Brittney Sparks, 26, was homeless six years ago. Now she helps lead the Catholic nonprofit that assisted her. (Ed Langlois/Catholic Sentinel)
Brittney Sparks, 26, was homeless six years ago. Now she helps lead the Catholic nonprofit that assisted her. (Ed Langlois/Catholic Sentinel)

MILWAUKIE —  Someone repeatedly hacks into the website and other digital systems at Madonna’s Center for Life. The attacks, apparently from abortion rights supporters, wreak havoc on the small Catholic motherhood support ministry.

But Brittney Sparks, director of development for the all-volunteer organization, has gotten through worse. Five years ago, she and her two young children were living in a van not far from St. John the Baptist the Parish here. She warmed up the youngsters’ dinner each night in a microwave at a nearby convenience store.

Sparks, 26, now is the public face of Madonna’s Center for Life, which provides basic needs for mothers and their children and then helps the little families find more advanced assistance, the kind that leads to stability and self-sufficiency. Sparks knows the center succeeds because it helped her.

Rough start

In a duplex not far from La Salle Prep, Sparks was raised by parents addicted to drugs and prone to violent quarrels. Later, a stepfather psychologically abused her, telling her she would never amount to much.

Sparks was first homeless in 2009 when she was pregnant and 15. She recalls sleeping in a tent during heavy snow in Oregon City, scared and lonely.

In 2014, after the Catholic Sentinel told her story, she was invited to live with a Catholic family.

Brittney Sparks believes in the small Catholic nonprofit that helped her onto a path of faith and stability

For the past five years, Sparks has been raising her children, caring for siblings, working full time, attending school and volunteering for Madonna’s Center for Life.

“I feel like everything I have endured has just made me stronger,” said Sparks, who explains that in the past she has experienced anxiety and bouts of post-traumatic stress disorder. “I feel like I am in a really good head space now and I feel really happy my kids don’t have to live like I did.”

Sparks plans to get a community college business degree and then enter paralegal training. She hopes to practice law and dreams of becoming a judge.

In the ministry, Sparks has helped people even worse off than she was. 

“I have heard unfathomable stories,” she said, adding that not everyone who gets assistance is saintly. “Jesus sat with thieves and prostitutes and disadvantaged people. And so why wouldn’t we?”

Deep faith life

Before she starts her day at the center, located in a Milwaukie business park, Sparks walks to a holy water fountain and blesses herself. She already has had a rich faith journey.

Many of her ancestors were Italian Catholics, but later generations wandered from faith. At age 7, young Brittney had a spiritual sense and began taking herself to the closest church, which was Baptist. A neighbor family also helped get her to a Protestant church. She was baptized at age 10.

When she moved in with the Catholic family, she began attending Mass and eventually was confirmed. She had her children baptized. The little family, which has had stable housing in apartments for almost five years, are members of St. John the Baptist in Milwaukie and St. John the Apostle in Oregon City, where the children first went to religious education classes and have friends. The children, Adrian and Aamiyah, are now 10 and 7, respectively. Aamiyah is thrilled to be approaching first Communion.

“It makes me so happy that they get to live this life with me and we can be on this journey together and we have God to fall back on,” Sparks said. “There will be hardships no matter what, so I am glad they came to know and love God.”

Sparks has long prayed in her head during the course of the day. Catholicism has taught her that it’s also important to find quiet time to sit alone quietly in prayer. “That has made me feel more of a connection with God than ever before,” she explained, her eyes filling with tears. “It’s overwhelming how great it is. It’s intertwined with every aspect of my entire life so beautifully. My favorite thing to pray is, ‘Thy will be done.’”

Living the Gospel

The ministry focuses on mothers who lack reliable transportation, a major problem for those trying to build up a new life. Volunteers visit the young families where they live, mostly cheap apartments in out-of-the-way places in Clackamas County or surrounding areas of Southeast Portland.

On New Year’s Eve, when Madonna’s Center for Life executive director Valerie Aschbacher was about to close up and go to dinner with her husband, a woman called from her bed at Providence Portland Medical Center. Her young children were being watched by a 19-year-old son who could not drive and did not know how to go out and get food. The woman said her youngsters had nothing to eat.

Aschbacher and longtime volunteer Deborah Unrein packed a box with food, household goods and toys and then set out. The house off Johnson Creek was hard to find, so hidden that previous food box volunteers had been unable to locate it. Aschbacher and Unrein persisted and found the place. Later, they followed up and helped the family make a plan.

The ministry has received grants from the Catholic Campaign for Human Development.

“Madonna’s Center for Life serves young parents who are without essential support from their parents, their schools or our state and local government,” said Matt Cato, director of the Office of Life, Justice and Peace for the Archdiocese of Portland. “Abortion is antithetical to the value of nourishing life. Any help society can offer to pregnant mothers that removes economic need and the feeling of aloneness from considering having an abortion is welcome. Madonna’s Center for Life offers such help.”

Aschbacher said the founding document of the ministry is St. John Paul’s 1995 encyclical “Evangelium Vitae,” especially section 87, which called for programs to aid mothers and support new life. Prominent in the Madonna’s Center for Life Office is a 12-inch tall statue of a joyous Pope John Paul.

“There is something that comes with our sacramental life, our beliefs, the long never-wavering belief in the sanctity of life,” Aschbacher said.

In addition to serving mothers and children, the ministry aims to create disciples who will live out the gospel of life by their actions, Aschbacher said.

“We need volunteers,” added Sparks. 

A natural at public speaking, Sparks will tell her story, and describe the center’s work, at parishes and any place where people are interested.

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