For Melinda Gardner, executive director of Apple Pregnancy Care Center in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, pregnancy help center ministry has been a decades-long adventure.
The journey began when Gardner was 25 years old and in the midst of some major life changes. She had just given birth to her first child and subsequently quit her job to be a stay-at-home mom. Sometime after, Gardner and her husband had the opportunity to host a Care Net associate in their home for a brief stay.
This simple act of hospitality would prove to be a divine appointment that would completely change the course of Gardner's life.
"The trainer stayed at our house because someone he was going to stay with had become ill," she said. "So he came to our house and got to know us. When the board asked who should be the director [of the center], he said I should."
Gardner decided to become involved, and accepted the call to executive leadership simply because she wanted to save babies.
“After 34 years, I’m still excited about it," she said.
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Gardner belongs to a growing number of pregnancy help leaders whose tenures are rising, holding steady and strong, with some even spanning a generation. According to the 2015 Pregnancy Help Center Salary Survey, produced by Care Net and Heartbeat International, nearly a third of the responses received from more than 500 pregnancy help organizations reported executive director tenures surpassing 10 years.
Currently, the average tenure for a senior-level pregnancy help leader is 7.5, up two years from a 2013 version of the survey.
Gardner is one of five executive directors, according to the poll, who have served for more than 30 years in pregnancy help center ministry. What has become equally important as advocating for the unborn, however, is the opportunity to give hope to hurting women.
“I got involved to save babies and women started telling me their stories, and God used it to give me compassion,” she said. “That’s the reason I stay. If we can help one woman, that’s pretty cool.”
Throughout the years, Gardner has witnessed tremendous growth in the quantity and quality of resources and client assistance her center offers. For many pregnancy help centers, resources such as “Earn While You Learn” programs, community referral systems, Bible studies and discipleship classes, and post-abortion counseling have become effective tools for fruitful outreach to women facing unplanned pregnancies.
The battle for life has intensified since the devastating Roe v. Wade decision and Gardner, along with many other pregnancy help leaders, have realized the key to maintaining longevity is providing long-term support to clients.
“I would never go back to just doing pregnancy tests without long-term support,” Gardner said. “We’re giving [the client] a pack of diapers, but she needs so much more than that. What I love is, we watch women’s lives be changed because they come in here for an hour a week.”
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As pregnancy help leadership tenures continue to rise, it is hard not to notice how much the pregnancy help center client and the world around them are changing. Pregnancy help leaders are taking note of major technology innovations, as well as the emerging millennial generation and crafting their centers' outreach methods accordingly.
The age of social media has had a major impact on pregnancy help communications and produced rapid changes in how centers connect with clients.
"Our clients don't watch TV or use a phone book," Gardner said. "It's social media. You have to be on top of it and you have to be involved in it, or you're going to be left behind."
Kristen Johnson, executive director of 30-year-old Care Net Family Resource Center in Wisconsin, believes reaching millenials is essential to maintaining the longevity of life-affirming ministries and as a start, pregnancy help organizations should begin focusing on updating their websites and expanding their marketing efforts.
“We’re realizing we really need to connect with millennials. Millennials are passionate and that's one of their strengths,” Johnson said. “We need to find new tools for the same message. The 'Before You Decide' magazine by Care Net was brilliant.”
With steadfast leadership, exciting changes taking place and the growing excellence that has continued to characterize the work of pregnancy help organizations throughout decades of ministry, one common thread remains evident and constant.
“It takes a whole lot of people," Gardner said. "And it’s all about relationships – God, clients, staff, donors and community.”
Are you a veteran of the pregnancy help community? Tell us your story here.