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MIAMI, Fla.—“My baby died here.”
Jeanne Pernia pointed out the room where as a teenager she had an abortion. The father of the child she aborted was part-owner of the abortion business. The other co-owner was Pernia’s mom.
“The suction was here,” she said. “That room was the examining room.” Pernia remembers the layout so well because hers was not a one-time visit. As a teenager she also worked there assisting abortionists who cut up and vacuumed out thousands of unborn children. But that was then: Now the accomplice in killing saves lives as director of the Heartbeat of Miami Pregnancy Help Medical Clinic.
Heartbeat of Miami is our South Region winner not only because of Pernia’s dramatic turnaround but because the location of its two clinics, one in a heavily Hispanic area and the other in a heavily African-American one, shows how the pro-life movement is expanding to help the poorest of the poor: A minority unborn baby is more than twice as likely to be snuffed out as a white one. Five out of six Miami-Dade County residents are Latino or black, and Miami-Dade County has 37 abortion businesses (not counting private doctor practices and hospitals).
Pernia didn’t want her abortion in 1978, but her boyfriend insisted. She took deep breaths and stared at corners of the room. Her lower back writhed as “the procedure” began. Staff members held her down and gave her an extra sedative. Then it was over, and she limped through the recovery room and out to her boyfriend’s waiting vehicle. He was relaxed, but Pernia says for her “the real pain and grief had only begun.”
Now the ceilings she once stared up at are the same, but the walls are different: One displays photographs of the babies born following Heartbeat counseling. Now the PVC pipe furniture and red couch of the abortion business are gone, as is the fluorescent sign that announced in Spanish the availability of instant abortion. Now a scared young woman sees her baby on the screen of an ultrasound machine and can no longer tell herself that what’s in her womb is a blob of tissue.
Pernia has learned pro-life principles through hard experience, but Heartbeat of Miami president Martha Avila learned them from her dad: In 1972, a year before Roe v. Wade, Avila’s father provided a haven for an unmarried pregnant woman kicked out of her home. “We were so poor at the time,” Avila recalls, “and to bring another person into the house was a sacrifice, but we cared for her and saw reconciliation with her dad.” That memory led Avila to leave her job as a telecommunications customer service manager and take charge of creating Heartbeat of Miami before it had its own building: “The first baby we saved was saved on my kitchen table.”
In the eight years since then, Heartbeat of Miami estimates that it’s helped save the lives of 18,000 more. Last year Heartbeat had 4,294 client visits, with 3,650 of the clients contemplating abortion, but 3,358 of them deciding not to abort. At Heartbeat and other pregnancy resource centers around the country, ultrasound machines make a huge difference.
Avila rejoices in those saves and wishes her father, who died in 1995, was at her side to see her work. She’s made sure that Heartbeat of Miami clearly states its core values: the importance of the gospel, the dignity of women, the sanctity of human life, the irreplaceable value of fathers, the importance of sexual purity and marriage, and the transforming power of neighborly love. Those values lead to its specific offerings: pregnancy tests, ultrasound, material aid to pregnant women, adoption support, housing referrals, postabortion help, parenting support, a mentoring program for men, spiritual counseling, and more.
Heartbeat of Miami’s second location, eight miles east, has largely African-American clients as well as many from Haiti—and many also need basic education. One staffer, Mindy Richard-Johnson, became pregnant at 16 but carried her baby to term and rejoices in that: The girl who could have been aborted is now 12 years old. She says, “The majority of girls, they’re confused. They think this is just a seed or a blob of tissue, but when they finally see the baby on the ultrasound, bouncing and everything, they end up choosing life.”
Clinic supervisor Lourdes McMinns described one young woman having an ultrasound done: She “saw the little flutter of the heartbeat and she heard it also. She asked, ‘Is that, like, my heartbeat?’ I said, ‘No, that’s your baby’s heartbeat.’ Immediately she started crying and said, ‘Omygod, I thought it was a blood clot, I thought it was nothing.’ I explained to her that at 18 to 24 days your baby’s heart has already started beating. Blood clots don’t have heartbeats.”
The Hope Award contest, which emphasizes poverty-fighting ministries, has never had a pregnancy help center as a regional winner, but given the major financial challenges young and unmarried women face, part of pro-life help is a battle against poverty. Lourdes says, “A lot of them are living with their parents, and sometimes they’re afraid their parents will kick them out of the house. That’s why we provide mentoring and help them find jobs.”
After her abortion, Pernia went on to have three children and live in El Paso for 16 years, but she returned to Miami in 2003. Later, she found herself driving back to the same corner where she had had an abortion and participated in others. Conquered, a book she co-authored two years ago, explains how she found herself plagued by flashbacks and more: “I could almost hear the cries of the deceased babies as I approached the building.” But crucially, she had become a Christian and “knew this was Satan’s conviction working overtime to try and convince me to turn away.”
Pernia did not turn away. She saw how the building that starred in her nightmares was physically unimposing, with a tired and worn exterior. Then she “prayed for all that had happened behind the walls of that building, and for the strength and forgiveness I needed to receive.” Avila hired Pernia to take charge of the Heartbeat center when it opened in 2007: “It was a gift of redemption given to me by Jesus. … Day after day I witnessed firsthand and shared tears with women of all ages as they hesitantly turned their heads toward the monitor and watched the small baby inside of them move. … As I held their hands through the sonograms and our one-on-one counseling sessions, piece by piece my heart began to restore itself.”
Some of the most moving scenes involved not new visitors but old ones who came to volunteer without realizing they would be helping to save lives in the building where they had aborted. One “was surprised to discover that ours was the very same building where she’d suffered multiple abortions.” Another volunteer “stood trembling at the door. Her hand covered her mouth in shock, and she began to cry.”
2014 revenue: $584,919
2014 expenses: $510,920
Net assets at the end of 2014: $133,652
President’s salary: $58,864
Clinic director’s salary: $47,700
Staff: 13 full-time employees, 20 volunteers
2015 budget: $580,000
Mr. Mitchell’s neighborhood
LAKELAND, Fla.—This husband and wife just found out they have twins. … This house we completely gutted and renovated. … We landscaped this one so the family could maintain it without a sprinkler system. … This house is sandstone, from a quarry in northern Florida, oldest house in the neighborhood. … This one is extremely cool in the summer and warm in the winter.”
Tim Mitchell of Parker Street Ministries was showing me around his neighborhood. After 13 years as executive director, he is intimate with many houses and knowledgeable about most of their inhabitants. “This one is a special design by one of the local architects. … A retired schoolteacher lives here. … A Christian couple moved into this bungalow, wanting to live out their faith in this neighborhood. … Wife is a nurse, husband works for a large construction company. … This family moved in when the daughter was in the third grade. She’s now a senior in high school.”
The Parker Street staffers know their neighborhood of 750 addresses. They avoid the temptation to move into new things and in the process hurt their primary work of gospel-centered community development. They act as liaisons between schools and uneducated parents overwhelmed by jargon, but they avoid parachuting into families and taking over for parents. Instead of tearing down old, Craftsman-style bungalows they try to improve and expand them.
Some ministries follow Nike’s injunction to “just do it,” while others mainly talk about it: Parker Street’s combination of hands-on savvy and clear objectives is unusual but useful in the ministry world. Goal: “Parker Street residents are financially healthy and generous through dependence on God and responsible stewardship.” Program: financial fitness classes and other activities. Other goals include building community and following biblical standards for family life, and those translate into women’s breakfasts, dance classes, parenting programs, diet and fitness groups, movie nights, summer splashes and Christmas stores, and much besides, all in close contact with the church that shares Parker Street’s building.
Mitchell continues to emphasize the need to prioritize. His first task was to “figure out housing. … You see the beautiful houses, and then you see these crack houses with holes in the roofs and people just squatting in them. If there was a vacant house, it was only vacant for about a week and then it turned into a drug-infested place. … Other residents hid in their houses.” Mitchell now spends five hours a week driving through the neighborhood with plywood in the back of his truck and lots of nails. He boards up unoccupied houses: “As long as we keep them from being broken into, they don’t turn into crack houses.”
That stopgap leads to the second task: finding adventurous folks to occupy those houses. He recalls “meeting all these young couples who had a heart for this kind of work. They couldn’t necessarily do it as full-time work, but they wanted to be part of it. I started convincing them to move in.” In the process, Mitchell saw God’s sense of humor: The wife in one family wanted to move into the neighborhood right away, “but the husband said he’d only move in if the house came up for sale at a crazy number. It did.”
The battle is house-to-house. Mitchell pointed out one that was a hot spot for drugs and prostitution, with neighbors calling the police but becoming frustrated with lack of action. Mitchell met with the local drug task force and the police chief and offered the ministry office as a place to do surveillance. Eventually the police got warrants and did a huge bust: “They said every surface either had a gun or some other kind of weapon. Drugs all over the house. … That was a cool way for us to establish a little more trust from the neighborhood. Neighbors were able to see the police department care, and us care.”
Good relations with civil authorities also helped when the budget-crunched school system cut back on buses and kids coming to Parker Street’s after-school program had to walk an unsafe route across industrial traffic and railroad tracks. Appeals to a school board member and the school transportation director worked: Now school buses drop off kids right at Parker Street’s building. A well-maintained park adjacent to that building is also evidence of success: “Usually within six months a park turns into a hot spot for drugs and prostitution,” Mitchell explained, but this one hasn’t. Prostitutes sometimes use it but “they clear out before the kids come home from school.”
Now that the Parker Street neighborhood is on the way up, Mitchell expects for-profit groups to become involved in home restoration because profits now can be made there. The ministry has to concentrate on attracting more businesses and creating more jobs: With unemployment still high, Mitchell acknowledges that many of his neighbors are “living off the government,” and the state can be a harsh and unreliable spouse. He grew up in a farming community where “if you put a seed in the ground, water and fertilize it, and get enough sunlight, something good is going to happen. Here you can do a lot of seeding, watering, fertilizing, and waiting, and you do not necessarily see the fruit you would hope, at least not in the time frame you’d like. But this is what I was created to do: to be a herald of Christ in a community that is broken.”
He’s also learned a lot about the need for poverty-fighters not to “lose sight that we ourselves are broken and need a Savior.” When middle-class folks encounter poor people who self-medicate with drugs, “it’s easy to see their sin if they’re smoking crack, but everybody will give you a pass on self-righteousness.” Mitchell says, “My biggest hope is that Christ would be glorified in the lives of the people in such a way that at the end of their lives they know Him and they don’t remember us.”
2014 revenue: $640,086
2014 expenses: $715,665
Net assets at the end of 2014: $2,004,779 ($81,000 from reserves went for the unexpected expense of a new roof for the gym.)
Executive director’s salary and benefits: $74,935
Staff: 7 full-time employees, 10 part-time
2015 budget: $795,000
Listen to Susan Olasky’s report on Heartbeat of Miami on The World and Everything in It.
Read profiles of other finalists and runners-up for the Hope Award for Effective Compassion.