In 1986, Mary Cunningham Agee created a network of services and volunteers to serve the needs of women facing unplanned pregnancies and their babies. A personal tragedy became her inspiration for helping others, and with her extensive business experience, she has created a model for improving the lives of both pregnant moms and their newborns.
Early in her life she had no plans to start such an organization. She graduated with honors from Wellesley, receiving a degree in philosophy and logic. Graduate studies in law, ethics, and political philosophy at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland followed. But a priest friend, whom she knew since childhood, suggested she not pursue an advanced degree in philosophy, seeing in her potential as a “practical idealist.”
Seeking this path, she left her philosophical studies and pursued a master’s degree in finance and international business from Harvard in 1979. With her MBA, she went on to serve as vice president for Seagram and Sons and later for Bendix Corporation.
It was after she married and became pregnant with her first child that her life was upended by a late-term miscarriage. In her grief, she turned to her faith, discovering there, she says, “a profound invitation to come closer to the compassionate love of our Lord.” Within the context of losing a child, she found a vocational call “to do something meaningful to help women in a far worse position who were dealing with the loss of a child through abortion.”
With the birth of a second child a few years later came the birth of her new organization, the Nurturing Network (TNN). It has grown to be a resource for more than 19,000 pregnant mothers in crisis, connecting them to some 42,000 TNN volunteers spread across all 50 states and 25 nations. The grassroots organization responds to the needs of women facing the crisis of an unplanned pregnancy by creating a comprehensive network of services and providers to help these mothers through the pregnancy and birth, and then get back on their feet.
Her MBA and extensive business experience assisted her in overseeing a large and complex operation. In the early years, she managed the organization from her house while homeschooling her two young children, Mary Alana and Will. She credits her supportive husband for making it possible for her to care for her family in the midst of directing the Nurturing Network.
In working with “a wounded individual whose life has become too much to handle alone,” she has discovered that she has more energy than when she worked in the corporate world. In an article in the Catholic Business Journal, she explained how interaction with those seeking help brings her closer to Christ: “When a person in crisis is willing to trust and share her life with me, it is not difficult to see the suffering face of our Lord…my faith brings compassion to the forefront almost immediately.”
HOW THE ORGANIZATION WORKS
The Nurturing Network is an international organization with 501(c)(3) tax exempt status. The network provides educational counseling and practical support services to all women faced with an unplanned pregnancy in the hopes that the birth alternative may become “more attractive, feasible, and available,” according to TNN’s website. About a third of the clients are referred by local pregnancy resource centers that collaborate with Nurturing Network staff.
The services and resources are tailored to the “unique needs and circumstances” of each client, and are provided through a network of volunteer “members” who agree with TNN’s “practical objectives.” As a rule, the organization steers clear of pro-life/pro-choice terminology to focus on the effort to aid the client and her unborn child. Professionally trained counselors and licensed social workers are available for clinical counseling when necessary.
Clients are placed in the homes of participating network members for the duration of the women’s pregnancies, allowing for protection of clients’ confidentiality by geographical relocation. Competent and caring physicians are secured, who agree with TNN’s objectives and the client’s desire to give birth to her child.
The Nurturing Network offers to both relocate pregnant college students to another university while being cared for, or locate employment for clients through member businesses. The organization will also help in placing the newborn up for adoption if requested by the mother. There is follow-through for women once the baby is born in dealing with issues such as parenting, employment, housing, and day care.
The availability and expenditures for care are kept accessible and inexpensive by a process the organization refers to as “clustering.” By creating a “cluster” of services and professionals in one geographic area, the program is able to provide “prompt and comprehensive service,” bringing together residential assistance, counseling, employment or academic opportunities, and medical services in one community. “Cluster coordinators” are the local individuals who help locate professional resources and volunteers, oversee fundraising efforts, and seek grants and major donors.
The Nurturing Network cooperates with hundreds of participating colleges and universities, corporate employers, hospitals, and nearly 2,400 crisis pregnancy centers all across the country. During this past year alone, one quarter of TNN’s clients were referred to the organization by these and other local service providers. Many past clients have shown their gratefulness by volunteering and supporting the effort.
One of TNN’s success stories concerns Pamela and her now 15-year-old daughter, Allison. Their story began shortly after the 34-year-old woman discovered she was pregnant while unmarried. She wanted to end the unhappy relationship with her boyfriend, but not abort her baby, she said. She just didn’t know where to begin.
In North Carolina, where she was living at the time, there didn’t seem to be a support system for a woman in her situation. She had a job, so she wasn’t looking for financial help so much as emotional support to get her through her decision to bring the new life to term. She prayed and then decided to rest while listening to some music one afternoon.
She turned on the radio and heard the voice of Mary Agee talking about the Nurturing Network on Dr. James Dobson’s Focus on the Family show. Pamela recalled that Agee was discussing how the organization offered a comprehensive plan to help women with unplanned pregnancies.
“It was unbelievable!” Pamela recalled. “It was a real answer to prayer.” So she called the number and was overwhelmed by the response. Complete strangers in her local area started contacting her to offer help.
“They took me out for meals. They provided baby clothes. They called me regularly to see how I was doing,” she recounted. Another woman, fi nishing her Ph.D. in counseling, worked with Pamela, becoming her birth coach, and was with her at the hospital during the C-section to deliver her little daughter. “We still keep in touch,” she said.
In retrospect, she would tell others in a similar predicament that it “will all work out if you have faith, do your part as a mom, and don’t take that responsibility lightly.”
The Nurturing Network goes far beyond just preventing abortions and saving babies’ lives, she adds.
“Mary [Agee] has embraced what the Bible says about looking out for the widow and the orphan,” Pamela said. Although these unmarried women are not technically “widows,” they are giving birth to the “fatherless,” in most cases, as many of these fathers are absent from helping to raise their offspring, she explained.
“If we could take that approach to women on their way to abortion clinics, we would be far more effective” in lowering the abortion rate, Pamela said. She now volunteers with TNN, telling her story to other women and encouraging them and counseling them with her background in law. Her daughter is a straight “A” student and is looking forward to college, interested in possibly becoming a pediatrician.
“I will volunteer for the Nurturing Network until the day I die!” Pamela pledged, grateful to Agee and the Nurturing Network for the help she received at a very critical moment in her life.
“WHAT DO YOU WANT TO DO?”
Another success story is Susan, who was a single 32-year-old living in California when she discovered her pregnancy in 1992. “After the initial thrill of realizing I was going to have a baby, I was overcome with a million questions, doubts, and concerns as to what I would do,” she remembered.
Going into the office, she decided to turn on a radio she kept on her desk, something she hadn’t done before, to keep her mind off her troubles. It was once again Mary Cunningham Agee, acting as guest host this time on Dr. James Dobson’s program.
“I could hardly believe my ears!” As Agee spoke, Susan said it felt as if the TNN foundress “were talking directly to me.” She said, “Her voice was so soothing and non-judgmental, like music to my ears.” Susan later called the 800 number for TNN, which proved to be a real lifeline for her “in the midst of my dark, stormy sea of confusion, doubt, and insecurity.” She said that she was “fi lled with a sense that everything would be alright, no matter what I chose to do.”
She was “floored” by one of the first questions the TNN representative asked, which was simply: “What do you want to do?” Susan said that “No one—not my family, friends, or father of the baby—had asked me that.”
Working with the organization over the next couple of months, “we came up with a plan for my future and the future of my child,” she recalled. “The practical, tangible help they offered me was just what I needed to move forward and continue my life successfully.”
The Nurturing Network works with each client, creating a plan designed specifically for the needs of each mother- to-be. In Susan’s case, she needed to be moved to a different city, as “the father of the child was totally unsupportive and quite threatening if I went forward and had this baby,” she stated.
A local coordinator found a TNN host family, who put her up on very short notice. “On TNN’s recommendation, this couple took me in, as a total stranger, providing me with a clean bed, food to eat, and unconditional love beyond compare,” Susan said.
Eventually, the couple also helped her locate her own apartment where she could live with her soon-to-be-born son. Her TNN coordinator found her a job with an employer willing to hire her on TNN’s recommendation alone. She burst into grateful tears when her fellow employees threw a baby shower for her.
Susan recalled: “I was amazed at the outpouring of love, compassion, understanding, and consistent, practical kindness coming from these complete strangers.” She found it hard to believe, but in the end “TNN was able to singlehandedly restore my faith in mankind,” she concluded.
In a talk Agee gave in April 1998 at the Pontifical Athenaeum of the Holy Cross in Rome, she noted what she has learned over time: that “Jesus is the supreme practical idealist.” In trying to convert our world to a culture of life, words are not enough, she stated.
“We are starved for action, the kind of practical compassion that Our Lord insisted upon from all of his followers: ‘Feed my lambs,’” she said. “He gave us his life, a living human testimony in action to the true challenge of communicating the gospel of life in the anguish and the glory of everyday existence,” Agee explained.
“Christ refused to keep a safe distance from his subjects.” Rather than responding to the masses through “an impersonal speech or grandiose gesture,” she explained, “He chose to reach out and touch one broken, hurting person at a time, healing their wounds individually—one life at a time.”
The Nurturing Network website (www.nurturingnetwork.org) contains personal testimonies that attest to the success of this individual approach. “What they do, and do so well, is change lives, two lives at a time,” says Susan.
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