Birthright program fosters 'lifelong relationship' with women in need

Sheila Calhoun, right, director of Birthright of Owensboro, Ky., and Laura Payne, a volunteer, stand outside the western Kentucky pregnancy resource center Aug. 11, 2022. (CNS photo/Elizabeth Wong Barnstead, Western Kentucky Catholic)

OWENSBORO, Ky. (CNS) ─ Listening to women's stories and offering nonjudgmental support is why Birthright of Owensboro was founded, and what its mission continues to be nearly 40 years later, its director says.

"Birthright is called 'a friend in need,'" said Sheila Calhoun, the pregnancy resource center's director. "Every person is different: someone might need diapers, someone might need formula, someone might just need to cry and have someone listen."

Calhoun became the nonprofit's director in spring 2022, following the retirement of previous director Terri LaHugh after 22 years.

She said Birthright offers many resources for women facing an unexpected pregnancy amid challenging circumstances. Everything is provided free-of-charge.

"Birthright offers pregnancy tests and maternity clothes," said Calhoun. "We also have formula, diapers, infant, toddler and children's clothing usually up to about size five or six. Birthright also has breast pumps, bottles and sippy cups."

Birthright International was founded by Louise Summerhill in Canada in 1968 to help women facing unplanned pregnancies. Since then, their mission has spread to the United States and Africa.

Calhoun said Birthright has no income requirements for receiving services and they are 100% volunteer-run, confidential, donor-supported and ecumenical. They are also nonpolitical and do not lobby or take government funding.

She said Birthright is available "for all the stages of motherhood," noting that its founder wanted the organization to be a "lifelong relationship with these women."

When a client's baby is born, Birthright gifts her with a "shower in a bag," containing all sorts of new mom and baby items, since "some people don't have friends and family with the resources to throw them a shower," said Calhoun. They also receive blankets, quilts with matching crib sheets and burp cloths made by volunteers.

Birthright serves clients of all backgrounds and life situations.

"Sometimes we have people come who have been homeless and are setting up a new place to live," said Calhoun. "Sometimes it is someone who has gotten out of a domestic abuse situation and left all their belongings behind."

Birthright also keeps an extensive list of community resources to make referrals for services they do not offer.

"If they come in and find out they are pregnant and need prenatal vitamins, ultrasounds, doctor's care, etc., we may refer them to Care Net," said Calhoun of Owensboro's local medical pregnancy care center.

If a woman is homeless and pregnant, Owensboro's Birthright connects her with the social worker at St. Gerard Life Home, which offers housing and hospitality to pregnant, unmarried women 18 and older.

Other needs, such as rent and utilities assistance, are referred to the local St. Vincent de Paul chapter. Birthright also refers women needing food to a local shelter or food pantry.

"There really is a good network in this community and diocese, and has been for all these years," Calhoun said. "It's amazing the generosity, the prayers and the giving through donations."

She affirmed the center's fabulous volunteers and said they are currently seeking even more volunteers noting that "just three hours a week can really make a difference in a woman or baby's life."

She said in recent months they have gotten busier "with the economy the way it is" and expects that their client base will only increase, following the U.S. Supreme Court's reversal of the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision in its ruling of Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization.

For their part, Birthright of Owensboro plans to quietly continue their judgment-free -- and nonpolitical -- mission to anyone who reaches out.

"Our volunteers offer love, friendship and support," said Calhoun. "Each person who comes through the door needs that in different ways. Our job is to find out what they need and see how we can help them in a personal way."

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Barnstead is editor of The Western Kentucky Catholic, newspaper of the Diocese of Owensboro.


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