Pregnancy center opens with message of strength, beauty

| Bridget Ryder | October 16, 2015 | 0 Comments
A temporary sign marks the recently opened Abria Pregnancy Resources Oct. 15 on University Avenue in St. Paul. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

A temporary sign marks recently opened Abria Pregnancy Resources on University Avenue in St. Paul Oct. 15 . Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

Abria Pregnancy Resources opened its doors Oct. 12 in St. Paul with a message to young women that they are strong enough to face a challenge, including an unexpected pregnancy.

The new pro-life pregnancy resource center on University Avenue, across the street from a Planned Parenthood facility, is the work of a year of strategic planning that resulted in a single location and new name for the Highland and University LifeCare Centers, as well as expanded services and a stronger philosophy of compassion.

“Our approach is to provide women with a safe, non-judgmental, welcoming place to make a really important decision in their life,” said Nancy Utoft, board president. “The other aspect that’s really important is that we’re not just there with the women at the moment of decision, we want to walk with them up to the first two years.”

They hope to overcome the discouragement and pressure to abort that woman with unexpected pregnancies often encounter not only from the child’s father but also from their parents.

“What we’ve found is that women [with an unexpected pregnancy] don’t see themselves as strong and beautiful because they’ve been told ‘you can’t handle it,’” said Sarah Mealey, a board member.

Lisa Schmitz, Abria’s executive director, described its operating philosophy as a “non-directive, values-based approach to help them find the answers themselves.”

“The name means strong and beautiful,” Schmitz said of Abria. “We really see our clients that way. They have the answers in them.”

Abria’s role is to provide the information and practical support to make a choice for life seem possible. Schmitz believes they will be successful because they thoroughly embrace that vision.

“We see [clients] holistically,” Schmitz said. “It’s not just about saving the baby. It’s about building trust and establishing relationships with them. We’re hoping they will come and see us as much as they need or want to.”

Wide-ranging services

Besides ultrasounds and pregnancy and STD testing, Abria’s services include material assistance for baby items, professional counseling, life coaching, medical counseling, assistance navigating additional resources and benefits, and post-abortion counseling. The facility also has a physician medical director.

Clients earn points for participating in Abria’s personal support services, including classes on financial planning, childbirth and parenting. Clients can spend their points at Abria’s boutique that offers new and gently used baby items displayed like a retail store.

“Everything we’re doing is to respect the dignity of the woman,” Schmitz said. “We do material assistance in a really nice way. If we wouldn’t give it away to our relatives, we won’t put it out there.”

The facility itself speaks to Abria’s mission. Walking in feels like entering a medical practice, but the bright, contemporary décor of the two waiting rooms, a large one with a play area for children and a more secluded one to provide privacy and quiet, as well the areas for counseling, ultrasounds, and education program signal something more. The center also has chapel where the Eucharist is reserved, and Mass will be offered two Saturdays a month.

“We wanted it to be a place that was professional, credible and clinical, but at the same time welcoming. We wanted it to be a place that in itself would be a consolation,” Mealey said.

Reaching key audiences

In addition to a billboard on University, they are using communications technology to reach a generation of smart phones and tablet users. They have already launched campaigns on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram and will soon launch a YouTube channel. They are also working on two 30-second television ads to run on cable and will have ads on Pandora and Spotify.

Their website is mobile enabled and clients can book appointments online. Clients can also communicate with Abria about any topic through online chat or text message. According to Mealey, Abria will be the only pregnancy resource center to do Internet, radio and cable advertising and to have such extensive social media presence.

Their new vision includes community outreach, as well.

In the 2016-17 school year they hope to launch pre-crisis education programs for junior high, high school and college-age students. Mealey said they are still looking at curriculum, but it will not be a traditional abstinence-only program. Instead, it will use health education and relationship training to convey the concept of the dignity of each human person.

The expanded services, new location, new name, new branding and media campaigns follow an in-depth strategic planning process that received added urgency when the University Life Care Center lost its lease last spring when the building’s owner sold it to a developer. But the soul searching went deeper than just figuring out where to reopen.

“We took a step back, looked at whole environment for medical services and contraception and the environment these women live in as far as social media and access to information,” Utoft said.

Research-rooted approach

Mealey, a marketing and strategic planning consultant and former Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis communications director, conducted the research that ultimately included over 56 interviews with leaders of pregnancy centers and pro-life groups around the state.

Mealey put in more than 100 hours of research that looked into demographics, trends in abortion and contraception, and recent strategy changes at Planned Parenthood, the state’s largest abortion provider. She also analyzed the last six years of fundraising and client use of services at the Highland and University LifeCare Centers, which merged in 2012,  to understand what was and wasn’t working.

For a location, their research pointed them toward University Avenue as central to the clientele that the centers in Highland Park and Dinkytown had served. Eighty percent of their clients come from lower income, predominantly African American neighborhoods. Eleven percent of their clients are predominantly Caucasian college students, and 9 percent are recent immigrants whose second language is English.

The University location is easily accessible by public transportation and car, closer to more colleges and within five miles of the ZIP codes that, according to Mealey’s research, have the highest abortion rates in the state.

The board also seriously considered their particular role in the pro-life movement. “What business are you in?” Mealey, posed the question.

“We landed that we’re in the business of earning trust and building relationships,” she said. “The approach needs to be the process and then the outcome will come. You can’t get so focused on the outcome that you forget about the person right in front of you.”

This approach had always been part of the philosophy of the Highland and University LifeCare Centers, but will be more intentional at Abria, according to Utoft.

Their research also told them that one third of abortions in Minnesota are repeat abortions, which gives urgency to being welcoming and non-judgmental.

“Even if they make a different decision they are always welcome here,” Mealey said. “Maybe our job is to be the place she comes back to prevent a second abortion.”

Providing STD testing is also a way to reach young people who are in a moment of crisis and are at risk for an unplanned pregnancy.

Abria has expanded their board to include a medical services advisory council, a volunteer programs council, and clergy council. Bishop Andrew Cozzens chairs the clergy council that already numbers 17 priests. They hope to continue to expand and include pastors from other denominations.  The volunteer committee created a program that intends to make it meaningful and productive for volunteers to donate time to Abria.

For more information, visit http://www.abria.org.

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