By JORDAN MCMORROUGH
CHARLESTON — It began in 1999 in two rooms in West Ashley with donated office furniture and one volunteer. “Before we even opened, people were already calling,” said director Lucy Zwarych about Birthright of Charleston.
Now, with their move to larger, roomier quarters at 748D St. Andrews Blvd., the emergency pregnancy center hopes to make a bigger difference in helping mothers bring their babies to birth. They hope to put lives back together again with information regarding prenatal care, medical help, parenting skills; and adoption referrals following their free pregnancy tests.
“Women’s bodies and minds know they’re pregnant before they realize it,” said Zwarych, adding that about 60 percent of pregnancy tests return positive.
For those seeking assistance, the new center also contains a storage room with diapers, baby clothes, blankets, layettes and a variety of other items a mother and child would need.
Zwarych herself is expecting a baby in less than a month. She said her pregnancy connects her to women coming to Birthright, in that she knows their joys and concerns and can empathize with them.
“I try to share pregnancy with them — their difficulties, worries and fears. Life becomes very real.”
Another revealing experience for Zwarych, who has two sons, ages 20 and 21, has been getting reacquainted with the medical field.
“The forces pushing women toward abortion are so strong all we can do is offer support. Society gives a false message that abortion is going to be an easy solution. It’s not easier, but a whole lot more difficult in the long run. I wish we could say we were 100 percent successful, but we’re not,” Zwarych said sadly.
Clients come to Birthright and share stories of regret which they carry their whole lives, she explained. Life-long consequences of abortion that society doesn’t share with women.
“There is emotional and psychological damage to women — drugs, alcohol, abusive relationships, focus on work — anything to hide the pain they have felt,” said the director.
Zwarych said that when Birthright first opened, there were calls for practical needs, such as cribs and diapers. About midway through last year however, “the gates opened up.”
“There was a complete change in dynamics. High school and college students started to call. Finally we were working on our mission,” she explained.
The center even had to stop an advertising campaign that was underway as 500-plus women came seeking services. They have ranged from 14 to 49, covering four generations.
Christine Webb, a volunteer counselor at Birthright and parishioner of Blessed Sacrament Church, said the organization’s busy time of the year is from September to December, as woman and girls starting back to school find out they are pregnant. At times, Webb said she will test six people in a two-hour period, and of those, four are usually positive.
“We meet them where they are,” Webb said. “If we plant a compassionate seed, the word of God is with them. Maybe somewhere down the line it is watered and blooms.”
Prayer was described as the most important component in counseling. “If I have to save that person, then I’m doomed. It’s God’s creation. That’s what we’re all about,” Webb stressed.
“Every woman is affected by the consequences of an unplanned pregnancy. It’s not a teen problem, it’s more of a women’s issue. It’s that widespread,” said Zwarych, although she acknowledged that many clients come from the College of Charleston and Trident Technical College.
That could be due in part to presentations she has given over the past year to students in junior and senior high schools, colleges, and Medical University of South Carolina Nursing School.
Of the MUSC talk she said, “It was essential to share with them other options. We’ve received a lot of referrals from them. They were very receptive, and they listened.”
In addition, the MUSC Volunteer Center is assisting Birthright, bringing women to the center.
This year Birthright may see 800 to 1,000 clients. Currently, they are at number 500, with projections to see at least 800 women.
Some will require a lot of visits and phone calls, as volunteers keep in touch with the women all through pregnancy and the first year after childbirth. Others will even keep in contact after that initial phase.
“If we send the message the right way, they will listen. We are here with open hearts and arms. We give them hope and reason for life and answers to problems in a gentle, loving, compassionate way,” the mother-to-be proclaimed.
“Most success has been on a one-to-one basis, when we get that humanness and connectedness,” Zwarych said. “We will spend whatever time we need with them on the phone or in the office.”
The director emphasized the importance of having two phone lines in the new office, one private and one for incoming calls. For some women counseling can be a cautious situation, and Birthright volunteers don’t want to create further problems. In many cases husbands or boyfriends leave the relationship or are detached at best.
Zwarych stressed that men need to understand better the tremendous impact they have on the woman’s choice. “They are equally responsible for the life created. Men need to know what they are asking women to do when they are pressuring them for an abortion. Men need to be reminded this is flesh of their flesh, blood of their blood. They need to be protective of the lives that are placed here. We get some men that are supportive, but that’s the exception.”
In South Carolina, other Birthright offices are located in Columbia, Greenville, and Clemson. And it is hoped by organizers that centers can be started in Beaufort and Myrtle Beach before the end of the year, as the Lowcountry location receives calls from an area ranging from Wilmington, N.C., to Savannah, Ga.
Said Zwarych, “When we first opened, I wondered if we needed another center. Now I wonder how many more we can build?”
In Charleston, the development of an active and involved Board of Directors has been a top priority for the organization. Last June, a committee formed to secure a new facility looked at long-term goals and vision for Birthright in the Holy City. A new location was found, but rent for the building has doubled. Expenses have increased as more clients have meant more pregnancy tests and higher phone bills.
Currently there are seven people on the board with a goal to have nine members. Public speaking is undertaken by some members of the board.
Members of the board are Fred Koch, chairman; Christian Brother Tony Quinn, vice chairman; James Rebuck, treasurer; Our Lady of Mercy Sister Rosemary Boyd, secretary; Rocco D’Ambrossio and Lisa Rawlins. Zwarych serves as an ex officio member.
Brother Quinn had previous experience in working with Birthright in Chicago as a high school counselor. He helps those interested in being counselors “to know what Birthright is and what it isn’t.” He also backs up counselors if they need to talk about a situation and offers them advice.
He explained some of the techniques used to counsel women at the center. “Sometimes it’s doing plain ordinary education. Most clients are four- to six- to eight-weeks along when they come in. We use the term ‘child,’ not ‘fetus.'”
The Christian brother said that many times volunteers have to educate the man that is involved. “Many times the initial call is from the father of the child. We give support to other members in the family to help the person get sound medical help. Abortion affects all.”
Rebuck, from Divine Redeemer Church in Hanahan, became interested in Birthright after Zwarych spoke at the parish last year. He helps the organization with grants, campaigns, and fund raising, and is currently looking at things other pro-life groups have used to raise money.
Presently, the center receives funds from the diocesan Bishop’s Stewardship Appeal, various grants, and individual donations.
“We would like to have one paid staff. Right now we use volunteer bookkeepers, and we’d like to have enough income not to do that,” said Rebuck.
D’Ambrossio read about Birthright in his church bulletin and became involved through the efforts of Koch. “The people here have floored me. The volunteers here are incredible,” he said.
Zwarych followed up on his comments, adding that more people need to be involved. “It’s very rewarding and can be scary, but it’s one of the most valuable things I’ve done in my life.”
Training for Birthright volunteers consists of an orientation period and working with staff. Peer counseling and mentoring are key components. Time frames for different needs and talents are adjustable, as interested individuals can work at their own time and pace, with training normally taking a month to four months.
The center currently operates limited hours with two people always in the office, but clients can come in by appointment. There is a 24-hour national hotline in Atlanta that directs calls to Charleston for follow-up.
“We’d all like to see more contact with women and more volunteers to extend the hours,” Zwarych said. “Crises don’t wait.”
With the mother’s permission, the office posts when children are born on a “wall of life.” “It helps them to see that they are not the only one who has been through this and ‘I can make it through this also,'” she said.
These certificates and photos send a powerful message in a very subtle, caring way, reinforcing the motto of the crisis pregnancy organization, “The essence of Birthright is love.”
Birthright of Charleston can be reached at (843) 556-4403. Hours at the center are Tuesday, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 4 to 6 p.m.; Wednesday, 4 to 6 p.m.; Thursday, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.; two Fridays each month from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.; first Saturday of each month from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m.; and other hours available by appointment. The hotline number is (800) 550-4900, and the website is www.birthright.org.