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Shelter honors late mother, baby

Eric Harkins admired the arched doorway, ornate crown molding and built-in bookshelves as he toured the latest Fredericksburg home that will shelter homeless pregnant women and their children.

His towheaded 1-year-old daughter, Faustina, preferred the ceiling fans. She reached to touch the fans in each room of the home, which has been named for her mother and sister.

Sarah Harkins, a dedicated Mary’s Shelter volunteer, died unexpectedly last month while pregnant with her fifth child. She suffered an allergic reaction after being stung, most likely by yellow jackets, at her Spotsylvania County home. So the local shelter’s fifth home has been named the Sarah and Cecilia Harkens house.

“Sarah wouldn’t want this at all,” her widower said. “And I think it’s a fantastic idea.”

Sarah, a 32-year-old home-schooling mother of four, would have found the attention following her July 28 death “ridiculous,” Eric Harkins said. She was a dedicated mother who loved teaching her children. She helped other families in a home-schooling cooperative, and she started volunteering with Mary’s Shelter soon after the organization formed in 2007.

Three home-schooling mothers started Mary’s Shelter as an extension of their anti-abortion beliefs. Kathleen Wilson, Theresa Rousseau and Chris Taraschke wanted to prevent desperate, homeless women from choosing abortions.

In 2007, they raised money to house two homeless mothers in Fredericksburg apartments. In 2008, they rented their first home and started connecting mothers with mentors.

One of the first moms-to-be came from New York, when social workers were unable to find a shelter closer to home. Sarah became her mentor, helping the woman—who had no support system and was terrified of becoming a mother. She had planned to give up the baby for adoption, but decided to keep her son. Eight years later, mother and son are doing well, Wilson said.

The woman’s life was dramatically changed, and Sarah was hooked on helping the shelter. She was passionate about the anti-abortion movement, said her brother Tom Schulzetenberg.

As Sarah’s family grew, so did the shelter. By 2009, the women opened a second home and could house six mothers at a time. Last weekAug. 15, Mary’s Shelter opened its fifth home. Now, 17 women can live in the shelter’s homes at one time.

Local Catholic churches, scout groups and others help the shelter with yard work, baby supplies and operating expenses.

Five years ago, the shelter started an annual soirée when funds dipped precariously low. This year, the event sold out for the first time, with more than 500 people buying tickets for the dinner and speeches.

Volunteers also mentor the women, baby-sit and offer classes on cooking, parenting and crafts.

The goal is to get each woman out of the shelter within six months of giving birth. But the new home will be a transitional shelter for women who need a little more time but who are in school or employed and following the rules, which include living a healthy lifestyle, keeping the homes clean, supporting each other and being out of their pajamas by 9 a.m.

The home should also free up some space in the other four homes, Wilson said. Her cellphone rings constantly, often with calls from mothers desperately seeking shelter. There aren’t many places that offer refuge to pregnant homeless mothers and their children—especially organizations like Mary’s Shelter, which will take in the family no matter how many children there are. Women call from all over Virginia, and from along the East Coast.

Wilson said the organization attracts so many volunteers because people are aware of the desperate need for Mary’s Shelter’s services.

That was the case for Sarah Harkins, who felt compelled to do what she could for Mary’s Shelter even as her own family responsibilities grew.

“She could never worry about herself, she had to help other people,” Eric Harkins said. “It was never about her.”

Sarah Harkins mentored mothers and taught a jewelry-making class for the shelter’s residents. As her family expanded, she cut back on volunteering. But she still supported the shelter, mainly by donating handmade jewelry and rosaries for the organization’s annual craft show.

People came to the show specifically for her goods, crafted with clay beads she made herself. Many of her designs incorporated symbols of her deep Catholic faith.

And the shelter became even more important to Sarah after Faustina joined their family. When Faustina was born with Down syndrome, Sarah threw herself into learning to care for a child with disabilities, Schulzetenberg said. She was devastated to learn that many babies with Down syndrome were aborted, he said.

Eric’s cousin, Rachel Ullmann, said that the home was an ultimate testament to Sarah’s anti-abortion beliefs—especially since it also bears the name of the baby girl who died before birth.

“It shows that Cecilia’s life matters too,” said Ullmann, the godmother. “For the rest of our lives, we can go to the house and see her name and love her.”

Amy Umble: 540/735-1973


To help Mary’s Shelter, go online to or call 540/374-3407.

Two fundraising sites have been set up to help the Harkins children attend a faith-based private school following their mother’s death. To help, visit or