This article originally appeared in the January/February 2014 issue of Citizen magazine.
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Kathy DiFiore has made her life's work ministering to pregnant teens with nowhere else to turn. Now Hollywood is telling the story in one of the most pro-life movies in its history.
Ronald Krauss and Kathy DiFiore had no business ever meeting each other.
He's a Hollywood guy, a writer/producer/director who learned the entertainment business apprenticing with legendary B-movie maven Roger Corman and whose first film starred Jack Lemmon. She's New Jersey through and through, equal parts tender and tough as founder of a stable of shelters that help women through often-unspeakable crises.
But when they both were honored by the United Nations—he for his 2010 picture "Amexica" about the horrors of human trafficking, she for her three decades of humanitarian service—East met West and a beautiful collaboration was born.
It's called "Gimme Shelter," in theaters Jan. 24, a drama being touted as one of the most pro-life films ever to come out of Tinseltown. It tells the story of pregnant teenager Agnes "Apple" Bailey (played by ex-Disney star Vanessa Hudgens) who flees her drug-addicted mother (Rosario Dawson) in search of a better life of her own. Turned away by her Wall Street father (Brendan Fraser), Apple is forced into the streets on a desperate journey of survival. There she meets a kindly priest (James Earl Jones) who introduces her to DiFiore (played by Ann Dowd)—under whose love and care Apple finds the courage, and the practical tools, to have and raise her baby.
Advance word on the film from the pro-life community is strong, with National Right to Life Committee President Carol Tobias calling it "one of the most inspiring movies I have seen in a long time." One of its most stirring sequences shows Apple racing out of an appointment her stepmother has made for her to have an abortion after being given an ultrasound image of her baby. Later, homeless and forced to break into a car to shield herself from the elements, she presses the picture against the window and lovingly leans her head against it in a quick and quiet moment of rest.
The inspirational quality of the movie Krauss has made stands to reason, given the inspirational nature of the true-life tales it tells.
"This movie is not exactly about Kathy—it's about her work," Krauss tells Citizen. "She is a woman who's dedicated her life to helping people. She's also a very spiritually driven, godly woman. She is impressively authentic about her mission. She lives for this mission—to help these young girls.
"And being around that mission was a life-changer for me. That's why I feel the film is a life-changer for other people."
Straight Out of Matthew
Kathy DiFiore is not a fan of talking about herself. Ask her to recount what led her to abandon a lucrative climb up the corporate ladder to help girls and women with no other place to go and she'll pause several seconds before answering. The delay is only in part because of the pain associated with the memory; there's a healthy dose of humility behind her reticence, as well.
She'll eventually say it was an abusive marriage in the late '70s, and the subsequent homelessness she endured when she was forced to flee it, that sparked her desire—her need, really—to help others.
"Literally I had no place to call home. I went from friend to friend," she tells Citizen. "My heart was shattered. Like glass. I just was a lost soul. The only thing that kept me going was my faith. A mustard seed of faith."
She ruminated multiple times daily on Matthew 25:35-36, verses she had learned were central to the ministry of St. Francis of Assisi: "For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me."
"That struck a chord in my life," she recalls, "and I said, ‘That's what I have to do.' "
The work of advancing her healing by helping others heal began with volunteering at New Jersey's Rahway State Prison, where for three years DiFiore would visit and tend to the needs of inmates, often with the help of sixth-graders in the church youth group she led. That outreach brought her into contact with many young unwed mothers, and over time she sensed God's call to minister to them full time. All she had to offer was a spare room in her home, which she began to open up to pregnant girls who were out of options.
"It's very easy to be compassionate when you've been in their shoes," she says. "I knew what it was like to be out on the street and really have nowhere to turn. And to feel like no one's out there to really help me."
The need for the help and hope she offered was great.
"Before long, I would come home at night after work and there would be a stroller, a car seat and baby clothes at my front door," she remembers. "That's how work began."
From those humble beginnings in 1981, DiFiore has built Several Sources Shelters, now five centers strong. The nonprofit facilities, located throughout New Jersey, have saved the lives of more than 20,000 babies and grown to support a full-life educational and assistance program that not only helps girls and young women have their children, but raise them. Chastity workshops, ongoing financial and job-search support and a 24-hour crisis hotline are just a few of the efforts birthed from DiFiore's mustard seed of faith. Along the way, she has been honored by three U.S. presidents, championed by Mother Teresa, recognized multiple times by agencies in New Jersey and received a lifetime achievement award last year from the United Nations Women's Guild.
None of those accolades, though, means as much to DiFiore as knowing she's touched, and improved, the lives of "her girls."
"Christianity is 360 degrees of a circle," she says. "We don't turn anyone in need away. Our job is to love them."
Darnisha Dozier, now 22, was 18 when desperation led her to Several Sources' doorstep.
"I never really, growing up, had a sense of a home or a sense of a family," she tells Citizen. "Kathy welcomed me, arms open wide, and gave me more than anybody had given me in my entire life."
Finding the Reality
Interestingly enough, Dozier's first contact at the shelter wasn't with DiFiore. It was with filmmaker Krauss. After meeting the Several Sources founder at the U.N., he was doing some research for a possible documentary at the Newark flagship location when he spotted Dozier.
"I had gotten there early because I was supposed to meet Kathy, and there was a girl standing in front of the shelter," he recalls. "It was about 18 degrees out. It was the middle of winter—January—and she had no jacket. And I said to her, ‘What are you doing outside here? Come inside.'
"She thought I worked there. I thought she lived there. And neither of the two were true. She actually, it turned out, had walked about 30 miles to get there. And she was three months pregnant."
Krauss let Dozier inside, and a little while later DiFiore arrived—unsure who Dozier was and wondering how she'd gotten inside. After firmly reminding the director of the house rules—never let a stranger inside—DiFiore located a bed for the new girl.
"The biggest thing in my life was giving me a free bed," Dozier says today. "A bed was more than I ever had in my whole life."
"She was so elated," Krauss remembers of Dozier's reaction. "She grabbed me, hugged me so hard she almost knocked me over. That hug—that's what inspired me to write this screenplay, into a movie, not a documentary."
He wound up living at the shelter for about a year, recording nearly 200 hours of interviews with the girls staying there and writing the script with their input. He scheduled regular "script nights," where they would read sections of the movie and share their thoughts on the story as it developed.
"They helped me find the reality of their lives," Krauss says. "They shared their deepest emotions about what it is to be homeless, to not know where you're going to be tomorrow. It was so dramatic. It was like nothing I'd ever experienced before. Almost like holy ground."
As the movie's plot took shape, Krauss found himself basing Apple on Dozier and another girl living at Several Sources; in fact, Dozier and a few other shelter girls appear in the movie. As such, he says, it is 100 percent accurate—which makes it, by definition, difficult to watch at times. The film earns its PG-13 rating, not in an irresponsible, sensationalistic way, but simply by being true-to-life.
"The movie epitomizes the suffering that these young women have to go through," DiFiore says. "Ron encapsulated in Apple the suffering they have to go through just to have their babies. And I hope it helps people understand that it is a cross these girls have to carry—and we can help them carry it."
One way in which DiFiore does that is by not only taking care of the spiritual needs of her charges, but also their children.
"The mothers who live with me, I say to them, ‘What good is it going to do for us to save your baby, and you go to Heaven, but your baby goes to Hell?' " she says. "We have to teach you about God. We have to teach you about the Holy Word of God. But more than just learning the Word, you have to become the Message. You have to live His words so that when people look at you they see Him. And when your child grows up and looks at you, they have a role model."
Dozier, whose future plans include entering the ministry, says that approach is one of the best things about Several Sources. She's now a house mother there, and her son, Julian, is 3.
"Every spiritual word Kathy teaches us has something for us to reflect on to teach our babies. It's all about how can we ourselves get closer to the Lord, and how can we get our babies closer to the Lord," she says. "She not only cares about my well-being and my soul, and my relationship with the Lord, but it goes deeper than me. The concern and love goes to my baby.
"I'm not only living for the Lord, I'm living for my baby and I'm living for my baby and the Lord. That, to me, is awesome."
‘Don't Give Up'
Critics think "Gimme Shelter" is pretty awesome, too. Pete Hammond of Movieline singles out Hudgens for particular praise, saying she "is a complete revelation, (giving) an unexpected and stunning performance that comes from the heart." Avi Offer, a Rotten Tomatoes reviewer for the website NYC Movie Guru, says the film is "profoundly moving," "warm, wise and heartfelt" and "a triumph."
And what of the duo whose unlikely meeting made the movie possible?
Krauss says there's a great and uplifting lesson in the story.
"It is unfortunate in today's world that there are a lot of people out there who are struggling and don't have good parents," he says. "Some of us get lucky and come from good homes, and some of us don't. But it doesn't mean you can't have a decent life or that there's not a place for you or somebody to care about you. If you have abusive parents or if you didn't have a good life growing up, you still have a chance. There's still hope. That's the message of this film: ‘There is hope out there; don't give up.' "
For DiFiore, "Gimme Shelter" reinforces the mercy and love that is at the center of her Christian faith.
"In Scripture, Jesus says, ‘What you have done for the least of these you have done unto Me.' For me, it means I've ministered to Christ," she says. "These girls are Christ in my life. Broken. Humble. Bruised. Battered. I've loved them, I've loved them and I've loved them, and they've loved me back.
"As much as I may have given them, they've given me more—tenfold."
Nick Toper is a freelance journalist based in Hollywood.
For More Information
To learn more about "Gimme Shelter," visit GimmeShelterTheMovie.com. To learn more about Kathy DiFiore and Several Sources Shelters, visit severalsourcesfd.org.
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