Gabriel Project: 20 years helping women in crisis

By Michele Chan Santos

Correspondent

Valentine’s Day will mark the 20th anniversary of the Gabriel Project, a ministry to women in crisis pregnancies in the Diocese of Austin.

On Feb. 14, 1993, with the support of Bishop John McCarthy, the Gabriel Project began at St. William Parish in Round Rock. Father Louis Pavlicek, pastor at the time, and the parishioners of St. William supported the project, then in its infancy.

Two decades later, the Gabriel Project has blossomed into an organization that includes two Gabriel Project Life Centers, one in Austin and one in Bryan; 100 volunteers who work as Gabriel Angels; and 50 parishes. The Life Centers are staffed by paid employees and volunteers. Each center serves more than 100 unique clients each month. At the centers, clients receive free self-administered pregnancy tests, in addition to material assistance, mentoring and classes in everything from breastfeeding to prenatal nutrition and parenting.

In July 2011, the Gabriel Project Life Centers became part of Catholic Charities of Central Texas.

Rebecca Niemerg, the pastoral care coordinator for the Gabriel Project, said the ministry looks very different than 20 years ago.

"But the mission has absolutely stayed the same. The whole mission of the Gabriel Project is to provide emotional, spiritual and material support for pregnant women and families in need," she said. Niemerg works for the diocesan Office of Pro-Life Activities and Chaste Living and coordinates pastoral care for Project Rachel, the diocesan Pro-Life Helpline and Sidewalk Ministry, as well as the Gabriel Project.

To celebrate the anniversary, there will be a Mass and reception Feb. 23, where it all began –– at St. William Parish in Round Rock. The 10 a.m. Mass will be celebrated by Msgr. Louis Pavlicek; a reception will follow from 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. The event is sponsored by the Office of Pro-life Activities and Chaste Living.

"When we initially started it, we just wanted to be able to help women," said Toni Donley, the coordinator of the Gabriel Project at St. Luke Parish in Temple. "There wasn’t a big huge plan. Father Pavlicek, Ann Bierschenk, Sheri Danze –– these were the three leading figures. In their hearts, they all wanted to help pregnant women."

Parish Gabriel Projects

The Gabriel Project signs stand in front of many Central Texas parishes. They say, "Pregnant? Need Help?" and give the number of the Gabriel Project, 1-877-WE CARE 2 or (512) 238-1246.

What happens after a woman calls the number? She reaches a Gabriel Angel, a trained volunteer.

"The helpline angel will give her information about pregnancy resources located in the diocese," Niemerg said. "They’re going to listen to her story and brainstorm with her about what she needs, whether it’s a referral to St. Vincent de Paul, job training or social services."

The caller is given the option of having her own Gabriel Angel, a volunteer who will meet one-on-one with her once a month. The volunteers will talk with the expectant mother, bring her some material items and support her emotionally on her journey.

"Gabriel Angels are a crucial part of this ministry," Niemerg said.

According to Niemerg, in the last year, Gabriel Angels have helped 70 mothers.

Donley has been a Gabriel Angel volunteer for more than 15 years and is the former co-coordinator of the Gabriel Project for the diocese.

"The most rewarding part about it is you really are able to give unconditional love to people who are truly at the most vulnerable time in the their lives," Donley said of her volunteer work. "You have heart-to-heart contact with the mothers."

"If something happens and they have to go to the ER and are afraid they might lose their baby or they’ve been kicked out of their homes," Donley said, "you are there and physically present to them and they know that you care."

Niemerg shared a personal story about a pregnant young woman she helped when she was volunteering in New York with a charity similar to the Gabriel Project.

"I worked with one mom who had an abortion previously. She called to meet with us. She didn’t know anything we had to offer; her only thought was ‘I cannot go through an abortion again.’ Her mother was really pressuring her to have an abortion. Her mom didn’t talk to her through her whole pregnancy. I was with her at the birth. I watched this young woman grow and blossom into a mother. Her mother stopped by to visit when the baby was four months old. This grandmother was transformed by the child. She became a doting grandmother. It was a wonderful example of how the presence of another changes us."

Niemerg shared this story to demonstrate that "one of the things we do in the role of a Gabriel Angel is to hold out hope for the pregnant mother. To tell her, ‘Things can be better than they are right now.’ I was able to hold out hope for her when she did not have any."

People assume finances are always the biggest problem for women calling the helpline, but that isn’t true, Niemerg said. "Money is not always the biggest problem for these moms. It’s that people are not supporting her. She needs to be able to make an act of faith in herself and that’s what friendships allow us to do."

Other times, material needs are very pressing. Some of the women Donley have worked with are struggling with having enough food or a place to live.

"Some of the mothers are so hungry when they come to you, you can’t even talk to them until they’ve had something to eat," Donley said. "That is a reality. We always meet with them at our church, we have an office right next to a little kitchen. If they are hungry we can provide something for them that day or I’ll take them to get food."

Gabriel Project Life Centers

The Gabriel Project Life Center in Austin is located at 1625 Rutherford Lane, in the Catholic Charities offices. It is open Monday through Friday. The Good Samaritan Gabriel Project Life Center in Bryan is at 1314 E. 29th Street. Both locations offer pregnancy tests, classes and trained pregnancy consultants. Clients have a one-on-one relationship with a consultant and they meet each month.

Classes are offered four days a week, twice in English and twice in Spanish.

"They can take parenting classes, learn about pregnancy-related topics such as nutrition, and we also have partnerships where EMS comes in and does a class about car seat safety and safe sleeping," said Allison Skinner, director of social services for Catholic Charities of Central Texas. (The car seat safety class is only offered at the Austin location.)

Clients earn points for coming to class and can redeem points for baby items like a stroller, high chair or pack-n-play, or a large amount of diapers.

"A lot of people have a misconception that it’s all teen moms, but the majority of our clients are in their late 20s or early 30s. We have dads who attend class, too. The parents are both married and unmarried, and we have a good blend of education levels," Skinner said. Some clients have not finished high school, while others are college graduates or have advanced degrees.

If a client needs medical services, Gabriel Project staff will refer them to medical providers.

Skinner said she is grateful for the work of the people who founded the Gabriel Project.

"They planted the seed for something that has flourished," she said.