A simple business card can be the beginning of a journey of healing for someone grieving an abortion loss. Project Rachel, a reconciliation and support system for those who seek to address the traumas one may experience after the elective termination of a pregnancy, has been a lifeline for many.
Vicki Thorn founded Project Rachel in 1984. She believed a post-abortion healing ministry must assure confidentiality, and possess both a strong spiritual element and a psychotherapeutic component. The name was inspired by scripture: “Rachel mourns her children, she refuses to be consoled because her children are no more.” (Jeremiah 31:15)
Encouraged by the work of Thorn and her colleagues, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops suggested the establishment of Project Rachel ministries in all U.S. dioceses. Archbishop Emeritus Roger Schwietz invited Thorn to Anchorage twenty years ago to assist in doing so. Pam Albrecht, with Project Rachel since its inception, had directed Birthright since 1979,—an organization that offered pregnancy tests, clothing, diapers and other assistance to pregnant women and their families. Albrecht is currently Co-Director of Project Rachel with Carol Szopa.
The Anchor recently caught up with Szopa, who describes her work as assisting in “healing of grief through the loss of a child through abortion,” she said. Szopa stated that she feels called to this work, as though it were, perhaps, the reason she was created. She has a heart for it. She added, “I believe it is the work of Christ’s healing in the world.”
Confession (through the sacrament of reconciliation) is a part of the process one undergoes in working through an abortion loss. “It takes away the sin and heals the soul. Project Rachel helps heal the heart,” Szopa said. Those experiencing abortion loss are often plagued with guilt, even after seeking reconciliation. A confessor knows that God forgives them; “we help them learn how to forgive themselves,” she added.
Project Rachel is strictly confidential and open to all who desire help. Most who avail themselves are Catholic, though its volunteers have ministered to those of diverse, and sometimes, no professed faith. “We approach healing from the spiritual aspect,” Szopa said.
None of these folks are professional counselors, but many have years of experience as health professionals, priests, deacons, and others dedicated to healing abortion’s often hidden wounds. All are trained in Project Rachel’s philosophy and methodology. They join a woman (or another impacted by her decision) on a nine-week journey. The program challenges her to reflect on her time and relationship with the baby’s father, as well as her relationship with our Lord, Szopa explained. These are addressed through weekly sessions that are scripture based and entail homework.
Her relationship with the baby is addressed at length. “It’s important to remind them that though they are healed, it doesn’t mean they forget,” Szopa emphasized, and added, “Some are afraid they will forget.” A key to not forgetting is helping a woman to forge a new relationship with the baby, a relationship that is blessed by sanctifying grace. Guilt may resurface, Szopa said, “but we give them tools to overcome setbacks.”
Project Rachel’s informative brochure highlights the manifestations women may experience after abortion. “Everyone is different,” Szopa advised. “Initially, one may feel good.” Later, unmitigated despair and anxiety may lead to drug and alcohol abuse, or a “heaviness” like depression may persist—for years. Szopa said sometimes it is several years before a person reaches out. There are new triggers that re-ignite guilt and grief. Anniversaries of the abortion event, due dates, and subsequent pregnancies are often complicated and challenging times. A host of negative consequences such as anger at God, the Church and others involved can repeatedly surface.
“Men suffer too,” Szopa said. It often comes out in rage and substance abuse. She noted that there are several deacons who can assist locally in helping men come to terms with their loss, anger and guilt.
For those outside Anchorage, Project Rachel can do its work through Facetime or Skype. With Alaska being as large as it is, the volunteers will work to find someone to assist a person seeking healing. A network of caring individuals assures that all who seek services will be satisfied.
Despite this open-armed invitation, the relatively small number of persons who have availed themselves of Project Rachel’s support belies the immensity of its work. In nearly 20 years of service, only several dozen individuals have completed the journey to healing that is generously offered free of charge.
“People are reluctant to come because of shame, and they don’t want to forget their baby. They are afraid someone will find out,” Szopa explained.
Those who overcome this reluctance are rewarded, as testimonials in the Project Rachel brochure detail: “It really hurt to talk about my abortion in the beginning. But it’s worth going through it. It is a gradual healing, and by the end, you’re glad you went through it,” one woman said. Another stated, “Because of the support Project Rachel offered to me, I am now living with a peaceful soul in a world of light and beauty rather than hiding with overwhelming shame in a dark cave.”
As Project Rachel enters its third decade of service in the Archdiocese of Anchorage, it is focused on getting the word out about its ministry. The organization is working with Providence Hospital behavior health services, and others, to that end.
“Priests have cards to give to people,” Szopa said of the simple business card which defines its work, the assurance of confidentiality and several options for more information, including its website: www.projectrachelalaska.com; its email: firstname.lastname@example.org; and phone numbers: (907) 297-7781—Toll-Free 1-866-434-3344. They can also be found on Facebook: Project Rachel Alaska.
Szopa stressed the importance of people contacting the organization, “If you have been given a card, we’d like you to give us a call and continue the healing,” she said. She emphasized that all inquiries are welcome, not from just women or others impacted by abortion. Those seeking more information about this important and necessary ministry are highly encouraged to contact Project Rachel.
The organization is also in the process of revising its operations manual, Szopa said, which may be considered by the U.S. Bishops for use in other dioceses in the future. As Project Rachel helps those who refuse to be consoled because of the loss of their children, its literature assures, “Thus says the Lord: cease your cries of mourning. Wipe the tears from your eyes. The sorrow you have shown shall have its reward, says the Lord. There is hope for your future” (Jeremiah 31:16-17).