Being part of the solution
The Gabriel Project provides outreach and support for women and their newborns
By Mary V. Cass
Many of us have prayed and marched for life issues, but it can get to the point where you ask yourself, “What am I doing concretely for a pregnant woman in crisis — a woman who might be in a panic mode? Am I assuring her that I am there for her after the pregnancy, that she will not be alone?’”
There are over 170 volunteers in the Archdiocese of Denver who have asked themselves a similar question and, as a consequence, have become involved by becoming part of the answer to that cry for help of pregnant women who are in distress and see no alternative but abortion. They do this by providing outreach services and practical, emotional and spiritual support to mothers and their newborns in one of the 12 houses of the Gabriel Project.
“In a visible way, these volunteers ‘take the walk’ in a myriad of ways with pregnant women who have decided to keep their children, before and after delivery,” says Mimi Eckstein, the project’s founder and director. “Mary is our model in this act of love that we try to perform for a mother in need: she, who said her ‘yes’ to the angel Gabriel to give birth, nourishment and care for her son, Jesus — hence our name: the Gabriel Project.”
I met with Eckstein at a Gabriel House in Boulder, where she shared how the project began in Houston and is now affiliated with the U.S. Conference of Bishops, assisting young mothers and their children throughout the U.S. as they face a multitude of challenges.
“We began here in 2001 with 30 volunteers, without funds or a facility to house the project, reaching out to women in shelters for the homeless,” she shared. “Then 9/11 happened, and with it, a surge in a population of people motived to reach out to others. This brought about an increase in volunteers who were available to respond to calls for help at our 1-800 number and meet with women where they could — McDonald’s, coffee houses, social centers, parish halls.”
In 2009, a house was offered by one of the parishes, and the first Gabriel House opened in Boulder. Supplies of diapers, infant clothing and cans of formula — all that a young mother might need to care for her infant — were donated. Helpful contacts developed with local service agencies, with whom they could network in assisting with housing and food, allowing them to serve over 200 families that first year.
“We reflected that if this project continued to grow, then God wanted it. As the Hispanic and immigrant community grew, more houses were opened to be able to serve them, and the project began to expand throughout the archdiocese. Charles Chaput, archbishop at the time, saw the program as a way of fulfilling the social teachings of the Church: affirming the sanctity of life, serving and encouraging it by providing a spiritual and caring home for those most vulnerable,” said Eckstein.
Had they ever encountered any particular challenges from a community where a house was opened?
“Yes, the archbishop asked us to open a house in a community where I had real doubts that our services would be accepted, given its general refute of any form of religious-based aid and their pro-abortion stance. I asked myself: ‘Would the social agencies who don’t share our same beliefs send anybody to us?’”
Still in the middle of the decision-making, Eckstein received a call from a nurse who was employed by this city, saying that they were getting together all the agencies in their area that supported pregnant women, as there had been a situation where a homeless mother refused all assistance and, after a home delivery, her baby died.
“At their request, we became part of this newly formed coalition. As we sat together with all the other service agencies for the area, listening to one another, they became more open to what we were doing — assisting everyone without prejudice, open to all.
“I’ll always remember when once a conflict arose, a member of the group turned to me and said, ‘We have to put all our different viewpoints aside and just service these women together.’ I replied: ‘Yes, we do.’ They understood that our service was coming from the Catholic Church, and although they held a certain animosity toward the Church, they were impressed to find people selflessly caring for others and began to refer clients to us.”
An agency that was serving homeless teens brought their clients. The woman in charge of the agency reported to the coalition: ‘I can’t tell you what a difference I see in these teens after they leave Gabriel House. They feel better about themselves, they feel less anxious about their pregnancy, and gain a deeper understanding of what it means and what they have to do. Because of the help and care these teenagers receive at Gabriel House, my own work with them has improved.’”
Barriers continued to break down in what could have been a very contentious situation. They received a call from a probation officer, who said she had a girl that was picked up and who was pregnant. Eckstein recalls: “We visited her in prison. She told us that she planned to have an abortion the following week, saying: ‘I know you won’t come back after this ...’
We assured her we would continue to be close to her. When we returned the following week, she was eager to share, ‘I have decided to keep my baby!’”
As the probation officer began to refer other women, a prison ministry developed and was integrated into the program of Gabriel House.
The volunteers discovered that their work brought about a greater understanding and appreciation of the concern of the Catholic Church for the poor and those most in need. “Gabriel Project is done as an expression of our faith. It’s a way to become a vital part of the various communities, one very different from another.”
The Gabriel Project serves everyone who comes to their door, no questions asked, all ethnic groups and all faiths. The Denver house boasts also a steady flow of women from countries of Southeast Asia such as Myanmar, Northern Africa as Ethiopia, Morocco, as well as the Middle East, such as Syria and Iraq.
Mohamed has been coming to the house since his wife gave birth to their first child: “My wife and I arrived from Libya, totally alone. For me, finding Gabriel House was like finding a family here. We not only receive supplies each week for our infant daughter, but advice and referrals are helping us plan for a stable future. I know that they are here for me!”
Volunteers are given classes to understand the different cultures they serve, immigration laws, signs of domestic abuse and the proper reporting system.
“What drew me to the Gabriel Project was the opportunity to help women where they’re at,” Carla, a new volunteer, commented. “I have been very involved in women’s issues and have strong pro-life feelings — often this is viewed negatively by the media. So I asked myself ‘What is my responsibility in this?’ I see the Gabriel Project as offering me the chance to be a part of the solution.”
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