"The more things change, the more they stay the same," is an old adage my mother used to tell me. As I have worked with birth moms over the past ten years, it has become clear to me how much change is everywhere. Maternity homes have been replaced by day care facilities in high schools; counseling has been replaced by online chat; and support groups have morphed into anonymous groups on Facebook or MySpace.
How do these changes affect pregnancy centers? Do they affect centers at all? Are these changes significant to what we do? Can we still reach our target audience without having face-to-face counseling sessions? How important is it for us to keep up with technological advancements? Can't we just keep on doing what we've always done?
Experience has shown us that personal interaction with our clients is what it's all about. The relationship is what the client finds useful over any advice or resources we may give them. The mere existence of our centers where young women can come and receive personal time with someone who cares for them has been our foundation. In an era of so many kids with so much time on their hands, little or no supervision, and money to burn, talking with someone face to face is almost new and different.
Obviously, we are not able to give a pregnancy test over the Internet. However, some other ways we can minister may be worth looking into. The center where I have worked and now volunteer has always made it a priority to have high-speed Internet access, networked computers, and access to relevant software. While this may seem like a budget stretch for the smaller centers, consider the benefits. Having an online presence is not an option in a time when our target clients are more likely to look us up on the Internet than in the Yellow Pages. Being able to answer questions by e-mail may make them feel more comfortable about coming in. Moreover, it may make follow-up easier. Our clients are so much more at ease asking questions anonymously through e-mail than asking them in person. They want the Truth and real answers, and our world just isn't giving it to them. Isn't that our job? The Internet is just one more avenue in which we can give them the information they truly need to make a good decision.
Some of you are probably familiar with Facebook, an online community not unlike MySpace. For Facebook users, the average demographic is about college age. These are perceptive, educated students who are very interested in connecting with other students around the world. They connect in groups from chocolate lovers to Bible studies to chapters of Planned Parenthood.
Birth moms are using this resource to connect with one another. Instead of going back to the agency to talk, they are seeking out each other online to talk about their experiences. I manage one such group on Facebook called Askabirthmom. I created the group to provide a safe place to go with thoughts and feelings, encouragement on the journey, mentoring to those that are coming behind us, and godly insights into all of it. This is not the only group for birth moms, but I think it is the only one that strives to combine godly principles with counseling. This particular group was formed in 2007, and I have already learned a lot about online relationships. Since I'm no longer college-aged, I've had to learn about this virtual community stuff on my own.
Point of reference. Chatting with someone online is nothing like talking with someone in a counseling room. If you have ever done this, you know exactly what I'm talking about. The only thing that we have online is the words on the screen. Because of the nature of online chat, we can't even really take how the words are written (no capitals, no formal sentences, etc.) as a clue. Instead, we have to take what they say as truth without the luxury of physical cues. Sitting in the counseling room, we can get an idea if someone is actually telling the truth or not. We can take into account their physical appearance and factor that into our overall assessment. We can do none of this online. I was chatting with one group member last week. She came across as very cold and bitter. However, when I asked her about it, she stated she wasn't bitter at all. Do I know either way? Nope.
Sense of self. Another benefit we have in the counseling room that is absent online is the opportunity to see if the client has a sense of who she is. There's a vast difference between the client who has goals and dreams of going to college and becoming something, as compared to the young lady who spends all of her time with her boyfriend and just wants to have his baby so they can live together forever. Sometimes we can pick that up in their speech online, but it is so much easier to hide that side of their personality when not confronted with someone in person.
Personal experience. There's something about just sitting in a room with another person—being able to watch and see if they are comfortable in their own skin, if they are anxious, if they are bored or tired or whatever. The Internet has effectively cut us off from each other. And frankly, that's not the way God intended it to be. We were created to be in fellowship with one another. Granted, the Internet did not exist in Christ's day, so that was not an obstacle. Nevertheless, there were plenty of other ways in which Christ and His disciples could have been cut off from the common people. They could have traveled together and stayed and slept in their own tent community. Instead, they chose to travel in pairs and stay with residents in the town where they were preaching. They chose community over isolation. Our society continues to isolate us from each other, and I believe that is to our detriment.
So what have I learned from Askabirthmom? More than ever, we need each other. There is a world of hurting, wounded women out there who need us, our compassion and our expertise. We need to continue finding ways of reaching them—ways to go to them and meet them where they are.
Terri Gake volunteers at Advice and Aid Pregnancy Center in Shawnee, KS. She can be reached through her website www.askabirthmom.com.