MONTREAL -- A baby laughs as he plays; a mother speaks to a healthcare worker nearby. There is a kitchen, a play area, a meeting space.

At the Maison Bleue, educators, doctors, midwives and social workers work together to ease the struggles of raising a child for those with precarious life circumstances.

Here, refugees, rape survivors and victims of conjugal violence converse, sharing their experiences, worries and successes. "Usually it's bustling with people coming in and women who are quite isolated at times feel they can safely make a cup of tea, meet other women," said Doctor Vania Jimenez, who co-founded the centre 13 years ago.

Seeing a doctor isn't enough for some mothers, Jimenez noted, they need social workers and other services. But, she noticed, those services weren't available in one place, and the hospital system was overburdened, unable to give mothers the care they needed. "I can be a good physician; my colleagues can be good physicians. I can have a very good social worker, but if my patient, who needs the services of a social worker, leaves [the hospital] and I can't reach her after, she's lost," Jimenez said.

The environment a mother spends time in while pregnant has a significant impact on the baby, she explained, and Jimenez wanted to give mothers the support -- not just the medical attention -- they needed for their babies to thrive.

So she worked to found the Maison Bleue. It's funded partly by private donations, partly by government funding. The split helps the centre maintain its independence, Jimenez said.

Syrian refugee Aya Al Muttaem has been coming to the centre, developing connections with other mothers. "When they invited me to a pre-natal meeting, I met other mommies and shared with them my experience," she said, "my happy moments, my fear, discussed together. It's a good opportunity to develop a friendship."

Most of the women who frequent the centre are referred there by a health professional or a personal contact. Many of them have survived conjugal violence, 30 per cent are single parents, another 35 per cent are recent immigrants. More than half are isolated and have mental health problems. Almost three quarters have financial difficulties. But their experiences at the Maison Bleue have direct, measurable impacts on the health of their children. Mothers who have spent time at the Maison Bleue have fewer underweight children than would otherwise be expected.

Jimenez, however, hasn't been surprised. "It's nothing miraculous because this is what [scientific] literature was telling us all along," she said.

Despite her and her colleagues' efforts, some people do, still, slip through the cracks. Jimenez remembered one case, a woman who got pregnant very young, age 15 or 16. She arrived at the centre, giving off a strong smell of marijuana. Today, her life is still imperfect, but the staff at the Maison Bleue are trying to steer her towards calmer waters. "I think we have prevented a whole bunch of more serious problems, and we accepted to be very flexible. When she comes in, we take her on. It's not a question of 'we don't have time,' it's 'oh she's here,' we'll see her right away."

To those who attend the centres and benefit from their services, the Maison Bleue comes across as a more welcoming, friendly environment than a hospital. "It's just very human," Jimenez said.

Three Maison Blueue locations, recognizable by their light blue exterior, exist: in Cotes-des-Neiges, Parc-Extension and St-Michel. Another will soon open in Verdun.

On May 28th, the centre is hosting a benefit gala at L'Olympia theatre.