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‘The world is on hold right now, but we’re not’

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Nonprofits continue life-affirming work with pregnant women 

SAN DIEGO — Some local organizations that provide life-affirming support for pregnant women have found their work complicated amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.

Governmental directives for citizens to maintain social distancing and to stay at home as much as possible have forced some of these organizations to cancel major fundraising events. At the same time, the pandemic has not lessened — and, in some cases, has only increased — demand for these organizations’ essential services.

“The world is on hold right now, but we’re not,” said Heidi Hill, president and CEO of Birth Choice of San Marcos. “Here at Birth Choice, we are still trying to be able to meet the needs of the mothers out there. I believe that the need is increasing and that we need to be available for them.”

For the past 33 years, Birth Choice has served local women by providing pregnancy tests, material goods for mothers and babies, and parenting and prenatal education, as well as post-abortion emotional healing and sexual integrity courses, all at no cost. For the past two years, it has also performed ultrasounds through its Women’s Mobile Clinic.

COVID-19 has curtailed some of its services, including its mobile clinic, but Birth Choice has found ways to continue offering other services in a modified way.

Hill noted that many Planned Parenthood clinics and other abortion facilities in California remain open. At such a time, she said, Birth Choice performs an essential role by continuing to educate women about abortion alternatives.

She recalled a recent encounter with a couple who had wanted a child for a long time, but finding themselves expecting at this challenging moment, weren’t sure they wanted to proceed with the pregnancy. Ultimately, they decided to do so.

Hill said Birth Choice is working to combat such fears and to reassure pregnant women and their partners.

Samantha Flather, executive director of Birthline of San Diego County, sees the organization that she leads as serving “on the front lines” during this pandemic crisis.

Founded 40 years ago, the pregnancy and family support center provides free diapers, children’s clothing, food and more, as well as referrals for various services, to pregnant women and families with children age 6 and younger. Many of its clients live below the poverty line.

“So many people are adhering to the stay-at-home order, thankfully,” said Flather, “but there are still essential services that need to provide for people, and we’re one of them.”

Birthline of San Diego County has two locations — one in the Clairemont area and another in Chula Vista. As a result of the pandemic, the Chula Vista office has temporarily closed and the Clairemont location has reduced hours and staff. Clients have been advised to check the website daily for updates on hours of operation or shortages of any particular items.

Flather acknowledged that the coterie of staffers who are keeping the office open are taking a risk by continuing to work instead of staying home. But, she said, they are providing needed assistance to a vulnerable demographic that is already feeling the economic repercussions of the pandemic.

“We feel like every day that we can stay open is a big accomplishment because we are still seeing clients in desperate need,” she said.

Prior to the pandemic and California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s stay-at-home order, it had been Birth Choice’s practice to welcome clients to its care center, meeting individually with them to ascertain their needs. Hill said such encounters are now taking place over the phone.

Previously, clients also made weekly visits to take one-hour parenting and prenatal classes, earning points from each class that could be redeemed at Birth Choice’s on-site Baby Boutique for diapers, baby wipes and even larger items like portable play yards.

For the duration of the pandemic, however, such classes are not being held at the center, nor are mothers shopping at the boutique. But the program has continued, albeit with some changes.

On March 30, Birth Choice’s client advocate was equipped with a HIPPA-secure laptop, and by the next day had already signed up 17 mothers for online parenting and prenatal classes. On their respective devices, she and a Birth Choice client can both watch a video on a particular topic. When the video ends, they can discuss its content, with the client advocate available to answer any questions.

Mothers continue to earn points for their classes and redeem them for Baby Boutique items, but instead of shopping for them in person, they call the care center to request a particular item and arrange to pick it up. One Birth Choice staffer remains on-site to answer such calls, to retrieve the requested items and to leave them outside for a convenient and safe pick-up.

At Birthline, new protocols have been implemented by Jeanne Hansen, the retired public health nurse who directs the Clairemont office, to protect staff, volunteers and clients. These include regularly wiping down all surfaces with a bleach-based cleaning solution.

Clients no longer enter the Birthline office itself, but rather pick up their supplies in the adjoining courtyard. And, while clients previously were invited to come in and pick out clothes, toys and other items once each month, that too has been suspended.

Hansen said Birthline staffers also have been giving clients enough supplies to last them for two months rather than one.

“We’re doubling up on everything that we can,” she said, so that clients, many of whom rely on public transportation, will not have to travel too frequently and risk exposure to COVID-19.

Flather said that Birthline is also currently providing much of its case-management services over the phone rather than in person.

As organizations like Birthline and Birth Choice continue to provide essential services to women in need, the organizations themselves are taking a financial hit from the pandemic.

“As a nonprofit, we’re dependent upon people’s generosity and it’s concerning about what’s going to be ahead,” said Flather, who noted that Birthline had to cancel its 23rd annual Walk for Life, its biggest annual fundraiser, which had been scheduled for March 29.

Despite that, Hansen said, the organization still has rent to pay and shelves to stock with items for mothers and young children.

Birth Choice, which is funded entirely through private donations, has also seen a loss of revenue. Churches, now closed for public Masses and other services, are unable to host “baby bottle drives,” and one of its two major annual fundraisers has also been canceled.

“If people have the ability to give, even just a little bit, it can keep us continuing to serve these women,” said Hill, “because, right now, because of the COVID virus, people are probably even in more need than ever before.”

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