Virtual classes provide key connection with clients when meeting in-person not possible

By Gayle Irwin

Editor’s note: The Pregnancy Help Center of Catholic Charities of East Tennessee in Knoxville, TN, experienced a devastating fire Nov. 28. The center continues to seek a temporary location to ministry to women and families. Virtual classes were part of the center’s offerings prior to the fire as needed and have become more crucial. This article was prepared before the fire occurred. Click HERE for more information on how to support the center’s rebuild efforts.

Tara had discovered she was pregnant when she first arrived in Knoxville, Tennessee. She learned about Pregnancy Help Center and began receiving support, including through virtual classes, empowering her to choose life for her child.

“Pregnancy Help Center has opened up a whole new world for me of growth and knowledge that is empowering me to become the best mom I can be!” Tara said. “I am so glad that I was introduced to them while I was pregnant with my daughter. Even during this pandemic, they have stuck by me and worked with me so that I was able to take classes online.”

“We had just been toying with ‘hey, can we do this virtually?’” said Ernestine “Ernie” Meiners, program leader at Pregnancy Help Center in Knoxville. “We’ve been able to keep connected with our moms, dads, and families all the way through COVID. It’s been wonderful!”

Tara was homeless when she moved to Knoxville, Meiners said.

“She was feeling alone, and being able to call us when she needed help or needed someone to talk with helped her,” Meiners said. “We kept doing lessons with her, helping her feel stronger and empowered.”

The mother and her new daughter remain in contact with Meiners and the rest of the staff at Pregnancy Help Center, operated by Catholic Charities of Eastern Tennessee. Her life is different.

“She’s now going back to school,” Meiners said. “Seeing the growth in the parents as we’ve been working them virtually has been amazing!”

The center received a grant to bring the classes online, using material from Bright Course, she added. Not only did the virtual classes help Tara, but others as well. Chris and his wife, Lori, are another example.

“I joined the program when we found out my wife was pregnant,” the young man said. “I (we) did not have the knowledge to be a parent(s), and the program helped with baby supplies. The EWYL (Earn While You Learn) program means the world to me. It has increased my parenting knowledge and helps with supplies for the baby. It is well worth your time to learn as much as you can to raise a child, and Catholic Charities of East Tennessee is a great place to get this information.”

History and growth

Pregnancy Help Center began in Knoxville in 2002; an abortion recovery program, Project Rachel, started that year as well. The following year, a pregnancy center opened in Chattanooga, and a satellite office near the University of Tennessee campus began in 2006. There are now five Pregnancy Help Center locations in eastern Tennessee, including one near the Kentucky border and another near the Georgia state line, Meiners said. Growth continues – another center is planned for 2022, also near the Kentucky border.

“We just keep growing,” she said. “We are reaching out to moms and dads wherever they are.”

Even though the COVID pandemic negatively impacted businesses, pregnancy centers, and life in general in many ways, virtual classes allowed the Pregnancy Help Center to reach more people in rural areas, including those without transportation.

“We are surrounded by rural sections. By going virtual, we’ve been able to reach out to moms who needed support, who felt isolated,” Meiners said.

All five centers offered virtual classes after the pandemic started. The staff and volunteers at those locations reached 16 different counties, and families have watched nearly 20,000 hours of lessons during the past 18 months, she added.

Finding resources and healing

Offering virtual sessions has benefited another aspect of client support – their willingness to share current concerns and problems from the past.

“These families have opened up (with their advocates) and talked about the stressors in their lives that they might not have shared with us in the center, and we were able to get referrals and references to them,” Meiners said.

That included steel-toed boots for a dad who needed them for a new job.

One of the advocates shared a story about a woman under her tutelage:

“My client was listing all things she had learned from this quarter for the client survey. She was sharing how some of the Bright Course lessons she can really relate to and finds fascinating. She shares so much more with me as the time goes on…especially about her past. The client has many Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) in her back story. This year she has pushed through a domestic violence situation, working two jobs, and finding a new place to live. I hear her taking pride in fixing up her apartment and trying to be a good mother. She talks about learning from the Bright Course lessons and relating to the classes she is taking. We spent several classes talking about her working so many hours and not seeing her child. Several months back she found a new factory job that has better hours, better pay and benefits.”

Meiners said, “It is a joy when we can see the ACEs cycle starting to breakdown.”

Whether the need is counseling, assistance with rent or utilities, or providing diapers and wipes, Pregnancy Help Center and Catholic Charities of Eastern Tennessee commits to helping women and families continue their pregnancies and care for their children.

“This virtual (programming) has allowed us to grow our outreach to moms and dads in need,” Meiners said.

When families needed diapers and wipes and couldn’t come into the center, staff and volunteers set up a system for them to pick up the materials, she added.

“We called it our ‘Domino Take-Out Service,’” Meiners said. “They would pull into the parking lot, call us and say, ‘I need size 5 diapers, wipes, and formula.’ We’d bundle it up and run it down the ramp and set it on the picnic table then run back up the ramp and give them the high five. Then they’d get their packages. It was fun, and we got a whole new level of relationship with our clients.”

The center also shipped out diapers to clients’ homes or to a local church where they could go to pick up the items. At times, someone from the church delivered the package to person’s home, especially if “they don’t have transportation,” said Meiners.

“It’s really a community that’s helped these moms and dads,” she said.

Editor’s note. This appeared at Pregnancy Help News and is reposted with permission.