On the flatscreen in a darkened room appears an oblong image with a faint flickering. That's the first look of the baby growing inside 18-year-old Sarah.
"See that?" asks ultrasound nurse Kathryn Kangiser, pointing at the flickering. "That's the baby's heartbeat." She measures the baby's image and finds that Sarah is a little more than seven weeks pregnant. Sarah smiles as a friend, also pregnant, takes pictures with her cell phone and squeals, "Aww, baby!"
Sarah-name changed to protect her privacy-plans to continue the pregnancy, but her parents have threatened to kick her out of the house if she does. Only her friend, who brought her to Alpha Pregnancy Help Center (alphaphc.com) after seeing an ultrasound of her own baby, was encouraging her to keep going.
Before leaving, Kangiser asks the girls if she could pray for them, and they agree. Sherry Garrison, Alpha's executive director, then signs Sarah up for a parenting class.
This type of scene occurs at hundreds of crisis pregnancy centers around the nation, and all deserve praise. What makes Alpha special is its location in Merced, Calif., an area in crisis that has had the biggest drop in home prices-62 percent-in the nation, and its innovative idea of reaching rural residents with a mobile ultrasound unit.
Located in California's Central Valley, Merced is an agricultural community with an influx of Hispanics from Mexico and Hmongs from southeast Asia. In 2005, the city became the home of the new University of California, Merced, and speculators inflated home prices. Then came the housing market crash and a slower-than-expected growth in the school: Merced's unemployment rate hit 20 percent.
Now, cash-strapped public schools invite Alpha into their buildings for free assemblies and presentations on abstinence, the danger of STDs, and relationships. Since few among the poor in outlying rural areas have the transportation to get to Alpha's clinic in Merced, Alpha plans to bring the clinic to them with a $147,000 mobile unit featuring an exam table, ultrasound, and flatscreen.
Alpha offers pregnancy tests, ultrasounds, a post-abortion healing group, and parenting classes. On a rainy day in April, the clinic bustles with first-time parents watching videos and filling out worksheets to complete the 25-session parenting class: When they're finished, mothers can pick out $150 worth of baby items that an Alpha employee will purchase for them. Fathers get $75 worth of items.
In one room sits Torrey Rigan, 31, and Jennifer Keller, 29, who is 38 weeks pregnant. The two say they've enjoyed the privacy of the classes and the homey feel of the center. "It's not an overt feeling of religiousness, I don't feel judged," Rigan said. "We kind of expected that since they were giving us money, but that couldn't be further from the truth."
For some clients, the relationships developed with Alpha staffers last long after the class is over. Today, Bethany and Julian Ramos, 20 and 23 respectively, drop in for an unannounced visit with their bubbly 7-month-old, Zachariah. "Everyone is so nice here, so we come back to chat with them," Julian says as Garrison plays with Zachariah on her knee. "I feel like this is our second home."
• The Alpha Pregnancy Help Center reported $227,446 in contributions/grants for 2010. Total expenses were $229,492.
• Executive director Sherry Garrison had a salary of $36,025.
• This year's budget: $260,700.
Read profiles of finalists and winners from 2006 through 2012 on WORLD's Hope Award page.