The girls at Our Mother’s Home are tough – at least on the outside. They don’t open their hearts easily for fear of being hurt. Again. As expected, they were a bit standoffish when Susan Souza first came to volunteer. Then they heard her story and realized she was once “one of us.” She, too, had been a teen mom, caught in a desperate and life-changing situation. The difference is, she didn’t get to keep her baby. The girls at Our Mother’s Home have an opportunity Susan did not have in 1968. They’re raising their babies themselves, with support from the staff at Our Mother’s Home.

Susan Souza was honored as the Our Mother’s Home Mother of the Year during the Hearts of Love Gala in February. The Grandezza resident is an avid volunteer at the home, where she says the best thing she can do for the girls is simply love them.

“It’s so wonderful to see how times have changed, and the girls are determined they’re going to raise their babies and they’re going to succeed,” Susan says. “I go there strictly in mother mode. I do whatever I would do for one of my own daughters. They’re just 16-year-old girls who are lost and trying their best to keep their babies and be good mothers.”

While Susan was blessed with loving parents, things were different in the 1960’s when she discovered she was pregnant at 17 years old. The only options given her were to marry the baby’s father or give the baby up for adoption.

Since she had been in a steady relationship for two years and was madly in love, she assumed her boyfriend, Mark, would marry her. After all, they often had talked of marriage, and they were both well-liked by the other’s family. Unfathomable to Susan, Mark refused to marry her. Suddenly, her fairytale romance had turned into a nightmare. Her priest prescribed the standard remedy for this blight on the family. Susan would tell Mark she had miscarried and tell no one else she was pregnant. For the last 10 weeks of her pregnancy, she would live at St. Mary’s Home for Unwed Mothers in Boston, about an hour north of her home in New Bedford, Mass. After her delivery, she would go home from “summer camp” and forget about the whole ordeal.

“I remember the Father saying, ‘You’ll go on with your life as if nothing ever happened,’” recalls Susan. “Nothing could be further from the truth.” As alone as she felt then, Susan has since learned just how many unmarried mothers were coerced into giving up their babies in the 1950s and ’60s. Her story was included in a 2007 bestseller by Ann Fessler titled “The Girls Who Went Away,” featuring hundreds of similarly haunting stories. Susan has chronicled her own life’s journey in another book, “The Same Smile,” co-written with the daughter she gave up, whom she was reunited with in 1999 (available at www.thesamesmile.com and as an ebook for Nook and Kindle). Susan said she struggled with post-traumatic stress syndrome for years, even after marrying and raising three daughters. She could never forget about Madlyn, the name she gave her fi rstborn, vowing to find her as soon as Madlyn turned 21. The reunion was delayed, however, by a second tragic loss in Susan’s life. Her oldest daughter, Jackie, was diagnosed with leukemia at age 16, just two weeks before Madlyn’s 21st birthday. Susan poured everything into taking care of Jackie, who died five months after her diagnosis.

The loss devastated Susan, who considered it the second time a child had been taken from her. She put plans on hold for finding her firstborn, grieving seven years before launching her search for Madlyn. It took two years to find Madlyn, whose name had been changed to Joanne. She had been lovingly raised by an older couple, living within miles of Susan in the next town over. Although building a bond took time, Susan and Joanne now enjoy a loving and comfortable relationship, and Susan is thrilled to finally be a part of her little girl’s heart. “There is no greater comfort to a mother than to know where her children are,” Susan said. “Children should be with their mothers. I yearned for that baby. I was absolutely heartbroken.” Now Susan not only enjoys a relationship with Joanne, she nurtures and encourages the eight girls at Our Mother’s Home during her weekly visits. “I was only 17 when I had Joanne, but I would’ve been a good mother, with or without a husband,” Susan said. “All these girls need is the opportunity. I love being with them. I have such a sense of purpose when I’m there.”

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