Karen Iverson has been a volunteer with Milwaukee Birthright since 1971. The organization helps expectant mothers who feel they have nowhere else to turn. (Submitted photo)

When Karen Iverson first became a volunteer for Milwaukee Birthright — a group that provides assistance and support to women experiencing crisis pregnancies — it was 1971, just before
the notorious Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision.

“We were aware that it was going to be initiated the following year,” said Iverson of the ruling. At the time, she was a young mother of four. “It was already up (in the Court) and was going to be voted on.”

As a Catholic, Iverson believed that life begins at the moment of conception, and she was conscious that abortions were about to be made accessible to millions of pregnant women across the country — many of whom felt alone, stigmatized, neglected and desperate.

She didn’t feel it was enough to protest the issue of abortion. She wanted to do more — she wanted to reach those women.

“I really believed in the mission of Birthright,” said Iverson, a parishioner at St. Eugene in Fox Point.

She’s one of a handful of volunteers who signed on with Milwaukee Birthright in the 1970s and stuck with the organization through the long years. If those years haven’t brought a repeal of Roe, they have certainly brought thousands of pregnant women to Birthright’s doorstep, seeking answers and a sympathetic ear.

Judy Fecteau, Birthright’s executive director, said that the group’s volunteers offer the women all that and more — they offer them hope.

Though Birthright is a non-denominational entity, much of the volunteer and donor base is Catholic. What motivates the eight volunteers who man the office at 2025 W. Oklahoma Ave., sort baby clothes or take home calls on the 24-hour helpline, is a belief in the sanctity of life.

“They want to do something for these mothers, so that they are aware that there is help and hope — and they don’t have to despair and resort to abortion,” said Fecteau.
Volunteers undergo training and are briefed in a large number of resources that the group can offer expectant parents.

“We love the person and accept them where they’re at, and then we offer them alternatives to abortion,” said Iverson. “That’s what we’ve tried to do through the years. We have a lot of resources — legal, physicians, social work. We’re able to connect them with the Milwaukee Health Department, who provides a pack ’n play for anybody in the city who needs one, due to the infant mortality rate. A lot of people might call and say, ‘I’m out of formula until I get paid on Monday,’ and I can refer them to places in the community that will provide them with formula.”

Other services that Birthright provides include free pregnancy testing, baby supplies, referrals for food pantries and “daddy packs” that offer resources for fathers. Clients can come in for clothing every three months of their child’s life (up to size 4T), and children are encouraged to take a book home with them from office visits to promote literacy.

“With the books, we give information about all the local libraries, their addresses and phone numbers, as well as low-cost bookstores,” said Iverson. “Mothers are so appreciative of that.”

But, more than anything, Iverson said, Birthright volunteers are there to show compassion.

“We listen — that’s very important,” she said. “Oftentimes people think abortion is their only option. Because of the anxiety and stress that they find themselves in with an unplanned pregnancy, they see that as the only way out. We just let them talk it out.”

Volunteers can give as much or as little time as they are able to offer, said Fecteau. She herself became involved in the organization in 1999 because of an ad she saw that said volunteers could give as little as four hours every month.

“I thought, well, that’s all they’re asking for — I could do that,” she remembered. She became Birthright’s executive director in 2015 and is the only paid staff member in the otherwise volunteer-run organization.
The group is, of course, always looking for more passionate people to give of their time to the mothers of Milwaukee who feel trapped by their pregnancies. Fecteau said that even high schoolers would be welcome to come in and assist with light office work or sorting inventory.

“If they are pro-life and want to help, this is the way,” said Iverson. “Protesting abortion is important, but I always felt that that wasn’t enough — it’s like saying, we only care about you until the baby’s born and we don’t care about you after. We ask them to bring their babies in after they’re born. Some of our volunteers have followed our clients for years. We’ve got women (who are pregnant) coming to us whose mothers we helped during their pregnancies. That’s very, very rewarding.”