Baby Bumps, Banana Trees, Barriers & Breakthroughs: a Tribute to Sharon Yarr.

Sharon Yarr was captivating.

I imagine anyone who met her, remembers the moment they were introduced.

For me, the subject matter was Zim (known as “Southern Rhodesia” until renamed “Zimbabwe” in 1980). Sharon was born and spent her childhood there. Her Dad Cecil, and Mum Sylvia, were missionaries, along with Sharon’s brother. The family of four eventually relocated back to Northern Ireland. Sharon would later attend Sullivan – my old school. I found out later (chatting to my Mum), that Sharon’s Dad christened me as a baby.

Sharon & I talked a lot about heaven.

I imagined the late Rev. Newell smiling as we were introduced now, 35 years on.

Sharon was a woman of direction. After time in her presence, Jesus’ words came to mind clearly: “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” (Matthew 19 verse 26). Sharon had a strong gift of faith. She challenged me with her “what if…?” questions. (There were many.)

As a Mother of 3, a Grandmother and a foster Mother herself, one of her questions about the children’s home was: “what about their Mothers?” I confessed we had rarely met them. Not out of choice, but because the children’s court had separated them. But her question was parked like a vehicle in that “what if..?” space, normally kept vacant in case of emergency.

When Sharon unexpectedly joined that cloud of witnesses on the 19th of March 2019, the question began reversing out of its “what if” spot & began driving along the prefrontal cortex highway of both mine and Richie’s brain. We agreed to discuss the idea with the board of trustees, at the next meeting.

We prayed.

“What will happen to the Mothers once they’ve given birth?” asked our South African friend, and Chairman of the board. “Oh, no problem!” I replied. “There are places of safety that are ready to accept Mothers along with their babies.”

“And if the mother absconds?” he asked. “Well, then we’ll keep a space for the baby at the haven… not a problem,” I responded confidently. In retrospect, a little too confidently.

And so, it was agreed.

We would pilot “Sharon’s House”. Our first mother (below, right) arrived on the 11th of August 2021. We were ecstatic to welcome her. She later gave birth to a son & gave him a name meaning wisdom. Her friend had taken her own (pregnant) life the year before, after the shaming and stigma she had experienced upon informing people she was pregnant. “Our” young Mother was determined not to experience this same degradation & so told no-one. She was the first Mother I’d ever met, who hid her tummy under a puffer jacket or a blanket, in order to hide that her son was growing perfectly there.

I wondered if Jesus’ Mother had been tempted to do a similar thing. To protect herself from the shaming, of those who knew she was unmarried.

Our first Mother taught me first-hand some of the abuse teens go through at the hands of the government clinic staff. When we attended the antenatal clinic together, one staff member asked our Mother: “& only now you realise that you are pregnant?!” I glared at the staff member (with a look learnt from my own Mother), & stated firmly: “Ubuntu” (meaning: people are people, because of people).

This is how the Lord God Almighty of all the heavens and the earth chose His only beloved Son to be born. To an unmarried, pregnant teenage Mother.

Every time I met a pregnant Mother in crisis I could hear Him whisper into my heart: “this is my friend”. Indeed, God is close to the broken-hearted. The marginalised. The poor. He says what we do for them, we do for Him. He introduces us to His friends if we let him. I was learning that these Mothers are a big deal to the heart of God.

And so, over the next 15 months, we planted banana trees, & welcomed Zimbabwean and South African mothers into Sharon’s House. During this time we learnt (the hard way) that police in South Africa are paid off to make gang rape “disappear.” Mothers in government hospitals are not provided with any bedding, food or drinking water. This means that each time we drove to the hospital to drop off food for one of our mothers, it was either stolen or distributed around all of the Mothers who were desperately hungry. This meant daily trips up and down to the hospital, every time one of our Mothers was admitted there.

Alongside these challenges, we had Mothers arriving to us from University where they had been raped but did not want to abort their child. They knew, due to “family tradition” if it was discovered they were pregnant they could be forced to leave university and return home to look after their child, rather than avail of foster/adoptive care. We had a 16-year-old Mother coming to us out of foster care, who was not allowed to return to her foster family with a baby, and so the two were separated. As soon as the children’s court got involved, abusive ex-partners were represented in court to have their rights and responsibilities upheld. Some pro-life families used Sharon’s House as a “tough love” solution & Mothers were dropped off by family members who could have supported them.

The further into Sharon’s House we got, the more corruption & injustice became exposed. These Mothers need Mothering. They need support. They did not choose their situation. In some cases, Mothers moved into Sharon’s House to avoid having their lives threatened by a husband or boyfriend. Gender-based violence was never far away.

What we saw as a staff team was a lot of support from GPs, Counsellors, Obstetricians, Midwives, Social Workers, and people who wanted to teach Mothers to crochet and knit. All of this was wonderful. But the cracks in the system still proved impossible to fill. Seven of our Mothers chose to consent for their children to be adopted. This was an act of love. Not one single Mother that we got through the door did not love her child. Waiting lists in homes that could provide support for our Mothers turned out to be 6 months long. We had a growing sense that this was not sustainable. I also wondered whether we had in fact enabled some families to “drop off” teen Mom and return when the child was born and out of the picture completely. Was this fair to a 16-year-old who desperately wanted her child? It seemed the younger you were whilst pregnant, the fewer rights you actually had.

My counsellor/buddy Maree asked me: “on a scale of 0-10 how angry are you right now with this situation?”

“One hundred,” I answered.

Her advice? That we should take a long look at the personal toll all of this was having and consider shutting Sharon’s House. My heart was beyond broken to hear this, but I knew Maree was right. Jesus, Himself said, “what good is it to gain the whole world and lose your soul?” I was becoming angrier by the day at the scenarios our Mothers faced.

Church helped. They prayed and supported our Mothers. But no one could fill in the gaps that lay open wide. Sharon’s House ensured 17 safe births and no HIV transmission from Mother to baby. But the decision to close in February 2023 brought with it a sense of relief. We currently have two Mothers staying in Sharon’s House. One has chosen to parent and will return to her own Mother in Zimbabwe next month, with her brand new beautiful baby. Our other Mother is 15 and due to the dangerous circumstances she came to us from, will be driven 11 hours to Pretoria with her son once she has given birth.

It takes a village to raise a child. It takes an entire city to run a pregnant Mother’s home for up to 6 Mothers at a time.

We are so grateful to Gloria and Nomfundo, our amazing Sharon’s House Houseparents. God has provided them both with new caring jobs. His faithfulness throughout all of this has been astounding.

Each time I get overwhelmed thinking about this home, ending, I remember our 16-year-old Mother who said: “these last 9 months were the best of my life.” I also think of Jesus, saying that the poor would always be with us, and not to lose our souls by striving. Every last one of our Mothers had an encounter with the love of God during their time in Sharon’s House. It was impossible not to.

I also think of Sharon’s words to me on one occasion, when one of our haven children was separated from his siblings. “You tried, Kate. And there is a lot to be said for trying.”

Perhaps one thing to come from all this is the global Church moving from “pro-life” to “pro-support-of-all-Mothers-everywhere-no-matter-what-age-they-are.” And to offer assistance to their local pregnancy crisis centre.

Thank you, dear Sharon.

In your own stunning and beautifully peaceful way, you impacted 17 pregnant Mothers who otherwise would have had nowhere else to go.

This song reminds me of you.