Today, more than 800 unwed mothers and their babies have felt the love, peace and hope that Robert Zornes, executive director of Mother's Refuge, and his staff have unselfishly bestowed upon those under their care at this Independence shelter.

The mission of Mother's Refuge is to shelter and educate homeless, pregnant and parenting teenage moms by providing comprehensive services that will empower them to make successful life decisions for themselves and their babies.

After 16 years of giving his all to Mother's Refuge, Zornes will be on the receiving end when he receives the seventh annual Human Rights Award from Independence Church Women United at its annual Friendship Days observance on Sept. 11. The event begins at 10 a.m. in Fellowship Hall at First Christian Church of Independence. This year's Human Rights theme is “Kindling New Fires of Peace, Love and Hope.” The Human Rights Day theme is “Kindling New Fires of Hope.”

“We always try to pick someone who goes along with the theme,” says Barbara O'Dell, who chairs the group's Human Rights Committee. I feel like helping young, unwed mothers get a hand up … to help them realize that life is not always going to be bleak or serious.... So that is why we chose (Robert Zornes), because that goes along perfectly with our theme.”

The person who knows Robert best is his wife, Susan Zornes, who believes her husband will be known as a generous, giving person who does not quit. Not even when a disastrous fire four years ago destroyed Mother's Refuge at 3721 Delridge Road.

“This is it,” Susan recalls her husband thinking after the fire. However, when a despondent shelter resident approached him and said, 'Well, now I am homeless,' Robert changed his mind. He couldn't let his “family” of girls down. And he didn't. Neither did the community.

What happened next was amazing.

“The community came together … and people called offering all kinds of assistance,” Susan says, leading Robert to refer to the enlarged shelter that arose from the ashes as 'the house that God built,' because people volunteered and came out of the woodwork – like the man who stopped by the house under construction and said, 'The Lord just told me I need to put the roof on this house.' And he did.

Other than his wife, no one knows Robert better than Angel McDonald, who has worked for him for 15 years. She is program director of Mother's Refuge, which was started in 1987 following a survey that revealed there was no place in the community for young women to go who were pregnant and wanted to give birth to their babies.

In a recent interview, she emotionally tells how the Zornes family personally changed her life when she came to Mother's Refuge as a single mom seeking assistance.

“My mom and dad were not there to help me. It was just me. I put myself through college … and was hired to work 10 hours a week ... and (Robert) let me work around my college schedule and my kids.”

What really impressed Angel about her new boss was the way he lived his Christian life – by example.

“He worked so hard. He cared so much about the girls. He spoke life into my life and showed me what a good boss and leader looked like. Now I am a leader as well as the rest of the staff. And because of him, he kindled a new fire in me.”

But that's not all.

“He was always there,” she continues. “He cared about my family, the staff, board members. He was there when I got married 10 years ago. He was a great Christian man … and when you have somebody like (Robert Zornes) that sets that kind of example, it just makes you want to think what you need to do more.”

Then there is Davea Alford, who says she was a “hard head” while at Mother's Refuge.

“But you know what? It took a lot of prayers and a lot of staff workers to get me on the path. I really wasn't doing well when I came to Mother's Refuge as a 19-year-old … I went down the wrong path. When I found out I was pregnant, I knew I couldn't do parenting. (Robert) was always checking on me to see if I was OK – even eight years after I left Mother's Refuge.”

Says Davea, (Mother's Refuge ) is still my family. I can call Angel about a situation I was going through and she would guide me and help me along the way. Through all of Robert's health issues, he still keeps in contact with me. He still knows who I am and I am really grateful to have met him.”

-- Retired community news reporter Frank Haight Jr. writes this column for The Examiner. You can leave a message for him at 816-350-6363.