Niko Pitney, Sr Editor, The Huffington Post, 12/19/2014

Martha Ryan’s clients are society’s most vulnerable women. They are pregnant and they are homeless. Virtually all were born into poverty, and many are battling addiction or are victims of domestic violence.

And yet these women achieve extraordinary results. Over 90 percent of their high-risk pregnancies result in healthy drug-free babies, “exceeding the national average for all births, including low-risk pregnancies.”

Just as important, Ryan’s organization the Homeless Prenatal Program (HPP) has helped thousands of at-risk women land jobs and find permanent housing.

What’s special about Martha Ryan’s approach? It’s modeled after the refugee work she did long ago in East Africa. In those camps, she would train female refugees to be healthcare providers in their communities. Not only did these newly-educated women gain jobs and greater status, but when administering care to fellow refugees there was no cultural divide that often hinders outside aid workers.

Ryan employs the same strategy at HPP, where over half of the group’s 80 staff are former clients who were once homeless and in need of support.

“I really hadn’t planned to do the work I’m doing here in America,” she said in an interview at HPP’s office in San Francisco. “I had planned on going back to the developing world and setting up child health programs there. But I was getting my Masters in Public Health at Berkeley, and I was volunteering in a shelter, and I saw women who were homeless and pregnant. I saw the developing world right here in America.”

Ryan argues that pregnancy is a special window of opportunity for at-risk women.

“In the 25 years that I’ve been doing this work, I’ve never met a woman who really wanted to hurt her unborn child,” she says. “All women who are pregnant and continuing with their pregnancy want to have a healthy baby.” This desire motivates women to seek out support and get access to information or resources they lacked.

We have a fundamental rule: we don’t judge. We don’t know how someone came to the place where they are today. So we don’t judge. We believe that they, given the opportunity, can turn their lives around. And we value them, and we respect them.

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