Notebook > Lifestyle
Katie Ratkiewicz for WORLD

'It all clicked together'

Lifestyle/Technology | How one Christian volunteer found herself in the right place at the right time at a crisis pregnancy center in Texas

Issue: "Pro-baby," Jan. 30, 2010

According to Care Net, more than 30,000 Christians volunteer in pregnancy centers each year. They make up the unpaid, compassionate wing of the pro-life movement, offering friendship, counseling, and material assistance to men and women facing unplanned pregnancies or dealing with the aftermath of abortion.

Care Net opened its first center in 1980. Maybe some of those volunteers are still laboring in the trenches, but their ranks have been joined by a constant stream of new volunteers like Jen Heininger, 32, who started volunteering last year in Austin, Texas.

Heininger, the mother of two (with a third child on the way), describes herself as an idealist whose previous attempts to volunteer had been frustrating. She started with the Junior League and was only a handful of hours short of her first-year commitment to the League's thrift shop when she asked herself, "What am I doing?" and quit. "You live and learn," she says.

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Gary Haugen's book, Just Courage, helped her clarify issues she'd been struggling with: "We are all called to justice. It doesn't mean I have to move to Africa or India. I can be anywhere." About that same time a friend reminded her that LifeCare, a local pregnancy center affiliated with Care Net, needed volunteers.

Heininger didn't know much about LifeCare, so she checked out the website and decided to go with her friend to an informational session for potential volunteers: "I really thought I would go and there wouldn't be possibilities, but there were so many opportunities to volunteer. It was crazy. 'If you can give us 30 minutes, we'll take 30 minutes. You don't even have to come in. You can have a PAL.'. . . I left and felt as though the Lord was saying, 'There's a wide open door and if you don't walk through it's your own problem.'"

Heininger began volunteering at "Hannah's Closet" one morning a week, helping pregnant clients find maternity clothes, and new moms find clothes and other baby items for their children. She liked it because she got to meet lots of clients and get an overall sense of what the center does.

She discovered that the closet is a team project. Donations come from churches throughout Austin, as well as from individuals. One person brings in a seemingly unending supply of baby wipes. Occasionally, donated clothes have stains or need repair. One volunteer mends things. Others like Jen, who "loves Oxyclean," take clothes home and work on stains.

Heininger also decided that she wanted to be a "PAL," to have a friendship relationship with a client. She and a friend decided to share one client. They went through training and an interview before the center paired them with a woman about their age who was expecting her second child. The relationship has been easy. The client has a job and a good support network. Heininger worried at first that the woman would be suspicious of their motivation and ask, "Why are you even doing this?" But she says that hasn't been an issue at all. The PAL was grateful to have women her own age with whom to talk and cry. When the PAL gave birth in December, Jen was able to drive her and her new baby home from the hospital.

Heininger says the hardest thing is "feeling like you want to do something more for clients. . . . You want to solve all their problems, and you can't." She's learned to "pray more for them. It's brought me to my knees more. It also makes me want to beat the drum for my church to be more involved."

Since Heininger started volunteering, her church has become more involved with LifeCare. She says the church was moving in that direction anyway because people were frustrated with giving money and not doing anything. "When I found LifeCare it all clicked together for me. This is where I can plug in and this is where I can be involved." The way she sees it, she was in the right place at the right time. She pictures church staff saying, "There's Jen-ding, ding, ding, ding, ding-she's doing exactly what we want our lay people to do," and suddenly she became the poster child for pro-life volunteering at her church. "I don't know that I did anything. I'm just idealistic. If I think that's what we should be doing, then we really should be doing it."

Heininger says that through volunteering she's learned the importance of "being available, loving whomever you come into contact with, and praying that they will know that love as the love of Christ." One side effect: "My own family and friend relationships have benefited greatly from seeing this kind of love in action-it's almost backwards to me. . . . I wish that every believer could/would be involved in an organization like LifeCare or with folks in great need on a regular basis; the regular (and tangible) staring in the face of our need for the gospel is what it's all about."

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Susan Olasky
Susan Olasky

Susan pens book reviews and other articles for WORLD as a senior writer and has authored eight historical novels for children. Susan and her husband Marvin live in Asheville, N.C. Follow Susan on Twitter @susanolasky.

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