.  She poured her heart, her mind and her very soul into making this part real and meaningful. For that I’ll be ever grateful and so will all the young teen mothers all over the world. She told a story that needed to be told of abuse, of homelessness and of a desperate need for shelters and support people to help God’s children in need—particularly God’s young, pregnant and abandoned daughters all over the world.

Mr. Jones from the moment he stepped into the shelter simply couldn’t believe that we’d actually allow the filming to take place there.  He was so caring and bonded with everyone—especially Ron Krauss (the producer, director, and writer) and Vanessa. Mr. Jones captured the true meaning and understanding that a priest should have when counseling runaways and desperately confused, abused teens. His grand presence is outdone by his huge heart for the work at the shelter. He understood the mission. But he and his son Flynn were always asking questions about the shelter, the mothers and the precious babies. No day was too long for Mr. Jones and his heart for the work was a heaven sent blessing.

Brendan Fraser was the consummate gentleman. He could not do enough to help us with moving the babies up and down the steps whereever they needed to be. He visited two of our shelters just to get a feel for the real work even before the filming began. The day he filmed his final screen, he took Ron and me aside and asked me if I had a dollar. I gave one to Brendan and he told me that we were doing an exchange, my $1 for his whole salary on "Gimme Shelter." He said he was going to frame my dollar and hang it in his office to remind him always of the mothers and babies at our shelters. His character as a Wall Street executive who tries to run his teenage daughter’s life was just so realistic when compared to the father-daughter situations we have experienced over the past 35 years at our shelters.

And finally, we have Rosario. There is only one word to sum her up and that is “WOW!!!” How she captured the essence of the drug addicted, prostitute mother of Apple I will never know. The truth is that the real Apple (Darlisha Dozier) can no longer sit in the theater or watch Rosario’s portrayal on any size screen. It brings back such strong flashbacks that Darlisha just cries and cries. We were honored with a screening at the United Nations on Sept. 11, 2014, and Darlisha brought everyone in the Dag Hammarskjold Theater to tears as we tried to comfort her.  Rosario’s passionate concern for homeless and abused women poured into this film and consequently she brought their needs to the screen in a way that few who have seen the film will ever forget.  Note: Darlisha is now living at our shelters as a house mother.

Press materials indicated that the actors and actresses of “Gimme Shelter” donated their salaries to your shelter. Why did they do that?

Yes, they all did. They donated their love, their talents and their salaries. I know that God will reward them and Ron Krauss and his team for all they did to bring this challenging, much needed story to theaters and beyond.

Vanessa Hudgens, the former Disney star and social media icon chosen to play Apple, is not known for dramatic roles or religious sensibilities. But she identifies as Catholic and her performance in this film suggested a spiritual depth many critics hadn’t seen before. During your participation in the movie, how did you experience the more spiritual or religious side of this young actress?

Vanessa is quietly very spiritual. She was brought up in a strong Catholic family. Vanessa’s mother would come on the set, saying her Rosary and a bag of novenas to every saint. Can you imagine? She would pray all day long. Her parents and sister were so very proud of Vanessa. They truly are an example of what a supportive family should be.

You’re currently writing a study guide for "Gimme Shelter." What is your goal for this book?

Young people are still watching "Gimme Shelter." Teachers, youth group leaders and pastors are using the film to teach about teen pregnancy, homelessness, family relationships, and how to deal with confusion and upsetting times. The study guide brings faith, God and the Holy Scriptures into "Gimme Shelter" more than was originally portrayed on the screen. We toured nine cities promoting the film. Since the release of the film, we have learned through Facebook postings, letters, screenings and conversations that there is a real need for a study guide in both individual and community settings.

As Ann Dowd’s portrayal of you in the movie recalls, you were homeless yourself for a period of time. How did that happen and what was the experience like for you?

I was married to an abusive husband and when I ultimately decided I had to leave, I did so with only the clothes on my back. The experience was degrading and frightening, and it caused me great suffering, but it prepared me for the work God ultimately had in store for me.

How did you get the name “Several Sources” for your shelters?

Yes, it is a bit of a strange name. I got it after deep prayer. The concept is that we do our work by way of “several sources” like you in the media, the benefactors, the angels and the saints, and our dear most blessed mother Mary and the poor and needy we help—most of all through the young mothers who choose life for their innocent preborn babies.

How do your shelters operate and what is their goal?

The shelters operate on faith: pure faith. We speak at churches and take up a free will offering, we have raffles and fundraisers including an annual golf outing. I write appeals to our donor base. Anyone can visit us and get involved by going to our website at www.severalsources.net

Our goal is very simple. We are here to save as many of God’s innocent preborn babies as possible and teach their young mothers about his holy word and will. We want to see that they all get to heaven as his loving children filled to overflowing with his divine wisdom.

You’ve been a devout Catholic for a long time. Who are your role models?

My heroes are the Holy Trinity and Jesus—in a special way because He reopened the gates of heaven for us by his innocent death on the cross. Our Blessed Mother is a hero because of her example of faith, humility, sacrifice and complete devotion to her divine son and his teachings.

There are also St. Michael the Archangel and all the angels who have gotten me out of a lot of difficulties over the years. St. Joseph and St. Anthony for their closeness to the Christ Child. St. Catherine of Siena for her wisdom and strength. St. Catherine Laboure for revealing to us through our Lady the importance of Mary’s Immaculate Conception. This is where we first truly were taught that children receive their souls at the very moment of conception. And finally St. John Paul II and Blessed Mother Teresa because they have helped me in my ministry in ways too numerous to count.

My work started with the prayer of St. Francis of Assisi, “Make me a channel of Your Peace.”

How has your faith changed or evolved in the course of your life’s work?

My faith and my life’s work are ONE. Mother Teresa once wrote me: Kathy, “Pray the work.”

So few words with so much meaning. I pray and I make my work for Our Lord my prayer too; thus I look forward to every hour of the day and night if necessary. What most people don’t know is that I have had cancer for over 15 years. Every three weeks I receive a very special chemotherapy. So it is very easy to be holy and close to God. I’m thinking my next book after the Gimme Shelter Study Guide will have something to do with coping with cancer and disease. Each time I step out on the pavement at the hospital, I say to God, “OK, Lord, You have me for three more weeks. Do with me what you want. I’m Yours! AMEN.”

How do you pray?

I enjoy praying the rosary and the Divine Mercy Chaplet. I pray all throughout the day with small prayers or a decade of the holy rosary. Actually, I wear my mother’s rosary beads around my neck. I bless them with holy water every day as I take on the challenges the Lord has in store for me. His assignments can be very unusual, like "Gimme Shelter," or very sweet—like holding a newborn while the baby’s mother takes a well deserved rest.

How does Catholicism influence your approach to the work you do?

I LOVE MY FAITH. To be totally honest, I wish everyone had a chance to be Catholic for a period of time. Can you imagine how peaceful and how holy the world would become? Many of our benefactors are Catholic. Many if not all of the churches where we are allowed to speak and take up a free will offering are Catholic. We have over 40 councils of the Knights of Columbus supporting us. But most of all I love the Mass and my devotion to Our Blessed Mother, Queen of the Angels and Saints. I have a very special place in my heart for Jesus and St. Michael.

I feel a bit sorry for the Holy Spirit, because I can be a bit stubborn and impatient at times. So when he needs me to get something done, I say my “Two by Four” prayer which gives him permission to take some heavenly wood—remember Jesus was a carpenter—and hit me over the head until I understand what God wants me to do. And I promise that as soon as he gets my attention, I will do it. I also ask God each and every day to help me set my priorities. There just is so very much to do! Raising the money to take care of our mothers and their babies, our homeless women and needy families is a huge responsibility. And I have my talks to give, a new book to write, another movie in its development stage, and a couple of even more “secret” possibilities we are working on. One never knows what is going to happen when you decide to say “Yes” to Christ’s invitation: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24).

What’s the best part of your work?

Holding the “saved” babies. Once I was sitting at the dining room table at our main shelter where "Gimme Shelter" was filmed.  I felt a presence pass by me and it felt like someone was humming. I thought, how strange. And the thought immediately came to me that it was Jesus. The world outside is so harsh and difficult, I guess he needed a “baby break” and decided to stop by.

That was confirmation that the very best part of my job (and maybe his job too) is the babies. This is why we must do all that we can do to save each and every one of them.

What’s the hardest part of your work?

Oh my. It’s even difficult to respond to the question. The most difficult part is learning that a woman you are counseling has decided to terminate her pregnancy. What a suffering that is for Jesus and all in heaven. Recently, I saw a bronze statue of him at Ave Maria Law School in a beautiful garden. The statue was life size. Jesus was sitting with one hand up to his divine forehead and four huge tears were streaming down his face as he held an innocent preborn baby about 10-12 weeks after conception in the palm of his hand. Both wrists showed the nail piercings. I thought: “This is more real than I ever imagined in 35 years. He is mourning the loss of this child but he is also thinking of the future plans—of God’s plans and the lost destiny of this poor little baby.” 

We must pray for these little ones, their confused mothers and all involved in this work that clearly breaks the heart of our dear Lord, our Father and the most Holy Spirit.

Some people find it hard to do social work without getting burned out. What keeps you grounded and committed to your work with homeless teenage moms after so many years?

God’s love is always present to those who seek to serve Him. He would never ask us to do a service for Him and not give us the means to complete the task He needs done. “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you” (Matthew 7:7).

What do you hope people will take away from your life and work?

There is no one better to work for than God, himself. Be available to his divine call—whatever it may be—and know he will comfort, protect and guide you every hour of the day if you ask it of him.

What’s your favorite scripture passage and why?

I have so many of them but the one I’m favoring these days is Matthew 21:21. Jesus replied, "Truly I tell you, if you have faith and do not doubt, not only can you do what was done to the fig tree, but also you can say to this mountain, 'Go, throw yourself into the sea,' and it will be done.”

I sum Jesus’s words up to simply say “Don’t Doubt.” I say it all day long, and I say it to our mothers and our house mothers. We must have faith in what God is calling us to do. What is the purpose of doubting Him? We must be humble servants and, as Mother Teresa advised, “be a pencil in his hand.”

What did you give up for Lent this year?

Sleep. There is so much work to be done and it seems so little time to do it in. I promised myself I would get 7 or 8 hours sleep a night. But to keep our baby saving efforts alive, I sometimes must sacrifice my sleep. I don’t know what God thinks of this, but in my heart I understand that the mothers and the babies must always come first.

What are your hopes for the future?

My hope is that "Gimme Shelter" continues to heal through God’s grace the broken hearts of those who like Apple have found themselves in foster care or on the streets—homeless, abused and in some cases pregnant. I have read letters and posts on Facebook that say things like: “I am 18 and have been abused all my life. Gimme Shelter gives me hope. Thank you.” I hope that our work pleases God and that he will send an army of his holy angels and saints to help us continue our baby saving efforts, as Our Lady reminds us to “do whatever he tells you” (John 2: 5).

Do you have any final thoughts?

Yes, I am pleased to have writer-producer-director Ronald Krauss’ approval to announce that his next film about our work is in the development stage. This film will focus on the time before Apple lived at our shelter and tell the David and Goliath story of the $10,000 fine I was given in 1984 for housing unwed mothers and their babies in my own private home. This 15-month struggle cost me my job and led to some very difficult decisions for me. The legal battle was relentless as the New Jersey state senate, assembly and governor all became involved, as did the White House and even Mother Teresa. I learned in those days how miracles do happen in the midst of tears and confusion for our teen mothers and their babies.

So I ask your prayers and the prayers of all those reading this article as we begin another mission to tell stories which we hope our dear Lord will find successful in meeting his divine goals.

Sean Salai, S.J., is a contributing writer at America.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Gabriel Marcella
2 years 8 months ago
An inspiring account of faith,love, and commitment to the cause of life by a remarkable person. Thank you, Sean.

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