By Helena Tavares Kennedy
When facing an unplanned pregnancy, women need someone to turn to, and often their closest relatives or friends aren’t the support they were hoping for. Some don’t even have a trusting family or friend to turn to in their time of need. Birthright is an international nonprofit organization that helps women through their unplanned pregnancies with a variety of services to assist them on their difficult journey.
The organization was founded in 1968 in Canada by a mother of seven who wanted to help women facing unplanned pregnancies. The two Prince William County locations in Woodbridge and Manassas were started soon after in the 1970s. There was a wide divide of farming land between Woodbridge and western Prince William County at that time, causing women who sometimes didn’t have cars or any reliable transportation to have to find a way to get to Woodbridge.
When asked what Birthright’s primary service is, Manassas location director and volunteer Kathy Madsen said, “Presence… someone willing to listen and try to help you, to be a sounding board, to help you form a plan to move forward on whatever decision you make or whatever your plan is.”
What makes Birthright different from other nonprofits that support women facing unplanned pregnancies is that it is not associated with any particular church or religion. It is interdenominational, and many of the organization’s volunteers belong to a variety of churches, which sometimes donate supplies and other items.
It is clear from Birthright’s website and description that the organization wants to help any woman facing an unplanned pregnancy, whether she is a teenager or older, married or single, Christian or Muslim, low income or upper income—it just doesn’t matter to Birthright volunteers. They treat every woman who comes to them for help with respect and dignity, fulfilling the goal of offering them the love and support they may not be getting from anyone else at this critical moment in their lives.
Madsen has been with Birthright for more than 30 years and has seen a lot of changes and growth. “In the beginning, it was difficult. Because it was an all-volunteer organization, people didn’t take us seriously,” Madsen said. “All the way up to the international level, Birthright is totally run by volunteers.” Originally, Madsen was an office volunteer, who answered phones and helped with office administrative tasks. Experienced volunteers provide training to newcomers.
“To be a volunteer with Birthright, you need a lot of empathy, compassion, and intuition,” Madsen said. “When you are called to do this, you make it work.”
Volunteers help in a variety of ways utilizing their talents and gifts. Some volunteers put together gift boxes, similar to a mini-baby shower in a box, for women who have babies but no resources to purchase items for their newborns. Some volunteers work on the newsletter, offering their marketing or writing skills to the organization from home during evenings or on weekends. Other volunteers come into the office to help with one of the seven three-hour weekly shifts to answer phones and assist anyone that comes in during their shift.
Madsen said, “We really need a lot of volunteers to cover all the shifts, and since they are during the weekday, many working people can’t come in for those shifts,” which means they are always looking for stay-at-home moms, retirees, and others that have the flexibility to come in Monday-Friday.
Helping Women from the Beginning
Women often come to Birthright for just a one-time referral or to obtain maternity clothing, while others visit Birthright throughout their pregnancies. In the Prince William County area, there has been a stronger need to help the increased number of immigrants who are seeking help at their centers. Madsen noted that they don’t see as many pregnant teens as they did years ago, but they often see married women who already have children, but don’t think they can handle another one. Birthright can refer them to agencies in the area that can help them by assisting with referrals and services for prenatal care and directing them to many other resources that women may not know are available to them. A mother who visited Birthright and wishes to remain anonymous said, “I was in total despair. I was six months pregnant, homeless, and on medical leave from work. I did not know what I was going to do. I called Birthright and from the first conversation the volunteer was comforting, personable, and reassured me that my situation would get better. They helped me locate other resources that matched my needs. With the help of Birthright, I was able to get assistance with items that I needed for my child. They put me in contact with people who [helped]me to find housing. The staff worked very hard to make sure that they could do everything possible for me and my child. Words will truly never be able to describe just how thankful I am to have been blessed with Birthright and all the people I’ve come in contact with because of this organization, who have helped me on this difficult journey.” Another anonymous mother said, “I cannot stress enough what a positive and wonderful thing the volunteers at Birthright have been doing for years. I went to them for help at one of the bleakest times of my life, and I didn’t have much hope for the future. The people there went above and beyond and helped me in ways I never expected. They offered a hand up, and more than that – emotional support and hope. I honestly believe that what they did for me helped me to turn my life around and gave me the strength I needed to make it.” The “pay it forward” mentality is high among the women who use Birthright services, as many women often bring back the maternity and infant clothing they were given after they are finished using it so that others can benefit, or even become volunteers so they can let other women know they aren’t alone. “Jane” found herself pregnant at 16 years old, and her parents wanted her to have an abortion, even though she wanted to keep the baby and her boyfriend (now her husband) was staying by her side. She called a local pregnancy help center in her state that helped her during this difficult time. She said, “Life wasn’t easy, and it took time to rebuild the relationship with my parents, but we did…My son is now 29 years old…and I’ve been married to his father for 29 years. We’ve been blessed with another son and daughter too. All these years I have cherished that place I called at that very difficult time in my life. I sadly do not remember the name of it, nor of the woman who helped me, but I always vowed that one day I would try to give back what was given to me. I feel that Birthright allows me that opportunity, and that is why I volunteer at Birthright.” Get Involved While Birthright receives community and church support and donations, the organization’s greatest need right now is bilingual volunteers, especially Spanish-speaking volunteers. Madsen said they have seen more non-English speakers who are falling through the cracks and not getting the services they need elsewhere, so they are coming to Birthright. Unfortunately, only a small portion of their current volunteers speak Spanish. Birthright’s other greatest need is monetary donations to help women with their prenatal care, which often requires women to put down a deposit to cover their initial costs. “We will work with volunteers on whatever their talents and time [are]in order to find something that works for everyone,” Madsen said. Another way to help Birthright is to get the word out to others that they are here to help. As Madsen said, many people don’t even know the organization exists. When asked what one thing she hopes Prince William Living readers will remember about Birthright, Madsen said, “The essence of Birthright’s service is love, and everything else comes out of that.” Helena Tavares Kennedy (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a freelance writer and communications director who has lived in Manassas for more than 15 years.