The girls who come to her door are lost and alone. They come cold and hungry, homeless, worried about the babies growing in their wombs, often abused or violated, with rarely anywhere else to turn and certainly nowhere safe.
She knows … because she was once one of them.
And now the gripping story of Kathy DiFiore’s ministry to these homeless mothers is coming to the silver screen Jan. 24 in the based-on-a-true-story movie “Gimme Shelter,” a film being praised both for its inspiring story and its affirmation of the value of life.
“Gimme Shelter” follows the painful journey of teenager Agnes “Apple” Bailey (played with surprising depth and passion by Vanessa Hudgens of “High School Musical” fame), who flees her abusive, drug-ridden mother in search of a fresh start. But when she discovers she’s also pregnant and her long-absent father pushes her toward an abortion, she flees again, not willing to sacrifice her baby’s life. Freezing, starving, homeless, raging against God, Apple eventually lands on DiFiore’s doorstep. And only there does Apple discover she’s not alone after all.
Joseph Farah, editor and CEO of WND, said, “‘Gimme Shelter’ is one of the most moving, gritty films I’ve ever seen. It’s a triumph of life over death, a story of hope and love over despair and victimization. It removes abortion from the political battle lines to the realm of conscience and victory.”
And in a rare privilege, WND spoke to DiFiore, the woman whose incredible ministry to thousands of young mothers over more than 30 years inspired “Gimme Shelter.”
DiFiore told WND a scene in the film where she (played by actress Ann Dowd) stands in a church and reluctantly shares the story of her own experience as a homeless woman is absolutely true to life.
“Quite honestly, I don’t like talking about it,” DiFiore said. “But Ron Krauss (the film’s director) said, ‘Kathy, you have tell that, because people need to know one of the reasons you’re passionate about the work you’ve done.’
“I had a wonderful childhood, great parents, but made a bad choice when it came to a husband. He was abusive,” DiFiore continued. “One day I left with the clothes on my back; literally, I had nothing. I went from friend to friend, slept on a couch, here and there. I can relate to what these young ladies are going through, and I think they respect me for that reason, and my faith is what got me through it.
“As time passed, I got a job, and I was able to buy a very small house,” DiFiore said, “and the first thing I did was tell the Lord I wanted to give back – and that’s when I took the spare bedroom, and I opened it up to a young woman who was pregnant.”
That was in 1981. But as her ministry to unwed, pregnant mothers began to grow, and as she took in more and more women, the state of New Jersey heard about it, raided her home and levied over $10,000 in fines for running an illegal shelter.
A devout Catholic, DiFiore reached out for help to none other than Mother Teresa, who agreed to work with DiFiore to change New Jersey’s laws (the DiFiore Bill is still on the books today).
Since then, DiFiore has been honored at the White House and recognized by the United Nations for a ministry that has saved more than 20,000 babies’ lives, but her preference has been to quietly continue her work, out of the spotlight. That is, until a young man named Ronald Krauss heard about her story.
“I really didn’t want to do any publicity, no PR at all,” DiFiore told WND. “I succeeded at doing that for 30 years. I just wanted to focus on doing the work.
“Then one day, this young man knocked on our front door, who eventually became the writer, director and producer of ‘Gimme Shelter,'” DiFiore continued. “He had heard about me through a friend of a friend. I often say God writes straight with crooked lines, and one of those crooked lines that came into his life, it turns out, was his brother, who lived a mile and a half away from the shelter.”
In an interview with WND, Krauss continued the story: “I went and volunteered, as I normally do for the holidays – you know, at food banks and shelters and so forth – never expecting to do anything, that it would ever be more than helping out that Christmas. But I realized after all these years she’d never documented that legacy, so I offered to help her do that, so people could understand her work.
“Then one day I took in a girl at the shelter who had actually walked 30 miles to get there,” Krauss continued, “and it touched me so deeply in terms of knowing there are many girls out there who are homeless or need help, and I approached Kathy about maybe doing something else, a film – but she wanted nothing to do with it.”
“I said, ‘Absolutely not,'” DiFiore told WND. “But time passed, and he was coming to dinner telling me things the girls had said that I had never heard. So they trusted him. And I heard a voice inside my head that said, ‘Trust him.’
“So I said, ‘Ron, let’s talk. If it’s not about me and it’s about the work, if it talks about the adversity the girls have to go through on a daily basis, maybe we can do something. I want it to talk about them.”
And talk about them it does. “Gimme Shelter” doesn’t glamorize DiFiore’s life, but focuses instead on these young mothers, who don’t need a handout, don’t need mere charity, don’t need an abortion, but more than anything, do need a family.
The trailer for the film can be seen below:
A movie changing lives
“The remarkable narrative of ‘Gimme Shelter’ expresses a powerful reality and the heroic love of a mother for her unborn child,” said Bishop Ignacio Carrasco de Paula, president of the Vatican’s Pontifical Academy for Life, in a glowing endorsement. “Exploring the hard questions regarding the meaning of life, family, love and suffering, our heroine, ‘Apple,’ fights against all odds and finds hope.”
Yet “Gimme Shelter” isn’t an obscure, agenda-driven film. In addition to Hudgens, it stars Hollywood notables Rosario Dawson, Brendan Fraser and James Earl Jones.
Krauss, who actually lived and worked in DiFiore’s shelter for a year while he was writing the script, told WND there’s nothing “preachy” about the film, and it wasn’t intended to communicate an agenda.
“I didn’t have any message as a filmmaker,” Krauss said, “I only had a goal to honor the true story of these women and their journeys and their struggles.”
The difference was noted by Joe Houde of ImpactingCulture.com, who writes that “Gimme Shelter” is “better than a ‘pro-life movie.'”
“This is no ‘Fireproof’ or ‘October Baby’ here,” Houde writes. “When I think of the film students at JPCatholic, I think this is the kind of art they want to create. A film with power to change lives. A film that gently guides its audience toward the beauty of life and redemption and relationship.”
Krauss told WND, intended messages or no, audiences who have screened “Gimme Shelter” are nonetheless walking away with a clear impression: “No matter who you are –because this film really explores single mothers, single fathers, foster care – no matter who you are, no matter what you’re facing in life, there are other people out there just like you. Don’t give up.”
“I’m hoping that when audiences leave the theater they will say to themselves, ‘I need to reach out and do more for someone I know is in need,'” DiFiore told WND. “And as tough as my life may seem, when I see this young lady on the screen (played so unbelievably well by our total sweetheart, Vanessa Hudgens) that they would say, ‘I want to reach out, I want to touch, I want to help the Vanessas of this world.’ Each of us has time, each of us can give, each of us can pray and help people that maybe we’ve overlooked in the past.”
To help make that hope a reality, DiFiore has created a website, SeveralSources.net, which includes, among other resources, a “how to open a shelter” kit.
DiFiore told WND she hasn’t been able to keep up with the thousands of babies and mothers whose lives she’s touched, in part, because there’s always more women in need: “I’m kind of focused on the one who’s coming through the door, who needs my help the most at the moment. Those that leave, I ask them to not only take their babies with them, but also to take their new-found faith that we try to help give them and their relationship with God, so they can grow to be good moms and teach their children about God too.”
In fact, DiFiore confided in WND that one of her shelter’s mothers gave birth to a baby this week, a little girl named Faith. Two more babies are due before the end of the month.
And if you look closely while watching “Gimme Shelter,” you may catch a glimpse of DiFiore herself.
“I play the labor and delivery nurse,” DiFiore said of her brief cameo appearance, “on screen for all of four seconds.”
And “all of four seconds” is about all she has to spare. She doesn’t like the spotlight, after all. For there’s a needy young mother knocking, and DiFiore is off to answer the door.