LAKEWOOD RANCH -- The journey of SOLVE Maternity Homes will be celebrated Saturday when more than 450 guests pack the Polo Grill's Fete Ballroom beginning at 6 p.m. in Lakewood Ranch to hear retiring director Donna Vellenga share stories from her three decades of service.
During her time first as a volunteer and then director of SOLVE, a home for women facing pregnancy alone, Vellenga never wanted to see a woman left by herself when she chose to keep a pregnancy.
When she got involved as a volunteer, SOLVE had one house where Vellenga worked as a house mother for six women who lived there. Today the program has three locations that house 20 women and a support staff of employees and volunteers.
Although there still isn't a place for new moms and babies to go in Manatee County, Vellenga decided it was time for her to retire from the program.
"I'm leaving SOLVE when it is solid, It is growing and has a great five-year plan. They want to bring in transitional housing because there is no place for our moms and young babies to go. There are a lot of good things going on," she said. "I also have four grown married children and seven grandchildren and I don't want to miss out on that part of my life."
In many ways, however, the young moms and children of SOLVE consider Vellenga family.
"She's just meant everything to me. When I came here I was at a point where I didn't have a lot of support, especially from my family," said resident and new mom Tonae Rodgers, 24. "She's wise. Being able to see her every day and get a kind word from her and get support meant everything to me."
Now the single mother of newborn son Javier, Rodgers said, "She was there for me the day I got saved and she's been there for me ever since."
Already the mother of three children who were being care for by her in-laws, Katherine Ganey, 27, thought about Vellenga and SOLVE after she found herself pregnant and homeless. "My husband was in a vehicle accident in December of last year and wasn't able to work. We lost our house. April of last year, my husband was arrested. I was by myself and didn't have anywhere to go. I couldn't ask my in-laws because they were taking care of my three kids, so I came here to stay."
While Rodgers searched the Internet to find SOLVE, Ganey remembered Vellenga from when the director had worked at Bradenton Christian School and was a volunteer for SOLVE. That was more than a decade ago.
"Its been amazing, I absolutely love it here. I was all by myself; I didn't really have anywhere to go, being pregnant," Ganey said. "I really couldn't bounce from couch to couch. When I came here I didn't have much of anything. Up in attic they have maternity clothes. We can use them and donate them back when we're done. They have toiletries, absolutely everything," Ganey said.
Vellenga works in a different building than where the women live, but she makes a point to come over and meet the residents.
"At Christmas she comes and cooks the same meal for us that she cooks for her family. Her spouse serves us. She reads the Christmas story, We do presents," Ganey said.
For Vellenga, the bottom line is that throughout all of the arguments about choices, there was no one coming forward to help the woman who was actually choosing to have a baby.
"Put your belief into practice. I want to show them what I believe. I have invested my life into showing them what I believe. I'm going help them with every tool that's available in Manatee County," she said.
That was a gap in the services, SOLVE has been doing that, Vellenga said. "I'm more blessed than anything else."
"It has been an incredible journey. "She has been the strongest and most tender woman I have ever met," said incoming Executive Director Peggy Kerwin. "These are big shoes to fill. I am very humbled that she believes in me."
Dee Graham, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-748-0411, ext. 7027, or tweet @DeeGrahamBH.