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Posts Tagged ‘Talkline’

By Nikko Merlander, Exhale Counselor

Nikko Merlander

As a volunteer with Exhale since early 2008, I have heard time and time again that women and men using Exhale’s services were grateful for Exhale’s support. Yet, as a social worker who is interested in the evaluation and effectiveness of services, I wanted to know more about why Exhale’s services seemed to be so well-received. I saw an opportunity for mutual learning—to both dive into research that is important to me and to contribute to Exhale’s ongoing learning about what works for the women reaching out for post-abortion support.

I created a survey to explore women’s experiences receiving services from Exhale. This was a chance for the women taking the survey to be heard, anonymously, in a larger arena.  What I most hoped for was that the feedback survey respondents gave could be used to give direction and guidance to professionals and organizations in the abortion field across the United States. What better way to understand how to improve post-abortion services than to listen to the needs and experiences of those who have had an abortion experience?

And so the women spoke! Survey respondents overwhelmingly stated that the most important aspects of their experiences with Exhale were those that connected them to other women, validated their experiences, and empowered them in finding well-being. Most simply put, respondents seemed to be saying that they come to Exhale to receive non-judgmental services that value their unique experiences while also reassuring them that they are not alone. (more…)

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By Susan Lehman, Exhale Counselor & 2010 Rachel Falls Compassion Award honoree

This piece was written as part of the Asian Communities for Reproductive Justice‘s Strong Families initiative, as apart of their Mama’s Day Blog series and cross posted at On The Issues Magazine.

As the mother of grown children, I have basked in the annual glow of Mother’s Day recognition for a long time. Both my family and my community offer me blessings and praise for raising and providing for my children. But one of my most deeply maternal choices, my abortion, does not warrant the same recognition.

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Cross-posted on VolunteerMatch!

In 2010, Exhale faced a number of challenges. Like many organizations, we saw our revenue go down and the demand for our services go up. Simultaneously, one of our long-time organizational leaders decided it was time to move on to other endeavors.

These challenges could have seemed insurmountable to many. The Exhale Board and Staff team considered the challenge, and, importantly, we considered our strengths. Exhale turned to one of our strongest resources: our counselors, who are volunteers.

The counselors felt it was so important for Exhale to continue to offer welcoming, non-judgmental support to callers and members of our private online community, that they opted to manage these programs themselves. A team was formed to lead this effort. Dubbed the “Transition Team”, these four women – Holly Carpenter, Erika Jackson, Danielle Thomas and Carolina Gonzalez-Vilar – worked in tandem to ensure Exhale’s programs continued to operate with their usual standards of excellence.

The Transition Team led Exhale’s programs for six months, until a new Director of Programs, Jovida Ross, was hired and oriented. Jovida recently asked the Transition Team members to reflect on their experience.

Jovida: How did it feel to take on a higher level of responsibility, managing programs as a volunteer?

Holly: Stepping into leadership during the staffing transition felt really risky. I had never done it before, and it had never been done before at Exhale.

Danielle: When I initially took it on, I thought it wasn’t that big a deal. But as I got more involved with it, I realized how important it was.

Erika: There was a point, midway through, I had this moment of thinking, “How much longer are we going to do this? Are we doing a good job?” I felt less anxious when we were able to connect as a team.

Carolina: Seeing so many different people work together to do one person’s job helped me to see teamwork in different way, because we really had to work together to make sure everyone was on the same page.

Holly: You all are such incredible women! I felt such great peer support, as well as received great feedback from other counselors.

Danielle: The counselors were really receptive; at first I worried that things would fall apart or that counselors wouldn’t respond, but everyone really stepped up. That made this role feel good. It demonstrated to me that Exhale’s counselor model is ingrained in how we work together.

Jovida: How did you learn and grow through this experience?

Carolina: I definitely have a newfound respect for managing volunteers and how different it is from managing staff. With each volunteer, you have to understand what their motivation is [for participating] and speak to that.

Holly: Being the Lead Counselor forced me to slow down; I learned that nothing works better than being present. When I read a call form carefully, and put care into my response, I formed a better relationship with that counselor and there is more learning for both of us.

Danielle: Communication with the counselors was so key; I really strengthened my communication skills in this role. I also came to realize the value of holding people accountable. I have seen this value at Exhale more than anywhere else. Our counselors expect to be called out if they don’t follow through, and because of this I felt really comfortable saying, “This is what you have committed to, let’s have a conversation about why it isn’t happening, and how you can be supported to make it happen.”

Carolina: It was important to me to step up and demonstrate my participation to the other counselors. I wanted to role-model that sense of responsibility and teamwork. That felt very similar to the leadership skills I use at work, so I was able to draw on other experiences in this role.

Holly: Leadership involves more grunt work than I imagined! It’s not just about being an innovator, it takes work and follow-through. My understanding of non-profit organizations also increased.

Erika: This was the first time I stepped up into a leadership role at Exhale. I always thought before that I wouldn’t have time to do all these awesome things. Now I know that being a leader doesn’t mean I have to be available all the time, as long as there is clear communication.

Holly: Taking leadership within Exhale helped me recognize that I am valuable and have something to give, just by being myself. I also learned that when I really care about something, I can go beyond what I thought my limits were. I care that Exhale thrives because I find it to be so valuable. Taking this leadership position stretched me, and I accomplished more than I thought I could.

Erika: I’m more vocal now at Exhale meet-ups. I’ve always participated somewhat, but it’s given me the confidence and opportunity to be comfortable being more vocal in the Exhale community. I know that I do have knowledge and experience to share, that others can learn from.

Jovida: Did the experience change how you think about leadership, community, or what Pro-Voice means? If so, how?

Danielle: From the get-go, I knew that the Exhale community is a powerful, special community. My expectations in this role were exceeded—I had been really worried about folks not being open to the transition and to doing things differently. But the counselors were really supportive and communicative. I realized that Pro-Voice isn’t just something we talk about to our callers, it is a value we hold with each other as well.

Holly: Before this experience, Pro-Voice was an intangible idea. It was different to work behind the scenes, to see how much care and training goes into developing Pro-Voice counselors. Exhale is really a refuge.

Erika: It made Pro-Voice a very tangible thing I can talk to people about, and it helped me articulate what is different about this approach. The fact that we were trusted, as volunteers, and empowered to have really major responsibilities really exemplified having ownership, which is such a big part of what the Pro-Voice experience means to me. Beyond abortion stories, here is an organization that took a really radical approach to a staffing transition. Now I feel compelled to talk to other people about Exhale and the Pro-Voice message.

Holly: I have become more positive at Exhale. I came into this work because of a personally difficult experience. It has been powerful to turn that around and connect with others. It feels like love. There is so much room for creativity in this work; it feels like there is a ton of potential!  It’s exciting to be part of an organization that is learning and growing.

Accepting their Leadership Awards (from the left): Erika Jackson,  Holly Carpenter, Danielle Thomas (Carolina Gonzalez-Villar not pictured)

Celebrating the Transition Team (from the left): Aspen Baker, Holly Carpenter, Leah Uberseder, Jovida Ross, Erika Jackson and Danielle Thomas

From everyone at Exhale: Thank You Holly, Danielle, Erika and Carolina!

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On the night that MTV’s No Easy Decision aired, Exhale’s talkline lit up! We had fourteen callers in the first hour after the special had finished broadcasting on the East Coast, even though it was midnight in that time zone.

Several counselors took calls that night. Lisa Green was one of those counselors. Exhale Director of Programs Jovida Ross asked Lisa about her experience working with Exhale through the partnership with MTV.

Jovida: What was it like to take calls on the talkline the night that “No Easy Decision” aired?

Lisa: I was ready to listen; I knew that I might be getting calls from women who were learning for the first time that they had a place to call. I consider it sacred space, and I felt like I was a part of something revolutionary that night. The calls I got were similar to calls I’ve taken at other times, except that they said they had just watched the show and were so glad to learn about Exhale.

Jovida: Did you watch the special? If so, what stood out to you about it?

Lisa: I cannot express how brave I think that Markai and her boyfriend are for sharing their experience, as with Katie and Natalia, the 2 other women who sat with Dr. Drew for the interview. I wanted more; more discussion and more about abortion approached in this manner. More stories from real women exploring real experiences that are not black and white, making tough choices that may not be what they imagined but doing what they believe is best for everybody involved; themselves, their families and their future. This is the kind of thing I hear on the talkline, and I have never seen it reflected in the media before.

Jovida: Did you read any of the 16 & Loved posts? If so, was there anything that stood out to you about the site?

Lisa: I loved that Exhale created this site. It was so positive and powerful. I expected that there would be a backlash from the airing of “No Easy Decision”, and I read just about everything I could about the show, and all the posts on 16 & Loved beforehand. Although there was some negative commentary online, for the most part it seemed like there was a great welcoming of hearing real women’s stories. This warmed my soul and made me feel positive and proud to be part of Exhale; for being a part of this important shift in dialogue.

Jovida: Is there anything you’d like to share about the counseling experience, and why or how it is meaningful for you?

Lisa: Listening to women on the hotline has seriously changed my life. Simple listening, simple non-judgmental listening, is so powerful and pure. I am somebody who obsesses about being perfect and this stops me from doing many things; I worry about things I say or ruminate about things that others wouldn’t give a second thought. For the most part, this does not happen with me on the talkline.  I can just listen; listen and help women to see themselves the way I do when I hear them talk about their tough choices and their strength, and listen to them work out what makes sense to them.

I have talked to so many women who simply amaze me with their resilience and wisdom. My favorite calls are when women come to the point where they have concluded how strong they are and they come to feel empowered. I am also always amazed that a call can begin with crying and end with laughter or taking action to seek further support.

One call that stands out in my memory is a caller who came from a very conservative family and community, who told me that this was the first time she had said the word abortion out loud. It felt wonderful to be a part of that moment with her; I got to witness her unburden herself, to release and let go of her pent-up emotion.

These moments are the heart of pro-voice. A friend of mine recently read the New York Times article [about Exhale] and she loved the idea of pro-voice and taking abortion out of the political realm. I’m proud to be a part of approaching abortion in a new way; I feel like I am a part of an emerging pro-voice movement.

I really love how [fellow Exhale counselor] Nat has phrased or defined pro-voice in one of his blog posts: That a pro-voice movement will lead to “a world where the rest of us can see abortion less as a political issue to be debated and more about abortion as an experience lived by a woman we love.”

For me, when I think about pro-voice, I find myself going back to the phrase or notion of the gray area, about breaking free from black and white thinking and embracing the multi-layered nature of most important decisions in life. Most of us live in those gray areas, our lives becoming things we didn’t imagine or living in ways that we didn’t plan for. There can be beauty in those moments. Abortion is a part of that journey for so many women. We deserve respect, and for our voices to be heard.

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Exhale partnered with MTV on their groundbreaking special “No Easy Decision” which gave three young women  – Markai, Natalia and Katie – the opportunity to tell their own story with abortion, in their own words.  Our “16 & Loved” campaign, launched in conjunction with the special, gave everyone the opportunity to express their love to Markai, Natalia and Katie to  let them know they are not alone.  They are loved.

The special and our campaign were covered extensively in the media and the blogosphere, successfully creating new public conversations about the need to support and respect each person’s unique experience with abortion.   Our pivotal role in this television milestone and the challenge of being Pro-Voice in a pro-choice/pro-life world were reported on in The New York Times.

Exhale’s own speakers bureau member, Mayah Frank, wrote about her own experience of abortion and what the special means to her on Care2Causes.  Read her blog post:  “MTV’s 16 and Pregnant Takes on Abortion: One Reason Why.”

Here is a roundup of articles featuring “No Easy Decision,” and our “16 & Loved” Campaign:

Lynn Harris, Salon.com: “MTV’s Shockingly Good Abortion Special.”

Circling the wagons against nasty backlash, nonpartisan post-abortion support talkline Exhale, who partnered with MTV on the show, had already planned an online campaign called “16 and Loved” to act as sort of virtual clinic escorts for the young women outing themselves.

Shelby Knox, ShelbyKnox.com: “MTV’s Abortion Show Was…Actually Good.”

Also exceptional was the online space created by Exhale, a multi-lingual after abortion counseling talkline, called 16 and Loved. The site’s sole purpose is to support Markai, Katie, and Natalia and other young women who’ve chosen abortion. Exhale got ahead of the inevitable anti-choice shenanigans and focused most of the conversation online, especially on Twitter during the special, toward loving and accepting the young women rather than arguing the politics of abortion rights.

Of course, the real sheroes of No Easy Decision are Markai, Katie and Natalia. Because of their courage, young women who saw or see the show who’ve had abortions know that they’re not alone and they don’t have to be ashamed.

Jessica Valenti, JessicaValenti.com: “MTV’s abortion special treats issue with compassion, facts.”

Amanda Marcotte, RH Reality Cast (podcast): “Aggressive Women, Rape Myths, And Abortion Realities”

Roxann MtJoy, Change.org: “MTV to Air Special on Teen Abortion Tonight”

MTV is partnering with Exhale, an after-abortion counseling talkline, to make sure that this sensitive subject matter is handled right. Exhale wants to make sure that those brave girls who shared their stories feel loved and supported. To that end, they have launched a major social media campaign called 16 & Loved, and there are plenty of ways for you to get involved.

Linda Lowen, About.com: “MTV’s No Easy Decision Follows Teens Who Choose Abortion”

Knowing that the girls featured on the special will be bombarded with hate after their stories air, the website 16 and Loved is already up and running to provide messages of unconditional love and support to the three girls who are featured in No Easy Decision. The site offers readers a chance to post their own stories about abortion and leave comments for the girls to let them know that going public with their decision is a courageous act.

The driving force behind the site is Exhale, a nonprofit organization that provides a nonjudgmental national, multilingual after-abortion talkline and trained peer counselors.

Sean Daly, NYPost: “MTV Follows ‘Teen Mom’ Who Chose Abortion in Controversial New Show” and “16 & Pregnant Abort Show Furor”

Luchina Fisher, ABCNews.com: “MTV Airing Teen Abortion Special, ‘No Easy Decision'”

To find the young women for the special, MTV partnered with Exhale, an after-abortion counseling hotline …that takes an apolitical or “pro-voice” approach that “honors and respects each person’s unique experience with abortion,” according to volunteer Erika Jackson.

Exhale launched its “16 and Loved”website to support the young women who will tell their stories next week, as well as women who find the stories resonate with them. The group has been posting messages of support to the women on the special and will be live blogging during the program.

“My grand vision is that everyone who has had an abortion or is in the middle of the decision-making process will know that she’s not alone,” Jackson told ABCNews.com.

Bianca Laureno, Latino Sexuality: “No Easy Decision/16 & Loved: MTVs Airing of Teen Stories About Abortion” and “Reflecting On “No Easy Decision”

I’m not a huge fan of the “speak outs” especially when connected to abortion, personally. Part of this stems from seeing people who are not prepared to hear those testimonios respond to them, youth thinking they are expected to share when they are not prepared or ready to do so, and the somewhat voyeuristic space that may be created. However, I have not ever spoken out against these spaces existing, or the importance and need they fill for many people. Any way for such healing and consciousness-raising to occur is essential. There is enough space for all of us to heal and build together.

Vanessa Valenti, Feministing: “MTV’s “16 and Pregnant” to air special on abortion tomorrow”

Samhita Mukhopadhyay, Feministing: “On MTV’s special, “No Easy Decision.”

Beth Saunders, RH Reality Check: “Morning Roundup: Alaska, Wisconsin, and 16 and Loved”

Kelsey Wallace, Bitch: “Love for the Women of MTV’s “No Easy Decision”

Barbara Glickstein, WBAI Healthstyles (MP3)

Jill Fillipovic, Feministe: “16 & Loved”

I’m sure the show will be controversial (and Dr. Drew is the worst, so that part concerns me). I’m also sure that the young women who have abortions will not be warmly received by many members of the “pro-life” community.

Which is why I’m glad that Exhale is doing a “16 & Loved” campaign to support these (and all) women who terminate pregnancies. It’s important for women to know that no matter what their story and what reproductive choices they make, they are supported.

Irin Carmon, Jezebel: “MTV Airing Teen Abortion Special”

LATimes Show Tracker: “How groundbreaking was MTV’s abortion special?”

But Pinsky earned raves from abortion rights advocates, as did MTV’s decision to partner with Exhale, a “pro-voice” counseling service for women who’ve had abortions.

Sarah Seltzer, The Washington Post: “MTV’s ’16 and Pregnant’ exploits teen moms but addresses abortion with dignity”

BostonHerald.com: “MTV Abortion Special: No Easy Decision”

Steph Herold, AbortionGang: “16 and Loved: Supporting Women Who Have Had Abortions”

Jamia Wilson, Womens Media Center: “MTV Abortion Special “No Easy Decision” Addresses Abortion with Compassionate Integrity”

I appreciate MTV’s portrayal of the three women on the show, presenting them authentically without promoting stereotypes as they often do in other reality shows. I loved their positive depiction of an African American/Multiracial family, their engagement with spirituality, and their portrayal of women with families and partners who were loving, supportive, and respectful of each woman’s choice.

We don’t often hear these stories and I am glad they gave air time to Natalia, Markai, and Katie’s realities. When Katie, explained that she made a “parenting decision” by making the choice to end her pregnancy, I regarded the concept of choice with a more enlightened perspective. I am proud of these young women for living their truth.

Jennifer Pozner, Reality Bites Back: “Viewers Guide to MTV Abortion Special: Send young women your love but give Dr. Drew the sideeye” and “Liveblogging ’16 & Pregnant’ Reunion Show and MTV abortion special No Easy Decision”

I’m pleasantly surprised: the framing of Markai’s abortion experience has been respectful, and seemingly true to her authentic reactions during pregnancy, through her decision-making process with her boyfriend, mother and friend, and finally in the aftermath of how she has been coping with the choice she made. She seems resigned to knowing it was the right decision, but feeling doubt and sadness that this choice was necessary — which, of course, is how a great many women feel when they find themselves having to terminate an unexpected pregnancy. I knew it was possible that MTV could produce a reality special that handled abortion with nuance, respect and authenticity. But having documented ten years of reality TV manipulations, misrepresentations and regressive anti-feminist backlash for my book, Reality Bites Back, I was skeptical that they would really want to do so, or know how to do so even if the good intentions were there. So far, at least for this first 1/3 of the special, I’m really glad that my concerns have been misplaced…

Dr. Drew ended the special encouraging those who have had abortions to visit Exhale’s website if they need support. Unfortunately, the special never mentioned “16 and Loved,” the Exhale-led companion campaign to this special aimed at showering Markai, Katie (and the other teen whose name I didn’t catch) with support and love, which I blogged about earlier. Was this a perfect special? No. Did it cover all the reasons young women have abortions? No. But it was far more honest, and allowed far more authenticity of girls’ experiences, than I expected. And my biggest surprise: Dr. Drew wasn’t the moralizing, judgmental, faux-sincere jerk he has often been on his other MTV shows, Celebrity Rehab, Sex Rehab, and Sober House.


Thank you to every person who participated in conversations about the need to support and respect each woman’s unique experience with abortion, whether she shares her story in private on our talkline or in public on MTV.  Every woman deserves the opportunity to feel heard, understood, supported and respected.  And, most of all, loved.

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*Guest Blogger*

Nat Okey, Exhale Volunteer:

Aspen Baker recently wrote, “Transforming hearts and minds is not the job of our government and abortion stigma is not reduced through elections.  Changing culture requires people.  It takes you and me.  Our friends and family.  Our neighbors and co-workers.”

It also takes Exhale volunteers.  As volunteer counselors we create safe and sacred spaces where women and men create their own personal narratives about their abortion experience.  When we volunteer, we commit to hearing every caller’s story, to be with people who are struggling, and to validate their feelings and help them to see and recognize their own inner strengths.  Though we are volunteers, our work is neither easy nor free. (more…)

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Exhale is proud to honor Susan Lehman with the 2010 Rachel Falls Compassion Award.

In her time with Exhale, Susan has served as a talkline counselor, online community moderator and a Pro-Voice Ambassador.  Susan is a well-respected counselor whose peers use terms like “warm heart” and “unflagging compassion” to describe her mentorship and contributions to our callers, and the greater Pro-Voice community.  I have been inspired by Susan’s thoughtfulness and commitment to everything she puts her minds to and I am honored for the opportunity to work beside her at Exhale.

The Rachel Falls Compassion Award was created in 2008 to honor a very dear friend and ally of Exhale: Rachel Falls. The Hotline Director at the National Abortion Federation, Rachel passed away after a long battle with brain cancer. Rachel was a true pro-voice champion: she integrated post-abortion counseling into NAF’s services, collaborated with Exhale staff to train others in the field, and became a vocal advocate for promoting the emotional wellbeing of women who have had abortions. The award is given once a year to a talkline counselor who best embodies the spirit and values of Rachel Falls: exuberance, strength, empathy, commitment, vision, and compassion. Only fellow talkline counselors can nominate the potential winner.   Past awardees include Elsa Valmidiano, who you can read about in our zine (pg.7), and Jan.

In honor of her award, I sat down with Susan to ask her a few questions about her experience with Exhale as a volunteer. Here is what she said.

What first brought you to Exhale?

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