Interview with Elaine Russo
I met Elaine Russo, the Executive Director of the HOPE Pregnancy Center, at a Heroic Media event in Philadelphia last year. That meeting took me on a journey of learning a lot more about the invaluable services that pro-life pregnancy centers provide to women facing unexpected pregnancies.
Elaine has recently taken on a new role as the Director of Pregnancy Center Partnerships with Heroic Media, one of the largest pro-life media organizations in the United States. I recently caught up with Elaine who graciously agreed to an interview to share her experiences about how the HOPE Pregnancy Center in Philadelphia is having success persuading abortion-minded pregnant women to have their babies instead of getting an abortion.
PLM: Elaine, you and I met at a Heroic Media event in the Philadelphia area last fall. You told me many interesting things about the HOPE Pregnancy Center in Philadelphia, and that motivated me to learn more about what pregnancy centers do and how we in the pro-life movement can help. One of the things that I learned from you is that Philadelphia has a very high incidence of abortion. Can you give some statistics to help paint a picture about how serious the abortion problem is in Philadelphia?
Elaine Russo: Philadelphia is definitely one of the cities with the highest incidence of abortions. The good news is that abortions have been decreasing since 2008. Of course, I like to think that in some part it is due to the work of the HOPE Center working tirelessly to provide women with the support they need to know that abortion is not the only option.
But even with the work that we do I would say that it is only the tip of the iceberg. In 2012, there were some 34,500 abortions in the entire state of Pennsylvania. Of that number over 41% were performed in Philadelphia. The rest were split between Pittsburgh and some of the other counties surrounding Philadelphia. 80% of all the abortions performed in the state of Pennsylvania are really focused in three counties: Allegheny, Lehigh, and Philadelphia.
In the city of Philadelphia there were almost 14,000 abortions in 2012, which is about 500 less than in 2009. So it’s definitely decreasing but that’s still a large number of abortions happening, almost 50 abortions every day in the city itself.
So we definitely still have our work cut out for us. As I often say, the ultimate goal of the HOPE Center is to work ourselves out of business. We really don’t want to have to be there, but we are there because there really is not another option. Women do not have a place of refuge that they can turn to that is safe and provides them with alternatives. I see us as being the “first responders” in a crisis pregnancy situation.
An article published in the Contraception journal stated that on average it takes a woman four days to confirm a suspected pregnancy. Once she knows she is pregnant it takes zero days to make the decision to abort. Then she will contact the abortion clinic not too much longer after that. That’s not a lot of time at all so we want to let her know as soon as possible that there are safe alternatives for her and that abortion is not her only option.
PLM: Why is that time frame so short, and what kind of services does the HOPE Center provide to try to help a woman make a decision for life?
Elaine Russo: I think a lot of times the short time window is driven by fear, by panic. As you well know, emotions are a strong motivator, but especially more so when a woman is pregnant and is dealing with a whole host of conflicting emotions. It doesn’t help that her hormones are skyrocketing which makes her more emotional and more liable to react in a way that she might not under different circumstances.
Usually with an unplanned pregnancy there are pre-existing circumstances in the woman’s situation that make her think that she can’t do this. For example, she may know for a fact that her parents would be really upset with her. Also, more often than not with the clients we see, the father of the child is not supportive at all. Or it could be a question of finances and she thinks there is no way she can do this in her financial situation.
A lot of our clients at the HOPE Center have had at least one or more prior pregnancies, or have had at least one or more prior abortions. So this is usually not the first time they are pregnant. They often already have very young children.
So there are a lot of different dynamics that go into it. So before she even finds out that she is pregnant she likely already has what I call “an abortion plan in place.” When she sees those two lines on the pregnancy test she thinks “I know what I have to do, what I need to do.”
So when a woman calls and asks if we perform abortions we always try to talk with her on the phone, and instead of answering yes or no questions we try to find out more about who she is because if we just simply say that we don’t provide abortions then she just hangs up. So we ask her to tell us more. Sometimes she’s not even sure if she’s pregnant yet and still her first question is “Do you provide abortions?”
So the reason why the window is so small is because the woman’s circumstances are usually overwhelming and that’s what’s driving that quick decision.
PLM: When you have a woman on the phone how do you try to get her to come into the HOPE Center so that you can talk with her, and then once you meet with her how do you try to influence her to change her mind and not get an abortion?
Elaine Russo: It’s a host of many different factors. What we always say is that we can’t change minds. It’s God. It’s the Holy Spirit who can provide the woman with that peace and security that she needs to make the decision to choose life for her child. But we are the hands and feet of what can often be to the woman an invisible God. So we want to be the conduit through whom His compassion, His mercy, His grace is extended. And that’s what we want the woman to feel as soon as she walks through the door, that she finds people who are compassionate towards her circumstances.
We would never tell her what to do. We are not there to manipulate her into a decision. We are there to minister to her and to her situation. And I say whenever you intersect Christ’s compassion with a crisis pregnancy, magic happens. The woman senses that this is not the end of the road. I don’t know how everything will work out, but I know whose hands holds all of this. So that’s what we want to show her.
Our counselors are all fully trained and equipped to counsel with counseling tools and counseling techniques. But I will tell you that even though I am a professionally trained counselor, you don’t really need to be a professionally trained person. You need to be a compassionate person when it comes to crisis pregnancies.
Most of my staff are volunteers, and are women who are around the age of most grandmothers. They have seen a lot of life and have been through a lot. Some of them have had crisis pregnancies themselves. Some maybe have had abortions. One had even taken her daughter to have an abortion many years before.
They have been through some very hard things so when they sit across from a woman they can say to her, “You know honey, it’s going to be OK. I can’t tell you how it will all work out, but we’re here and we’re committed to you for the long haul. And whatever your need is we’re going to walk alongside you.” That is often what makes the difference for that girl.
The ultrasounds that we provide obviously can be very powerful when we show her the image of her unborn child and the beating heart. A lot of people think the ultrasound alone is what will be the absolute game changer. It’s really not because a woman knows that it’s life. Seeing the image and hearing a heartbeat are powerful and can help a lot, but it doesn’t change the fact that she still feels overwhelmed and desperate, and she doesn’t know how to do this.
So we’ve seen how many times after an ultrasound that a woman will feel very cornered, and still feel that abortion is her only option. But when we intersect that ultrasound with counseling and with follow-up, and she knows that we’re there for her, I think that’s ultimately what will change things for her.
We just had a client come in recently. She’s homeless and living in a shelter across the street from the HOPE Center. She has a little girl who is not even 2 years old yet. The woman found out that she was pregnant and came to the HOPE Center determined to have an abortion. We talked with her. We prayed with her. She left and we thought maybe there was a chance that she might change her mind.
She came back for the ultrasound and at that point she was really determined to have an abortion unbeknownst to us. The reason she came back for the ultrasound was because the shelter where she was staying mandated that between the hours of 9am and 5pm they have to leave and can’t come back until after 5pm. So she didn’t have a place to be and the HOPE Center was across the street, we have a comfortable couch, and it’s air conditioned.
So she came in for the ultrasound and when the screen popped up showing her uterus there was a shocked silence in the room because there was not one, but two beating hearts. She didn’t know whether to laugh or to cry because being pregnant with twins made it harder for her to go through with an abortion, but at the same time also made it even harder for her to see herself continuing with her pregnancy.
To make a long story short she came back into the HOPE Center about every other day to talk, to cry, and it took weeks of that before we were able to get her to a place where she felt she would be able to start embracing her pregnancy. It involved practical help to meet her needs like getting things for her little girl, helping her feel settled, helping her find a job, and even helping with her grooming needs because she was not washed. We were just asking what we could do to help her with some of these things so that she would feel a sense of competency in herself. These are just very basic things. For example, when you are clean you feel differently about how to even cope with your life situation. It sounds minor but these things make a difference.
I could go on and on about the lives we have seen changed through this process but you get the gist. It’s not a cookie cutter process for every client, but it’s really about meeting the woman where she’s at.
PLM: What I hear you saying is first of all it starts with love, it starts with compassion. If you don’t have that then you don’t have anything. Of course, there’s the practical side of love and compassion as well, doing things, which is what I heard you talk about a second ago while sharing that woman’s story.
On the practical side, in other words doing something for these women, do you see some patterns, some things that stand out as primary practical needs that really help these women decide to move toward continuing their pregnancies?
Elaine Russo: I think practical support is critical. A lot of times a woman will come to us and say that she can’t find housing, and being able to continue with her pregnancy will be contingent on her finding housing. And we try to raise support for her to provide emergency funding for the short term.
In the long term we definitely want her to take responsibility for sustaining herself and we help find her resources to do that. But in the shorter term we want to help with her immediate needs whether it be finding the funds for one or two months rent for her until she gets on her feet. Grocery store gift cards are always a big hit. When you don’t know where your food is coming from it’s hard to think through a lot of different things. We throw the woman a baby shower to help her with something for her baby when it’s born. Things like that can all go a long way.
Practical support is one key way that we let a woman know that in her heart of hearts if she wants to keep her baby that we will do whatever we can to help her find a way to do that, and a lot of times that involves meeting her practical needs.
PLM: It sounds like you and the people at the HOPE Center kind of become the woman’s family to help her through this process.
Elaine Russo: Yes. Exactly.
PLM: Once a woman has her baby do you continue to keep in touch with her, and continue to try to support her in practical ways, or with job training or anything like that?
Elaine Russo: We absolutely do stay in touch with her. The three trimesters of pregnancy is almost a misnomer. I think it’s really four trimesters because the first few months after the birth is a huge transition. Especially if she’s a first time mom we want to help her figure out how to adjust to life with this new little one who demands all her attention.
We have what we call the “Life Skills Institute” that helps provide ongoing education about things like finances, job search tips, etc. The great thing about the HOPE Center is that we are part of “People for People” which is a bigger organization that provides social services in the north Philadelphia area. They have many job training programs there which helps transition a woman from welfare to work and we can plug into that system as well.
PLM: What can those of us in the pro-life community do to help pregnancy centers become even more effective in the work that they do?
Elaine Russo: I think there are several ways. Prayer obviously is a big thing because that is ultimately what changes things.
Giving financially is one big way to support. We raise our own support so we don’t charge a cent to the clients we serve. We need to keep the lights on, keep the services in tact, be able to expand the scope of what we do, and be able to have the ability to reach out to more clients.
We face fierce competition because the abortion clinics have a huge advertising budget. If you do a Google search and check the Adwords campaigns you will see that the abortion clinics hold the trump card in what they can bid for the pay-per-click ads. We can’t compete with them for the cost of those ads.
But when a woman is pregnant the first place she turns to find out where she can get help is Google or another online search engine. The top hits that the woman seen first are the abortion clinics’ ads. So we need to be able to compete with that but that takes a lot of money.
So oftentimes that’s one of the needs that pregnancy centers have is how do we get the word out? We have no extra money aside from what we need to maintain our baseline expenses.
Also, giving of one’s time. We need to find good volunteers that we can train to be counselors. At the HOPE Center we already have three paid staff, two of whom are part time. So our entire ministry is really sustained by very committed volunteers who come in to do this work. So if folks are available to come help we would love to have them do that.
PLM: Before we sign off Elaine can you tell us a little about the work you are doing at Heroic Media?
Elaine Russo: Heroic Media is one of the largest pro-life online media companies in the country and its mission is to connect a woman who is contemplating abortion with her closest pregnancy center. We do that by harnessing the power of media. We run online campaigns for pregnancy centers where we very closely monitor the kinds of keywords that an abortion-minded woman might be using when she looks for services using a search engine. We make sure that the pregnancy center has top billing when it comes to the search results that come up. We do everything we can on our end to make sure that the woman who is shopping for an abortion gets connected first to the pregnancy center instead of the abortion clinic.
So I work with pregnancy centers across the country to help them figure out how they can reach out to clients, and then help them to know how to handle the clients when these calls come in. What Heroic Media does is we channel the calls for help to the pregnancy centers, so the centers need to know how to work with the callers on the phone to convince them to come in for an appointment.
PLM: Elaine, thank you very much for your time today. I really appreciate it. I’m grateful for the work that you have done in pregnancy centers, and continue to do. I’m grateful for your service to Heroic Media, a fantastic organization. I want to wish you the best in your ongoing efforts.
Elaine Russo: Thank you.
About Elaine Russo
Elaine currently serves as the Director of Pregnancy Center Partnerships with Heroic Media, one of the largest pro-life media organizations in the United States.
One of Elaine’s main passions is to help equip pregnancy centers to increase their outreach to individuals at risk for abortion and to be the first responders in an unplanned pregnancy.
Elaine has been actively involved in pregnancy center ministry for the past 10 years during which she served as the Executive Director of pregnancy medical centers in Boston and Philadelphia.
During this time, she has had the incredible privilege of having a front row seat in watching God work powerfully in saving unborn lives and restoring sanctity to lives hurt by abortion and sexual brokenness.
Elaine graduated from Brown University with an A.B. in Psychology and summa cum laude from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary with a Masters in Counseling. Her husband, Christopher, is the Director of Pediatrics at Lynchburg General Hospital and they are the blessed parents of two precious children, Matteo and Isabella. The Russo family resides in the Lynchburg, Virginia area.