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Birthright of Manassas closes after 40 years

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After more than 40 years serving pregnant women in need, Birthright of Manassas is closing its doors at the end of February.


The pregnancy resource center began as an offshoot of the Birthright of Woodbridge in the late 1970s. Since then, an all-volunteer team has provided free pregnancy tests, maternity and infant clothes, and lots of encouragement to expectant mothers in the area.


Though they’ve had several locations over the years, their current office off Sudley Road has been home the longest. On the walls of the cozily decorated space hang homey wallpaper, framed pictures of gestational development and racks of clothing. Children’s toys and comfy chairs are in the waiting room. And in a few weeks, most everything in the office will go to the other Birthright locations in Woodbridge, Fredericksburg and Leesburg.


In the early days, Birthright Director Kathy Madsen and former Director Florence Heishman recall that most of their clientele were unwed teenagers looking for pregnancy tests before the days they could be bought easily at the pharmacy. Now, it’s mostly immigrant women who already have children and are oftentimes married, said Madsen, a parishioner of Sacred Heart Church in Manassas. But even they’ve mostly dropped off. It’s one of the things contributing to the close.


“We don’t feel that we should continue to take donations that might be taking away from another organization if people are going there,” said Madsen. She cited groups such as Gabriel Project, Mother of Mercy Free Medical Clinic and First Care Women’s Health that will continue to serve Manassas women in Birthright’s absence.


She also wanted to be fair to the volunteers who come to the office and end up with very few women to serve. “I was thinking about retiring and no one was willing to step forward, so it was like the perfect storm,” said Madsen. “I’m sure we are doing the right thing.”


Though their chapter is closing, the two women look back with a lot of gratitude for the faithful donors and the amazing volunteers, including one woman who founded a Birthright in Ivory Coast, her native country. They’re especially grateful to the George Brent Knights of Columbus Council of All Saints Catholic Church in Manassas, which pledged early on to financially support Birthright.


The support of so many people allowed them to fulfill Birthright’s mission — to serve pregnant women in need. Though they don’t always know the impact they made, they treasure the women and children they helped.


“You learn so much from (the clients),” said Heishman, a parishioner of Holy Trinity Church in Gainesville. “They have so much courage. There’s been times where I’ve listened to them talking and I’ve tried to keep the tears back.”


Madsen remembers one time when a pregnant teenager came to Birthright. They offered to help her tell her mother about the pregnancy, but she refused, saying her mother would be furious. The volunteer wasn’t able to reach the teen for months when the office received a call from her. The teenager had hidden the pregnancy and now was giving birth on her bathroom floor. The Birthright volunteers called an ambulance and then went to the hospital to see the teenager and her newborn baby. “They were worried because they didn’t know what attitude the (teenager’s) mother was going to have about this. But as they walked up, they saw her cradling this grandchild so they knew it would be OK.”


Heishman recalls counseling a pregnant inmate at the Prince William County jail. Her baby boy had to be treated at birth for complications related to his mother’s drug addiction, but he recovered and went to live with his father. Sadly, when he was 9 years old, he died from leukemia. His funeral was standing room only. Though his story ended tragically, it’s still one of Heishman’s most special memories, a reminder that all life matters, even when it’s brief.


“Everybody loved him, he was such a sweet little guy (and) you don’t know how many people he reached,” she said.


Both women say they feel privileged to have served throughout the years. Heishman believes working at Birthright was part of God’s plan for her life. “I’m 72 and some people by the time they’re this age, they haven't found their place and what they were supposed to do. I know that I did find my place,” she said. “Being a mother and taking care of the girls.”


© Arlington Catholic Herald 2020