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Labor Run fundraiser will help Treehouse help moms and babies

A young pregnant woman was scheduled to have labor induced on a recent Wednesday afternoon, but that didn’t keep her from showing up at the Treehouse for a parenting class that morning.

She was about to become a first-time mom and wanted to make sure she didn’t miss any of the sessions. But she also wanted a final chance to visit with a friend she had met in the class before delivering her baby.

“You could tell they had really clicked,” said Lee Ann Vandervort, executive director of the Treehouse, a nonprofit at 151 N. Volutsia that tries to meet needs of mothers. “Those friendships are so important.”

About 500 moms – mostly new ones – come to the Treehouse each year looking for help to care for their babies. Some are as young as 13. Many have no idea about parenting skills.

They also are seeking a listening ear, Vandervort said. Many have come from bad situations with their baby’s father and don’t have much family support, she added.

“Everyone pretty much wants to be a better mom, no matter who they are,” Vandervort said. “A lot of what they need is to form friendships.”

Since opening more than a decade ago, the Treehouse has handed out more than 300,000 diapers and tried to teach moms about being moms. Part of that includes connecting them with experienced moms.

The Treehouse provides classes or a chance to watch DVDs on everything from parenting and breastfeeding to healthy cooking, installing a car seat and handling money and relationships. The DVDs are also offered in Spanish.

Because the need is so great, the Treehouse requires mothers to be referred from one of about 15 area agencies.

While the demand continues to grow, resources don’t. To help raise awareness to attract more volunteers and donors, the Treehouse will hold its first community-wide event — a Labor Run — on Monday, Labor Day, at Sedgwick County Park.

“Yes, we’re playing on the name a little,” Vandervort said.

The event will include a 5-kilometer run and walk at 8:30 a.m., plus a one-mile stroller walk at 10 a.m. For more information or to register, go to wichitatreehouse.org.

All of the Treehouse’s funds come from private donations or grants from private foundations. No tax dollars are involved, Vandervort said.

The Treehouse is staffed largely by volunteers, who have logged more than 16,000 hours just since 2008. Some of those volunteers are mothers who were previously helped by the organization.

There’s no time limit on how long a mother can use the Treehouse’s services.

“They can come as long as they need help,” Vandervort said. “For some, that’s once. Others we see a year or two later.”

Vandervort was a co-founder of the Treehouse in 2002 and served as a volunteer. But after long-time executive director Renee Croitoru recently left because of an out-of-state move, she left a 32-year career at a large insurance broker and took over.

“I was ready for a change of pace,” Vandervort said. “It’s a fun place to be because there are new moms and young babies, though some of the moms aren’t here under great circumstances.”

Originally started as a ministry of St. George Orthodox Christian Cathedral, the Treehouse has seen its working board diversify and include members from different churches, businesses and community volunteers.

While there are several organizations that help pregnant women, the Treehouse’s founders saw a need for mothers – especially new ones – who were falling through the cracks.

Some pregnant women – such as the one who came for a class on the day she was to be induced – are referred to the Treehouse so they can get a head start on learning parenting skills, Vandervort said.

First-time mothers are given a couple of bags of necessities for their babies, including diapers, formula, shampoo and some new outfits.

After that, they can earn “baby bucks” by attending the classes or watching the DVDs so they can shop at the Treehouse’s thrift store.

“When we started, everyone told us these women would never come to classes,” Vandervort said. “We were told we were wasting our time.”

But half the mothers attend at least one class each month, she said.

“We try to impact the women’s lives and their futures,” Vandervort said. “We try to make generational changes, try to educate them on how to be a better parent.”

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