As Joy Greenfield strolled through The National Great Blacks In Wax Museum in 2018, she felt a sudden, sharp pain. Within moments, her then-husband caught their trembling baby, Julian, as he emerged on the floor of the museum. At just over 26 weeks of gestation, Julian weighed 1 pound, 6 ounces, about as much as a hardcover book.

An ambulance rushed Julian to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at Johns Hopkins Hospital, where he would need months of intense medical intervention to survive. But Greenfield and her husband were far from their home in Willingboro, New Jersey during this time . Consumed with anxiety and feeling lonely, Greenfield wondered where she could stay. Baltimore’s Ronald McDonald House was full, and staying at a hotel for months would cost thousands of dollars.

Then a nurse told Greenfield about Hosts for Humanity — a nonprofit formed by a woman after the traumatic birth of her own first child. The organization matched Greenfield with an Otterbein couple, Mary and Richard Gorman, who opened their home, and their hearts, to the new mother. Both retired physicians, the couple would reassure Greenfield that Julian was in good hands at Hopkins and encourage her not to neglect her own health.

“Mary became my mother away from home,” said Greenfield, 38. “She would cook for me. She would take me places. She encouraged me to get out of the house.”

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The idea for Hosts for Humanity arrived in 2016 when Jenny Owens, an associate professor and assistant dean at the Graduate School of the University of Maryland, Baltimore, was pacing the floors of the Hopkins NICU herself. Her son, Maximus, had been born with a rare condition in which his diaphragm was not fully formed, damaging his lungs and heart. Doctors gave him a 50% chance of survival, Owens said.

After Max emerged from a grueling surgery, friends showered Owens and her husband with a meal from Belvedere Square: bacon, brussels sprouts, wine and chocolate. The meal left the couple feeling both nourished and cared for. Soon after, in a hospital break room, Owens struck up a conversation with a family from Tennessee that was spending a small fortune on hotel rooms while their child underwent treatment.

Owens couldn’t stop thinking about this family from Tennessee. She wanted them to have the same feeling of warmth that she felt when her friends brought over a nourishing dinner. “I went back to Max’s room and was obsessed with the idea of supporting these other families,” she said. “I couldn’t sleep that night and started writing down ideas. What if everyday people with a spare room could open their homes to people traveling here for healthcare?”

In between caring for Max and her work duties, Owens, 37, put together a plan for a nonprofit. The idea was simple. Host families would share a space in their home — a guest room, suite or perhaps a spare apartment — with those traveling to Baltimore to obtain medical care for themselves or a loved one. Initially, Owens required that both hosts and guests undergo background checks, but realized that such checks could be discriminatory, since people’s credit and legal history are heavily influenced by structural racism. Now she asks hosts and guests to provide two character references. Ultimately, the organization relies on trust and human connection. In many cases, the guests and hosts strike up a bond, sharing meals, movies and walks around the neighborhood.

In January 2018, the first local host, a Roland Park woman in her 90s, opened her door to the first guests, a couple from Minnesota who was bringing their daughter to Sheppard Pratt for treatment. In the first two years, about 40 families in the Baltimore region welcomed more than 90 guests, saving them an estimated $128,000 in hotel costs, Owens said.

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The program was paused during the height of the pandemic, but Owens is relaunching Hosts for Humanity with a new website — and a plan to work with local abortion access groups to provide housing for people traveling to Maryland to end a pregnancy. While the organization had previously been open to people seeking abortions, Owens has made welcoming them a priority since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade last month, a ruling that led to abortion bans and restrictions in much of the country.

“Being in a state where abortion is legal, we’re going to see an influx of people traveling here for abortions,” she said. “We want to be clear: if you are traveling here for an abortion, you are welcome to stay with our hosts.”

Maryland is one of 16 states and Washington, D.C., in which strong protections for abortion access are enshrined in the law. Abortion rights groups here are working hard to help abortion seekers from out-of-state travel to Maryland, obtain the procedure and have a safe place to recover.

Since Owens announced on social media that Hosts for Humanity would be helping people traveling to Maryland for abortions, at least 15 families have volunteered to become hosts. Among them are Steph and Liz Sundermann-Zinger of Timonium.

“Every woman should have the right of autonomy over her own body,” said Steph Sundermann-Zinger, 45, who works in marketing and communications at Towson University. “I’m not a person who has ever been pregnant, but I did have to leave the country to get married.” The pair was married in Canada in 2004, when same-sex marriage was not yet legal in this country.

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The couple, who have children ages 12 and 9, had thought about becoming hosts for Owens’ nonprofit, but did not have the space until they moved into a larger home. Now they have a profile set up on the Hosts for Humanity webpage and are eager to welcome their first guests. “It’s a really great opportunity for our kids,” said Steph Sundermann-Zinger. “We are trying to raise them to understand that compassion is an action, not just a feeling.”

Although the organization was on hiatus for two years, Owens has been hard at work. She has obtained grants from the Alicia and Yaya Foundation and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, relaunched the website and is hoping to expand the program to other cities.

Most importantly, Owens is grateful that Hosts for Humanity has helped people forge connections during some of the most challenging times of their lives. The organization has grown along with Owens’ family. Max is now a healthy 6-year-old, bright, active and full of energy, and Owens and her husband, who live in Wyndhurst, have welcomed a second child.

“I work on [Hosts for Humanity] a little bit every day. I do it on weekends. I do it during nap time,” said Owens. “It’s amazing to look back and say, ‘I’ve really done something.’ And this project has been really healing for me, as well.”

Julian, the baby born on the floor of the Great Blacks In Wax Museum, is also thriving. “He’s loud,” said Greenfield, laughing on the phone as Julian romped in the background. Now 4, he works with physical and occupational therapists to meet developmental milestones. Greenfield, too, has welcomed a second child.

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And she still stays in touch with the Gormans, who became Julian’s godparents at a ceremony when he was 2. “They’re lifelong family members now,” she said.

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Julie Scharper is an enterprise reporter for The Baltimore Banner. Her work ranges from investigations into allegations of sexual harassment and abuse to light-hearted features. Baltimore Magazine awarded Scharper a Best in Baltimore in 2023 for her series exposing a toxic work culture within the Maryland Park Service.

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