“You didn’t take away from my future. You gave me a new one. I love you, Mommy.” – A new mother’s note to her daughter
What is the truly Catholic response to a scared, pregnant girl? Here’s what happened when two determined ladies – a biologist and a woman who suffered through an abortion at university – teamed up with the monks at Belmont Abbey College in North Carolina to do something really revolutionary: create a home for pregnant college students and their babies.
In 20 years, MiraVia has taken in 485 moms and babies; since 2004, they have served more than 7000 mothers through their outreach classes. In this hopeful interview, Jeannie Wray and Debbie Capen sat down with Regina Magazine to tell the remarkable story of how they have worked to make ‘room at the inn’ that may well serve as a model for Catholic efforts in the future.
How did you learn about MiraVia?
Debbie: At MiraVia’s annual banquet one year they announced their plans to open the nation’s first on-campus maternity and aftercare residence for college students. I wanted to leap out of my seat with excitement because I had been carrying around the tragic secret of an abortion when I was a sophomore in college. I thought, “Oh my goodness, they get it! They understand that women like me exist!”
What is your job today?
Jeannie: Debbie is the Assistant Director and I am the Executive Director now, but I was actually hired to be the Development Director. My primary charge was to raise the funds to build the new College-based Maternity and After-care Residential Facility adjacent to the campus of Belmont Abbey College. Now, eight years later, we raised the funds, and the dream of a place built specifically for pregnant college students is a reality.
What drew you to work there?
Debbie: I called MiraVia to ask how I could help, and they asked me to share my abortion testimony in the video that would be shown at the fund-raising banquet. It was surreal to sit in a room of 1,000 people (including dozens of friends and colleagues) and watch myself on a giant screen as I told my deepest secret. Little did I know that God had even bigger plans and that I would eventually work at MiraVia.
Jeannie: Quite honestly, I came to work here because I sincerely felt that the Lord expected this of me and I wanted to be of service to Him. When I joined the staff of MiraVia I suddenly came face-to-face with the old adage that “God does not call the equipped, He equips the called.”
You see, I had spent 26 years working in the museum field so had lots of experience with how non-profits work. Helping with fundraisers and writing grants were a big part of my job in my latter years there. But I was educated as a biologist and really had no idea why I had to learn those kinds of skills.
Now of course it’s obvious…so that I could help young women like those I encountered when I was in college. I saw so many who quit school to have their babies and others who chose to terminate their pregnancies. They all suffered and I knew there had to be another answer. When I heard about MiraVia’s College-based residence, I knew that this was the answer and I wanted to be a part of it. It was what He was asking me to do.
What’s it been like to take on this enormous challenge?
Jeannie: There are so many wonderful moments when a project like this comes to life. Debbie and I happened to be at the site when the bulldozer arrived and cleared the first trees. As those trees cracked and broke and yielded to that monstrous machine, I knew for sure that the residence would become a reality and that college students would no longer be cracked and broken down and have to yield to the pressures of choosing their dreams over the lives of their children.
Debbie: On the morning of August 12, 2013 I got the call that Bianca (our first resident in the new facility) was in labor. I hopped in my van and headed to the hospital to be with her. As I drove to the hospital, I was praying for Bianca and the baby and tears began to stream down my face. The magnitude of this event began to sink in and I was overwhelmed with joy and gratitude for this young mother who was taking the path that I had been too afraid to take myself. I cried and prayed all the way there and later that day her beautiful son, Kasen was born. It was a day that I will never forget.
Jeannie: Yes, when our first baby came home from the hospital, I knew the program was working. My heart swelled to bursting at the love that I saw on his mother’s face and I felt a peace that I had never known before. The dream was indeed a reality.
Debbie: Last spring, I was invited by the director of the Health Clinic of my alma mater to come and give a presentation to their staff. This is the same health clinic where 20 years earlier I had been told by their staff that I could look up “abortion” in the yellow pages to take care of my unplanned pregnancy.
Now, this university regularly gives MiraVia brochures to pregnant students and even called me to seek help for a post-abortive student who came to them because she was traumatized by her abortion. It is proof that college staff see the need for MiraVia and are desperate for positive alternatives to offer these pregnant students who come to them.
Jeannie: Finally, when one of our residents said that the day she was admitted to MiraVia was the day she knew for sure that there is a God and I realized that God was being glorified through what we were trying to do because isn’t that what we try to do each day? Accept His will and be instruments for His use?
Any ‘aha’ moments?
One day recently, we had some visitors appear at the front door. It was the family of a young man who attends Belmont Abbey College. The family had travelled from California to visit their son and wanted to see MiraVia while they were here. They had two younger siblings who were ages 6 and 8 — and these two sweethearts had spent their own money to buy donations for MiraVia the night before at Wal-Mart. They came in carrying bags of precious baby outfits and goodies.
As I gave this family a tour through the building and we witnessed all the small moments happening around us, I was truly moved by the reality that the vision of MiraVia had become what we had hoped. For example, we saw a young father who had come after his classes for a visit with his new family. He was sitting in the childcare room gently rocking his infant son. In another room, a mother sat at her laptop frantically working on a term paper like any other college student. In another room, a mom came out with her baby girl to personally thank the family for their donations and to see if they would like to hold her child.
The building was filled with laughter, love and anticipation. It was an “aha” moment that MiraVia is really working and that God is working through generous hearts of all ages to fulfill his kingdom.
What is your greatest challenge at MiraVia?
Jeannie: As with many charitable organizations, ongoing funding is our greatest challenge. Helping people to understand that the numbers of women served will not be in the hundreds per year like crisis pregnancy centers but we invest 24 intensive months in each mother not just a few days or weeks. Each and every young woman who is college educated breaks the downward spiral of poverty that claims more than 1/3 of single mothers in this country and becomes a productive citizen; and that the investment is worth it. Sometimes I feel like I am swimming upstream but then I try to remember that each day, each student mother, each precious baby is a gift and I offer a quick prayer of thanks for being what and where we are.
Debbie: The greatest challenge is staying focused on the big picture; and that is seeking God’s will in every present moment. It is easy to get caught up in the myriad of daily duties and unexpected obstacles. Each day flies by because there is so much to do and so many things yet undone. But thankfully we have a beautiful chapel on site with the True Presence of our Lord in the tabernacle and so we can take our cares to Him and trust in his Divine Providence.
Do you think Miravia could be a model?
Jeannie: I absolutely believe that our program could be a model for other universities and countries. As a matter of fact, we’ve heard from people in 9 states and 4 foreign countries about duplicating this project. With the property and the welcoming culture of life of the monks of Belmont Abbey, Miravia has been nurtured by so many who have stepped out in faith and accepted us and those we serve. I believe that our project is the first of many like it – at least, I hope it is.
Debbie: Every time I meet with staff of ANY college, they nod their heads profusely when we talk about the need to help pregnant college students. Many schools now even have “retention” departments that work with students who are at risk of dropping out of school and we have received multiple requests for our materials because this is such a critical need.
I believe that Catholic colleges should be the pioneers in this work just as the Catholic Church has always paved the way in education and health care. Once we get it right, it will be much easier for others to follow suit.
This is not just about a small non-profit organization in North Carolina, this about transforming our society’s attitude that pregnancy during college means either dropping out or having an abortion. The change has to begin somewhere, and we are grateful that Belmont Abbey is an agent for this change by not only welcoming MiraVia on its grounds, but enthusiastically embracing this work to build a culture of life on campus and beyond.