Eagle Scout Alex Capriotti, right, distributes baby blessing bags to young women in the Mother-Baby Program of archdiocesan Catholic Social Services, March 27. (Photo by Gina Christian)

A South Jersey teen recently earned his Eagle Scout rank by assisting archdiocesan Catholic Social Services (CSS) in caring for young mothers.

Alex Capriotti collected 60 tote bags filled with high-quality diapers, wipes, baby clothes and pacifiers for the teens served by CSS’s Mother-Baby Program.

“I felt this was the best way I could help out,” said Capriotti, a junior at Camden Catholic High School and a member of Christ Our Light Parish, both in Cherry Hill, New Jersey.

On March 27, Capriotti, accompanied by his father John, delivered the bags — each of which included handwritten notes of encouragement — to the new moms.

Located at St. Vincent’s Home in the Tacony section of Philadelphia, the Mother-Baby Program provides housing, prenatal support, parenting education and child care for adolescent mothers. The home can accommodate up to 12 young women who stay on average about five months, according to program administrators.

Each resident has a private room that she shares with her infant. The facility includes a common kitchen, dining room and recreational area, along with a laundry. A minimum of three staff members are on hand during the day, and two remain on site overnight.

The Mother-Baby Program is part of CSS’s overall outreach to at-risk adolescent girls, who are referred by the City of Philadelphia’s Department of Human Services (DHS), which partially funds the programming at St. Vincent’s in conjunction with an archdiocesan subsidy.

About 180 girls in need of archdiocesan group home programs are placed each year in three community-based residences run by St. Vincent’s: St. Joseph’s Hall with a capacity of 12 women; Guardian Angel with a capacity of 16 and the Tacony home, which houses 12. On any given day, up to 39 young women reside at the St. Vincent homes.

(Read a related story on the Mother-Baby Program at St. Vincent’s Home.)

Those young women who are pregnant or who already have a child stay at the Mother-Baby Program at St. Vincent’s in Tacony, which last year assisted 58 clients, according to administrators.

Founded in 1855 with the help of both St. John Neumann and the family of St. Katharine Drexel, the home was originally an orphanage. Over time, its mission has evolved, as many social service agencies now focus on keeping at-risk youth within their extended families and communities. In addition, teen pregnancies and birth rates have fallen to record lows since 1940, according to the Pew Research Center.

Capriotti was guided to St. Vincent’s through a family contact who had participated in an archdiocesan project. The teen eventually connected with Estela Bugg, coordinator of the archdiocesan Office for Life and Family’s Project Rachel, a post-abortion healing ministry.

Since Capriotti lives outside of the archdiocese, Bugg was initially surprised by his offer to help.

“I hesitated for a little bit, but then I said, ‘Well, this is an angel coming from God,’” Bugg recalled. “And the first thing I thought about was St. Vincent, because it would mean a young man helping young mothers.”

Capriotti consulted his own mother to identify the items new moms would need most. He was shocked by the price tags when he began shopping around for the items.

“I was surprised about how expensive baby products are,” he said.

Estela Bugg, coordinator of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia’s Project Rachel, unloads baby blessing bags prepared by Eagle Scout Alex Capriotti (right) and his father John at St. Vincent’s Home in Philadelphia, March 27. (Photo by Gina Christian)

After a number of major retailers rejected his requests for donations, Capriotti rallied family, friends, classmates and fellow parishioners, whose generosity exceeded his expectations.

“We actually got more than enough,” he said. “Even people we didn’t know donated to our project, and it was just really great to see everybody helping out in the community.”

Leionna Walker and her 1-year-old son Khii’sir were grateful for Capriotti’s service, and for the Mother-Baby Program.

“I’m looking forward to this blessing bag,” said Walker, who has been at St. Vincent’s for almost two months. “And I would recommend St. Vincent for girls who don’t have the support system to take on motherhood.”

Laniza Maleve agreed that guidance and encouragement are key to successful parenting, particularly for first-timers.

“When I found out I was pregnant, I was just scared and surprised,” said Maleve, whose daughter Zuri is now six weeks old. “They support us with our babies here, and that’s a big help.”

Capriotti and his father estimated that the task of sourcing and assembling the bags took “at least 180 hours” from start to finish, although the project was ultimately a labor of love.

“I really was not keeping count of the hours,” said Capriotti. “I’m just hoping that each bag will be able to help out in some small way in their journey with their new child.”