By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published December 23, 2014
CHAMBLEE—Terry Weaver started in the anti-abortion movement with coffee klatches and letter-writing campaigns to lawmakers. The political fighting though seemed fruitless and tired her. She instead embraced another way.
For some 45 years, she has been serving women in crisis as a leader in Birthright, an international nonprofit that counsels and provides related services to pregnant women. She has been the face of Birthright not only in Atlanta but across the country.
Now Weaver will be stepping down, handing the volunteer work to others at the end of 2014.
“I never cared how many babies I saved,” said Weaver, in an interview. “It didn’t make a difference. We celebrated every save.”
Atlanta has long been a center of the Birthright organization. Supporters, led by Weaver, opened the first U.S. chapter of the organization, which began as an initiative of a Canadian mother, Louise Summerhill, to shift the focus of the abortion debate to women’s needs. The Atlanta chapter has grown to host the national office and the international Birthright hotline.
“She’s taken on so many responsibilities during her tenure. To fill her shoes will be a big, big task,” said Frank Bentz, a member of the board of directors for the Atlanta office for more than 15 years.
The Birthright board of directors has appointed Lisa Olwine as the new director of the Atlanta organization. A mother of three, Olwine has been a volunteer since 1990 and for the past two years has been assistant director. She’s a parishioner at St. John Neumann Church in Lilburn.
Reflecting on the past decades, Weaver said her time with Birthright was unexpected. “The whole thing has been a surprise. People are like snowflakes, no two are alike,” she said. Weaver said she was always prepared with a resignation letter at the ready as the efforts expanded and she felt unsure of its direction.
“I am not any more fit for this office than the man in the moon,” she said. But she’s stuck with it. In 1983, Weaver received WXIA-TV Channel 11’s eighth annual community services award, “The Ones Who Care.”
Her vision has been focused on each person and their dignity. She said, “You are doing it one at a time. You’re working with the person until the needs are met. You treat everybody like your family.”
In the late 1960s, Weaver gathered with other new mothers. She began the St. Gerard Guild in Immaculate Heart of Mary parish with other new mothers who wanted a place to go with their kids. Out of this grew the Georgia chapter of the La Leche League, a support group for nursing mothers, and then the Georgia Right-to-Life Association. They’d encourage other mothers and fathers to write letters to convince lawmakers how to vote on key issues.
A chance meeting at a Chicago Right to Life event reset her course. She retreated during the conference to a room to nurse a child. Summerhill, the Canadian founder of Birthright, came into the room to prepare for a keynote speech. The two started chatting, about children and other things. As Summerhill prepared to go talk to the conference-goers, she asked Weaver to “go in and be a friendly face” in the crowd.
‘I’d like to help you have this baby’
That was the start. Weaver left the political debates in the state capital to others. She tired of the political fights that never seemed to change the lives of women in need. She saw politicians promise one thing and then do another. She instead focused on getting to women weighing whether or not to have a baby and offer them help to convince them to carry the child to term.
“Instead of saying, ‘don’t have an abortion,’” said Weaver, “why not say, ‘I’d like to help you have this baby.’ The first one we talked to we saved, so we knew it worked.”
Raised in northwest Pennsylvania, she’s the daughter of a farmer. She and her husband have seven children. Weaver is outgoing. When she makes a joke, she’ll wink. Medical conditions have hampered her mobility.
Weaver’s office in the Chamblee building is decorated with paintings by Summerhill, along with a well-worn Rolodex on her large desk. A coffee mug on her desk is emblazoned with “Believe.”
A print hanging on the wall, in decorative script, states the organization’s motto: “It is the right of every pregnant woman to give birth and the right of every child to be born.”
Weaver wears three hats at the organization. She has overseen the Atlanta office since it began in 1970 in a one-room office donated by St. Vincent de Paul. It was the first Birthright center in the United States. In the early 1990s, she took on the role of leading Birthright USA, serving hundreds of centers across the country. The 24-hour hotline began three years later under her leadership. The call center, which operates with both paid staff and a few volunteers, takes phone calls and counsels women in crisis. It began with some 5,000 calls the first year and has grown to more than 64,000 calls annually.
Founded in 1968, Birthright International has grown to more than 500 centers across the U.S., Canada and Africa. It is interdenominational, but “heavily Catholic” in both outlook and volunteers, said Weaver. In fact, she realized Catholic volunteers needed training to be comfortable and familiar with Protestant styles of prayer. Said Weaver, “We told our Catholic volunteers you have to know more than the Hail Mary.”
The quiet interdenominational nonprofit operates on private contributions and relies on faithful volunteers. Birthright works because it is “women to women, person to person,” Weaver said.
During her time, Weaver was not paid. Bentz said Weaver insisted on that. He said she didn’t want the organization to be distracted by fundraising to pay her salary, but instead wanted the focus to be on the mission of Birthright.
The Chamblee office, on Hardee Avenue, close to the MARTA line, serves local women who call or drop in. Written materials are available in English and Spanish, and a Spanish-speaking volunteer is usually there for phone calls and visits. From January to October 2014, the Atlanta office served more than 400 women.
Janis Niesse has worked as the administrative assistant at Birthright since 1997.
She said Weaver’s experience will be hard to replicate. “She has a lot of wisdom and experience. A lot of people call on her for that wisdom,” she said.
Weaver has been an inspiring model when she talks to others, Niesse said. She’ll focus on the person on the phone or in front of her, giving her full attention, no matter other pressing demands, she said.
The Birthright supporters are concerned about “who could ever replace her with all her experience and knowledge,” she said.
The board of directors is working on a smooth transition. Bentz said ensuring the organization functions well is a priority whenever a longtime leader leaves.
Both Bentz and Weaver agreed a challenge facing the nonprofit is attracting more volunteers. There are fewer people to volunteer as families rely on dual incomes, said Bentz.
There will be changes for Birthright USA after Weaver steps down. The national office is relocating to South Dakota. The hotline is staying here.
Weaver said the work with Birthright is always built on a “trust relationship.” If after counseling a woman still continues with an abortion, no doors are closed, she said. Birthright will help a woman and man find post-abortion counseling, she said. “That’s really a must,” she said.
When times appeared bleak, Weaver said God always has intervened with financial support or advocates who help get things done.
“When it’s a life issue, I always think there’s a way out of this. There’s always an answer.”
Father Neil Dhabliwala volunteered for two years at the center when he attended Georgia Tech. He served on the hotline, directing women to their local resources that could help them. At times, he talked with women who thought Birthright was an abortion clinic, which was a “powerful opportunity” to offer care and support to women, he said.
“Her intelligence was obvious. Incredibly resourceful and dedicated,” he said about Weaver. He also said Weaver “had an incredible wit and wonderful sense of humor and was always joyful despite her physical illnesses.”
The message she impressed on the volunteers was the significance of what they were doing.
He said, “It wasn’t just a social service, but a ministry of love.”
To contact Birthright or volunteer call 770-451-2273 or visit www.birthrightofatlanta.com.