A volunteer works on landscaping at Sojourner House.
Caroline Madigan, who has volunteered at Sojourner House for year, paints tire steps at MOMS Green in East Liberty. Photo courtesy of Sojourner House.

There’s an unassuming yard off of Black Street in East Liberty with a few pieces of play equipment and a bench that encircles a lush shade tree. That yard is a safe place to play for children whose moms are in recovery.

Sojourner House, which provides housing and treatment for mothers with substance abuse and mental health issues, owns the two lots. The large lawn provides lots of room for children to run around and play, but it doesn’t have a covered shelter for activities and educational programming or much in the way of landscaping.

Still, it looks better now that a cleanup removed the outdated play equipment and an old sandbox. A play structure and toy storage shed were added and the climbing tires were repainted.

“We partnered with the Rotary Club — shout-out to the Rotary Club,” says De’netta Benjamin-Miller, executive director of Sojourner House and Sojourner House MOMS. “They came out. They helped us really tear down old equipment that was in MOMS Green. They also are helping us with some of the planning initiatives for MOMS Green.”

Benjamin-Miller says the pandemic taught the staff about resilience, “but also being careful not to be too resilient.”

“We learned that it’s important to check in with each other to make sure that we’re not being too resilient and not being able to recognize when we’re burnt out or overwhelmed.”

The idea doesn’t just apply to the staff, she adds.

“Some of our clients are super resilient and some of them look like they are OK, but they’re not,” says Benjamin-Miller. “Inside they are struggling.”

Early in the pandemic, she says they also learned the importance of the outdoors. “When the children were being home schooled, it was so important to have that space so they could go outside and get grounded in the grass.”

The outdoor area also gave families the space they needed to see other families, yet remain socially distanced. It broke the isolation of the pandemic while people were supposed to stay apart, yet craving community.

Members of the Rotary Club of Pittsburgh worked on two Saturdays to help clean up MOMS Green in East Liberty for Sojourner House. Photo courtesy of Sojourner House.

At any given time, the three- to six-month program is generally helping 14 women, each living with their children in the program’s apartments.

Sojourner House MOMS is a separate housing program. If there is room, families can move into the Sojourner House MOMS transitional housing program, which has apartments for a dozen mothers with their children. Since they are not considered homeless, they do not qualify for the organization’s permanent supportive housing, which receives funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. It has apartments for 34 families, each for up to five years.

In the treatment program, Benjamin-Miller says, “Not only are we helping a mom with her substance abuse issues, but also we are helping a child dealing with the adjustment of having a parent again.”

While the programs receive support from the Homeless Children’s Education Fund, The Grable Foundation, Pittsburgh Penguins Foundation and local Presbyterian churches, the organization is always in need of volunteers and donations.

Ann Belser is the owner of Print, a newspaper covering Pittsburgh's East End communities. After receiving a master’s degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, she moved to Squirrel Hill and was a staff writer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette for 20 years where she covered local communities, county government, courts and business.