Two years ago, when Stephanie Wesley walked through the doors of The Mothering Project, she was at rock bottom.

While detoxing from an addiction to crack cocaine, prescription pills and alcohol, Wesley said she learned she was in the early stages of pregnancy.

"I had a black cloud not only in my head but following me everywhere I went," Wesley told Marcy Markusa of CBC's Information Radio.

"Just that one positive move I made by coming here … was the biggest step of my life."

"Here" is The Mothering Project, a small team operating out of Mount Carmel Clinic in Winnipeg's North End.

Just four full-time employees and two part-timers provide a range of services — from midwifery to housing support — on a modest programing budget of $30,000 a year.

'Prairie' approach has big impact

"We're pretty 'prairie' about the way we run our program," said Margaret Bryans, a nurse and program manager at The Mothering Project.

Currently the program is raising funds to build the Manito Ikwe Kagiikwe Infant Centre, which would include a badly needed infant daycare to give new moms a chance to go to school or work.

So far the foundation has raised just over $1.5 million and is hoping to raise an additional $500,000 to $700,000. They are holding a benefit concert May 2 at the West End Cultural Centre.

Building meaningful relationships is key

According to Bryans, the success behind The Mothering Project is taking time to get to know each client's situation and figure out where the gaps are. In other words, building relationships.

"If she needs some housing we will help find housing, if she needs to get in touch with her CFS worker … we will do that," she said.

"The difference for people … is we are really committed to walking through the muck. We step into the hard stuff with our participants."

That "hard stuff" includes trauma and suicidal thoughts, as well as working with mothers who have to give up their newborn babies to Child and Family Services (CFS).

Wesley's daughter Sienna

Stephanie Wesley's daughter is a healthy toddler. (Marcy Markusa/CBC)

Reducing harm for women a 'privilege'

Bryans calls it a "privilege" to walk with women and be a witness to their struggles.

As for Wesley, she's grateful The Mothering Project took the time to get to know her and remember her story.

"I tried to get help in the past, going to see psychologists, counselors," said Wesley.

"You have to repeat yourself and start from square one over and over. Just to be able to get it all out on the table … I'm just going to stick with these women as long as I can."

So far, in its two years of operation, The Mothering Project has assisted 49 pregnant women like Wesley. All their clients were using drugs or trying to white-knuckle it through pregnancy.

All were on social assistance or had no income. As of today, 47 per cent of mothers using the program report a reduction or elimination of substance use. More than 50 per cent were able to take their babies home.

Bryans is the first to say that not all women are able to "get clean" for their pregnancies.

But even in cases where a woman continues to use, she said a lot can be done to make her pregnancy as healthy as possible — for example, by figuring out less harmful substances women can take as alternatives to street drugs, providing nutritious foods, and making sure they have top-notch prenatal care.

Mom says organization probably saved her life

Wesley is convinced that if she didn't have The Mothering Project, she would have had her baby taken away and would have ended up back on the street. She fears she may have even died.

"I can guarantee you, if I wouldn't have taken the steps to come here, I don't think I would be here. The cycle I was in was horrible," she said.

The Mothering Project

Wesley, her daughter and Bryans, a nurse and program manager with The Mothering Project, discuss the difference supportive relationships make for mothers overcoming addiction. (Marcy Markusa/CBC)

Part of what allows The Mothering Project to break the cycle of addiction is the "kind" attitude workers show clients, Bryans said.

In a world that judges these women at every turn, Bryans said it is essential to create a relationship where moms feel they can be open about what they are going through to get the help they need.

Women among 'most stigmatized'

"Women who are pregnant, who are using drugs and alcohol are one of the most stigmatized groups in our community," she said.

"It's hard for people to get really good prenatal care, where they actually get to tell people what's going on for them, without feeling worried about [CFS] or being judged."

Today, Stephanie Wesley is in social housing, which has allowed her to attend addictions meetings. Workers with The Mothering Project are now looking to support her wish to pursue education now that her 1½-year-old daughter is healthy.

When asked what her favourite thing is about being a mom, Wesley answers, "Everything. It's such an accomplishment seeing her happy, her happiness is my everything."


Listen to CBC Information Radio host Marcy Markusa's feature interviews with Stephanie Wesley and Margaret Bryans on Tuesday, April 28, at 7:50 a.m. on 89.3FM.