St. Luke's Mission of Mercy, which has tended to the corporal works of mercy for nearly 20 years, will expand its ministry by creating a gated community for at-risk mothers and children. The first house in Gospa Village is expected to open this spring.
The neighborhood will allow mothers and their children to live together with a missionary volunteer, who will serve as a nanny and aid, to allow the mother to work or go to school. A community center will be available for classes on basic home economics and parenting.
Amy Betros, co-founder and co-director of St. Luke's, hopes to have 14 houses up in the village within the next seven years. All houses will have four bedrooms and two bathrooms, a great room, living area, kitchen and laundry all on one floor. St. Luke's has bought 22 parcels of land from the city of Buffalo between Sycamore Street, Oberlin, Ruhland and Walden avenues. The backs of the houses will face the street with the fronts facing each other. The village will include a playground for kids, a gazebo and a garden.
Betros and Norm Paolini already run homes for women, men and teens. They have helped people with abuse, drug and mental health issues.
"Everybody's situation is different. What's the definition of 'at risk?'" Betros asked. "It could be someone who is grieving and could fall into a depression. At any moment they could be at risk. It could be someone whose mental disorder is really under control, then something happens with the medicine. It could be people at risk of being deported. At risk to me means anyone with an issue that needs help, and they would need someone to be with them to help."
The goal of the village is to keep the children with their mothers. Often Social Services will separate families, which Betros believes is detrimental for the well-being of both.
"We believe that when mothers and children are together while the issues are being dealt with, that mother does better and so do the children. Then they both get better," she said. "The greatest gift we can give society is to keep mothers and children together. That's our biggest problem, when we break families. When they don't have mothers, they're lost. They go to gangs to find love. They go to the streets to find love. When the mothers have problems that's our job to work with them, to live with them, to help them."
St. Luke's has worked with mothers with addictions since its inception. Today all the mothers are clean, and the children have gone on to college and Catholic high schools.
An associate missionary will live with the families to help out, allowing the mother to go to school or receive counseling. She will serve a role like a nanny or extended family member, who helps out with the children, allowing the mothers to accept the dual role of caretakers for their children and themselves. The community setting will also allow neighbors to help one another.
"We want to go back to the old days where everybody helps each other. Take that step back and work together," Betros said. "Recently, one of our families found their grandmother had passed away, and the whole community came out for it. I was so proud of them. That was the way it used to be."
The name Gospa comes from the Croatian word for mother. Since having a conversion experience in Medjugorje, Yugoslavia, Betros has had a desire to thank the Blessed Mother with a project like this.
St. Luke's, which formed in 1994, feeds the hungry by providing two meals a day to the needy. They shelter the homeless through Good Shepherd House for men in recovery, St. John Bosco House for teens, and clothe the naked through St. Luke's Mall, which provides clothes and small appliances. They also visit the sick and open their church for burials of those who have nowhere else to go.
During a Nov. 15 groundbreaking, Assemblyman Robin Schimminger and Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples spoke, as did members of the St. Luke's team and those contributing their services to the village.
"I look forward to the ribbon cutting and I look forward to the families and the children who are able to live here safe and sound in a good community," said Peoples.
David Knauss, co-founder of Lehigh Construction Group based in Orchard Park, met Betros while working at St. Luke's through a mission project called Churches in Action 16 years ago. Betros laid out her vision to him. "She felt God had sent me there that day to be her contractor for the future," Knauss said.
He will serve as a liaison between St. Luke's and the contractors who build the homes.
"I'm inspired by Amy and what they do and how they essentially give grace to God here everyday. All of us probably wish we could devote our lives to God. In one small way we can come here and help with what the whole mission of St. Luke's is trying to accomplish," he said.
Construction is expected to begin early next year.
St. Luke's Mission of Mercy is a subsidiary of Madonna of the Streets, of which Betros and Paolini serve as president and vice president. Gospa Village, like St. Luke's and Our Lady of Hope Child Services, will have a director and board.