Berger Passes Torch for Compassion, Caring

Story by Angie Self

Choices is defined as the act or power of choosing, according to Noah Webster’s 1828 Dictionary. Used as an adjective, it means: “worthy of being preferred; select; precious; very valuable.”

Life is full of choices that may affect a single person, a family, a city or even the entire world. Sherry Berger made a choice more than 20 years ago to form a faith-based organization that is all about choosing life, something the co-founder of Choices Pregnancy Resource Clinic, Inc., believes is precious, valuable and worthy of being preferred.

Making a choice last February to retire as the first executive director of the non-profit clinic, Mrs. Berger has been instrumental in the organization’s growing from a small center that offered self-testing pregnancy kits in 1991 to a clinic in 2013 that provides medically-administered pregnancy testing, limited ultrasound services, parenting classes, a thrift store for expectant parents and medical
and adoption referrals. There were 38 clients of Choices PRC this past year who were previously abortion-minded and chose life.

Mrs. Berger brought to Russellville her knowledge of working in a center that began in Harlingen, Texas, where she and her family lived in the 1980s. The Lord gave her a passion for the work there that she brought to Arkansas.

“I became a Christian in 1985 and remember a day about two years later when I was driving through town listening to James Dobson on the radio,” Mrs. Berger recalled. “He said that a person from Planned Parenthood could pick up my daughter from school, take her to get an abortion, and bring her back to the school without parent permission. That hit me right between the eyes, because my 14-year-old daughter was sitting in the back seat at the time.”

“I was adamant about being pro-choice before my salvation experience. I remember praying after hearing Dr. Dobson for God to show me the way if he wanted me to work in this area to help young girls with unplanned pregnancies. About two months later, I was contacted while working at my church about a pregnancy testing center that had opened and needed someone to answer telephones. So, I began working there in the mornings and eventually full-time. I was one of the first employees and saw the operation grow from the ground up.”

Her first experience actually working with clients who came seeking help from the center came a few months later when no one was available to talk with a walk-in client. Mrs. Berger had become familiar with the 17 questions the volunteers used to talk with clients who were considering abortion. Mrs. Berger related that miraculously the Holy Spirit guided her as she visited with the young woman. When they had finished their visit, Mrs. Berger said the young woman chose life. By the time the day was over, Mrs. Berger had spoken with three clients who all said they chose life for the baby instead of abortion before they left the testing center.

“So, that’s when The Lord gave me a passion for this work that has lasted me throughout my many years working with the center in Texas and then in Russellville. I never had a time when I didn’t want to go to work. It was such a rewarding job and a spiritual help to me to go to work each day, especially working with the clients. I knew I would miss the volunteers, the staff and the clients, but I will still have a chance to minister where ever God puts me.”

The Crisis Pregnancy Care Center in Russellville began with a choice that Mrs. Berger made soon after moving to the Arkansas River Valley. She was approached during a local Arkansas Right to Life meeting about taking a position in the program.

“I said, ‘no’ because I wanted to look into starting a crisis pregnancy center in the area,” Mrs. Berger recalls. “After the meeting, Maggie Simmons introduced herself to me. She said that she had been given a passion to help girls with unplanned pregnancies and would like to help me get one started.”

Mrs. Berger said that God had given them the two main ingredients to begin the program — the knowledge of how to work the agency and someone who could find supporters. Mrs. Simmons had lived in the area for 35 years and was “adamant about approaching people, setting up the board and securing the support needed,” said Mrs. Berger.

The two women, their families and volunteers worked from January until Aug. 2, 1991, preparing for the opening of the center. The center provided self- test pregnancy kits at that time and was not a clinic with medical personnel. Their objective was to help educate and empower women to make informed, life-affirming choices regarding pregnancy, relationships and future plans for their lives.

“We have laughed many times about us two older women shivering at all the car washes we had,” Mrs. Berger recalls. “We had garage sales about every weekend and started our first half-year with a budget of about $1,900.”

Mrs. Berger’s insight in helping clients and their families was increased to a new level the day the agency opened. Although there were no clients the first day during office hours, Mrs. Berger said that circumstances in her home life that evening led her back to the office to use the first self-test pregnancy kit on one of her own daughters.

“We had moved a young man into our home who was a friend of our son,” Mrs. Berger recalled. “There were some problems there that we just weren’t aware of. She had been enticed, accepted and became pregnant. Being a mother, I couldn’t believe it unless I saw it myself. I took my 16-year-old down to the office about 10 o’clock after she told me that she was pregnant. She took the test, and it was positive. God worked a lot of things through that situation to grow our daughter, and she took a responsible attitude that even helped us in the crisis pregnancy center. But what it taught me was that behind each person that comes through our clinic, regardless of the situation, she has parents who are hurting, too. That helped me in my years lay counseling these women that I could say, ‘we’ve walked that path and its painful not just for you but for parents of the expectant mother.’ God can restore that relationship.”

Mrs. Berger said that she used her testimony with the clients and parents, if the client allowed them to be brought into the picture. The primary focus of the agency was and continues to be to help the client feel safe and protected at the center, knowing their information is kept confidential, she said.

“We wanted them to know that no matter what they were looking at, that it was okay,” Mrs. Berger said. “We tell the clients up front that we are not in support of abortion and want to educate them on risks of abortion and offer them life alternatives if they are open to this.”

“We also ask them about their relationship with The Lord. There are a lot of emotions when dealing with an unplanned pregnancy. There were times when my husband couldn’t speak to our daughter. Then, one day, I came home and saw them comparing bellies and knew that they were going to be able to work through this. If you allow God in, he can help you through anything, and that’s what I tried to tell the clients.”

About two years after the center opened, Mrs. Berger remembers a client she was able to help because of the life experiences she and her family had been through. The young girl didn’t have a father in her life at that time and was afraid to tell her mother at the age of 16 that she had been raped. The male who had raped her threatened her if she told.

“The pregnancy test was negative, she told us after taking it at the center,” Mrs. Berger said. “I talked with her about the burden of carrying this bad experience by herself. She gave me permission to contact her mother. When her mother arrived and first sat down on the couch, there was a lot of space between them. Then, I asked the client to tell her mother what had happened to her. Before it was over, her mother couldn’t wait to get close to her and wrap her arms around her daughter and let her know how much she loved her. She told her daughter that they would work this out and began immediately to seek treatment for her.”

One of the first milestones for the center under Mrs. Berger’s direction was starting a young mother’s support group. The idea came directly from her daughter and her experiences.

“Many of these young women do not know the first thing about caring for a baby or parenting,” Mrs. Berger explained. “A lot of times, they don’t even have family support. Diana told me that I was missing something in the program. She said that when a young girl finds out she is pregnant, she many times loses her friends. Diana came along beside me as we started the support group and in two years, when she was 18, she began leading the mother’s support group. We would bring in guests speakers such as doctors to talk with the girls and other times, it would be just a time for the girls to share with each other what they were going through.”

Later, the center turned the support group into a parenting program where the clients would earn “parenting bucks” to use in the thrift store to “purchase” clothes, diapers or other items for their babies. The organization offers a six-week parenting program and Bible studies that the parents can attend for the first two years of the child’s life.

One of the biggest milestones of the non- profit organization during Mrs. Berger’s 20 years as executive director came in 2004 when the clinic changed from a care center to a clinic with a medical doctor’s supervision and registered nurse support staff. This allowed Choices PRC to provide nurse-administered pregnancy tests and ultrasounds to confirm a viable pregnancy. The ultrasound provides a “window to the womb,” allowing the parents to see their unborn baby and that tiny heart beating. The clinic also starts clients on prenatal vitamins and provides medical referrals for prenatal care.

“We started seeing a change across the nation that unplanned pregnancies in young, unmarried women wasn’t a crisis anymore,” Mrs. Berger explained. “For the first 10 years, the girls that came in were so tender and fearful. It was truly a crisis pregnancy. Now, it’s a part of life for a larger number of people. So, we changed our operation so we could confirm a viable pregnancy through ultrasound allowing moms and dads to have immediate bonding with their unborn child. It also helps us more efficiently minister to their physical, mental and spiritual needs.”

Board members, staff and volunteers had been praying for the agency to go medical for about six years as they worked to secure funding. In 2004. Once the decision was made to “trust God” and move forward, they received two grants that covered the cost of a new ultrasound machine and covered the first year’s salary for the nurse manager to oversee all medical aspects and provide ultrasounds.

“Our budget went from $70,000 to $125,000 in a year,” she explained. “That first year, The Lord just brought all the funding in like we needed. He has continued to provide for us each year. We have found that if we leave God out of the equation, nothing works well.”

Choices PRC is affiliated with CareNet and National Institute of Family Life Advocates, agencies that provide discounts on literature for the clinic as well as yearly conferences and seminars for administrative support. However, all funding comes from local individuals, churches, businesses and organizations, Mrs. Berger explained.

“When we converted to medical, we took Choices Pregnancy Resource Clinic up to another level in what we could provide,” Mrs. Berger said. “Now, it needs to go up another level. I’m the dinosaur of the business. It was time for me to leave and for Christy Renfroe to step in and take the executive director position. The ministry is still in God’s hands and his servant now is Christy. It will continue to be wonderful, reaching people for The Lord, educating people on the trap we get into with sexual activity and educating them on parenting.”  

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