Pregnancy Help Centers mark 20th anniversary

Key Catholic Charities program has grown to six sites throughout East Tennessee

By Dan McWilliams

Catholic Charities of East Tennessee’s Pregnancy Help Center in Knoxville celebrated its 20th anniversary Aug. 16-18 as the Diocese of Knoxville social services agency opens its sixth East Tennessee center in Helenwood.

“It’s been quite the journey,” said Catholic Charities executive director Lisa Healy.

CCETN offices and the pregnancy center were formerly located on Dameron Avenue until an arson fire late last year forced them to move to the Regas Building downtown. The Dameron offices are being restored.

“The first center was in Knoxville. One of the great features of the center in Knoxville is the location on Dameron Avenue is directly across the street from the Knox County Health Department,” Mrs. Healy said. “Our partnership with the health department is a very good one. Any woman who goes into the health department for WIC who needs a pregnancy test is sent over to our Knoxville center.”

WIC is a special supplemental-nutrition program for women, infants, and children and is for low-income families.

“That in and of itself is just a great benefit of our location,” Mrs. Healy said.

The Pregnancy Help Center in Knoxville “is a very successful center,” she added. “There are many partnerships. They’ve served over 28,000 women just out of that center in the last 20 years.”

The Helenwood location joins Knoxville and four other sites for pregnancy assistance.

Sandi Davidson, second from right, who leads Catholic Charities of East Tennessee’s Pregnancy Help Centers, is joined by, from right, Ivett Lambert, Ernestine Meiners, Sister Asunta Thairu, MCESM, and Ada Hernandez-Bell in celebrating the 20th anniversary of Catholic Charities’ pregnancy help ministry, which now includes centers in Knoxville, Chattanooga, Johnson City, Newcomb/Jellico, LaFollette, and Helenwood.

“We also have centers in Chattanooga, Johnson City, Newcomb or Jellico, and LaFollette,” Mrs. Healy noted. “And our newest location is in Helenwood in Scott County. We think that is really a special area. There is a lot of need there. There are not a lot of resources there in the community. We’ve invited St. Mary’s Legacy Clinic to join us to serve the community. We don’t have a very big space. Sister Mary Lisa Renfer and Martin Vargas are going to put the St. Mary’s Legacy Clinic in Catholic Charities’ small center there. They will start serving there on the second Tuesday of every month. We’re open there three days a week.

“It’s so exciting to collaborate with the other ministries of the Diocese of Knoxville. We really are the charitable arm of the Church. That’s what we represent. We have 10 wonderful programs. We’re like the best-kept secret in town, everything that we do.”

Sandi Davidson, who is Catholic Charities’ Pregnancy Services program leader, has earned much credit for the program’s success.

“We can collaborate with the other missions, parish missions. We’re getting ready to start a collaboration with Sacred Heart called ‘Walking With Moms’ involving Sandi and her team and the guilds at Sacred Heart,” Mrs. Healy said. “The Pregnancy Help Centers, there are six locations; however, with all services one of the things we find is its very difficult for people to find transportation to where we are with any of our services, including Pregnancy Help Centers.”

Mrs. Healy said that while COVID affected everything, one side effect is that it prompted innovation.

“During COVID, we went online. So, with our pregnancy assistance, a mom could actually take over 200 classes in English and Spanish from the comfort of her home through a Roku device,” she said.

“Our volunteers monitor the classes they take and then get on the phone and go over the instruction with them. Moms can then come to the Pregnancy Help Center and spend the ‘Earn While You Learn’ bucks, or they can go to Amazon, to Walmart, to Target and order things through Catholic Charities with the use of the ‘Earn While You Learn’ bucks,” she added.

Mrs. Davidson said that all of the Pregnancy Help Centers have combined to assist “more than 39,000 people since 2002.”

“We opened our very first Pregnancy Help Center at Gables West on Kingston Pike on Aug. 17, 2002,” she said. “The Pregnancy Help Center provides love, support, information, and aid to anyone facing or having faced a pregnancy that is planned or unplanned. We are here to walk alongside them and help them navigate this uncertain time in their lives.”

Mrs. Davidson said that “we are absolutely thrilled to add our Helenwood Pregnancy Help Center. Through our ‘Earn While You Learn’ Program, we are able to assist anyone, anytime, anywhere within our diocese. We have also re-added our adoption program and plan to add a mobile ultrasound van to travel our diocese and ultrasound clinics at our pregnancy help centers.”

The services offered at the help centers have expanded over the years, Mrs. Davidson said.

“When we first started, we offered a 24-hour helpline, free pregnancy testing, options information, adoption services, community referrals, and a small amount of material goods (a few diapers and donated baby items) that we just gave to them,” she said. “We mainly provided services for pregnant women and newborns. This was successful, but we realized we needed to do more. So, we now have: a 24-hour pregnancy helpline; six Pregnancy Help Centers; free pregnancy testing; options information; more than 250 educational classes on pregnancy, parenting, life skills, and fatherhood; material assistance (brand-new cribs, car seats, formula, diapers, wipes, etc.) that they earn through our educational classes; community and agency referrals; and Project Rachel—our post-abortion healing and recovery program that offers one-on-one counseling, weekend retreats, and monthly support groups.”

Clients can stay in the program until their babies are 2 years old, Mrs. Davidson pointed out.

A resource fair Aug. 16 kicked off a three-day celebration of the 20th anniversary.

Sandi Davidson, Catholic Charities of East Tennessee Pregnancy Services program leader, is honored during the anniversary celebration.

“We are celebrating our 20th anniversary, and we have lots of parties going on this week,” said Ernestine Meiners, program coordinator at the Pregnancy Help Center in Knoxville. “The Pregnancy Help Centers here in Knoxville have been open for 20 years, and we are having a party all week long. We’re having a party for our clients. We invited all our community resources that we refer our clients to to come in and party with us. Today is all about the clients.

“Then, we’re having a party for the volunteers and the donors to say thank you to them for all the work they’ve done, because we could not do this without them. After that we’re having an open house for anyone in Knoxville who wants to come and visit with us to say hi and see what we do here at the Pregnancy Help Center.”

The community resources represented at the fair included Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library, the YWCA (domestic violence/empowerment), Family Promise (housing), the Metro Drug Coalition (free lockboxes), Back to School supplies (free backpack to pre-K to fifth-grade students), and many more.

Ivett Lambert is the coordinator for Spanish clients at the Pregnancy Help Center.

“We have lots of organizations that help us with the clients when they need something like diapers or medical services or car seats,” she said.

The services aren’t provided “directly through the Pregnancy Help Center, but these community partners work with us when our clients need assistance with homelessness or smoking or learning English, lots and lots of resources,” Ms. Meiners said. “They’ve all come together with us to throw this party for the clients.”

Ms. Lambert said, “It’s wonderful because everybody’s coming here. They know that they can count on us. We are so happy to serve this community. We have all kinds of international clients—we have Spanish, we have English, we have Swahili. We all are here to help those mamas in need and the families that need us to provide the best for them.”

Ms. Meiners said she “always describes our goals at the Pregnancy Help Center as threefold. One, we want a healthy, full-term baby (two) going home to a loving and nurturing home. And the third one is, it’s hard to be loving and nurturing when you’re stressed out. We try to find resources for them to help manage their stresses. If we can’t remove the stress completely, we help them manage that stress, and that’s what these community partners do with us.”

At the Aug. 17 event, trivia questions were asked about the Pregnancy Help Center, including:

  • How many diapers does a typical newborn use in one year? (2,000)
  • How many center coordinators/leaders has the Pregnancy Help Center in Knoxville had? (nine)
  • Who made rosary bracelets for years with proceeds going toward the pregnancy center? (Shirley Moore)
  • What percentage of Pregnancy Help Center-Knoxville clients speak Spanish? (33 percent)
  • What percentage of the Pregnancy Help Center-Knoxville client base are fathers? (15.8 percent)
  • With the new virtual parenting classes, how many different counties in East Tennessee are currently reached by the six pregnancy help centers? (16 counties and two adjoining states)
  • How many clients were served last year at the Knoxville Pregnancy Help Center? (303)

Mrs. Healy said that “we continue to change, but having those centers and that visibility provide places for community classes, individual coaching and mentoring, and education. While those centers still serve that, we’ve even gone beyond that with online streaming. We actually touch 16 counties and Kentucky and Georgia by taking pregnancy help online. Yes, it’s been 20 years, and we’ve changed. We’ve tried to continue to meet the needs of the moms.”

“Mrs. Davidson is our pregnancy help superhero,” Ms. Healy said as she congratulated her colleague on the milestone anniversary.

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