ITHACA — No crisis pregnancy center had ever existed in Ithaca, and Mary Camobreco had no experience operating one. So, she turned to prayer for reassurance one night in 1981.
"I asked the good Lord, ‘Just let me be instrumental in saving one life,’" she recalled.
Thanks to Camobreco’s kind and loving ways over these past three decades, the number of babies spared from abortion — as well as mothers who received crucial support — has far exceeded her original goal, she acknowledged.
"The good Lord, he multiplies. I always think about the loaves and fishes," she remarked.
Camobreco, 76, is the only director in Ithaca Birthright’s history, having served on a volunteer basis the entire time. She oversees an organization that provides an array of free, confidential services for women facing unexpected pregnancies. Among them are pregnancy testing; maternity and baby clothing and supplies; and referrals for legal, medical, educational, housing, social-service and adoption issues. According to Camobreco, last year Birthright’s staff met with more than 500 clients and gave out hundreds of needed items such as clothes, diapers and formula.
Camobreco, a longtime member of Ithaca’s Immaculate Conception Parish, got Birthright launched with the support of Immaculate Conception’s late pastor, Father Bernard Carges.
"I used to belong to a prayer group at church; I always would pray for the unborn," she said, adding that Birthright International, begun in the late 1960s, had gained considerable strength by the early 1980s. There are now several hundred Birthright outlets around the world.
The local Birthright operated until 2004 on Center Street; since then it has been located at 605 W. State St. Camobreco said governmental funding isn’t as strong as it once was, so she relies heavily on donations and volunteerism from the community.
Perhaps the most valuable commodity offered by Birthright is that of friendship and one-on-one support, lasting through the baby’s delivery and beyond. This is done without judgment of one’s personal circumstance related to marital or economic status, age, race or religion.
Naty Clark, for one, said she was motivated to volunteer with Ithaca Birthright clients from the viewpoint of having two young children of her own.
"I come here with my kids sometimes and just connect (with clients). When they see them (my children) I can talk about my own experience with kids," she said. "It may open another door. I try to pass on this information they don’t have."
Although Birthright is multidenominational and does not adhere to any one religious or political agenda, Camobreco said she and her staff — many of them Catholic — are very much guided by their belief in the sanctity of life. Gloria Hubble, a volunteer and board member for Ithaca Birthright, said it’s important to help young women choose life for their babies, but added that she can’t always control the outcome: "I’ve had some cases that were not happy endings."
But there also are many success stories, as illustrated by a memorable moment that Mary Kohm, a fellow volunteer and board member, recently experienced.
Many years ago Kohm had helped out a young woman who was pregnant and very scared. Several people had tried to convince her to have an abortion, but she refused. Kohm took the mother to doctor appointments and birthing classes, and was in the hospital when she gave birth to a girl that was subsequently adopted by a local family. Just this past Christmas, Kohm had a chance meeting with that baby — now a young woman.
"I just thank the Lord. It was a Christmas miracle, to know that this mother had chosen life and Birthright had been able to help her to do what is right," Kohm said.
Clark and Kohm said Birthright’s volunteers take their cue from Camobreco.
"I’ve seen Mary help young girls pay rent, buy food, help every way possible," Kohm said.
Camobreco downplays any special recognition, saying that "sometimes with just a little support and encouragement, women will choose life," and that she’s simply carrying out God’s will.
"This is all his. We’re just trying to do what he wants us to do," she remarked. "I feel God touches hearts. I know the work we do is very close to his heart."
EDITORS NOTE: Birthright is located at 605 W. State St. (second floor) in Ithaca. Office hours are Monday through Wednesday, 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., and Thursday, 1 to 6 p.m. The office phone number is 607-272-9070. Birthright’s hotline number, 1-800-550-4900, is offered 24 hours a day, seven days per week.