A mother and her infant attend the Oct. 18, 2021 blessing and dedication of The Cenacle, an outreach to pregnant women, new parents and families located at the Padre Pio Prayer Center and sponsored by archdiocesan Catholic Social Services and the Pro-Life Union of Greater Philadelphia. (Gina Christian)

An archdiocesan agency and one of its key leaders have been recognized for providing families with “beautiful beginnings” — and even brighter futures.

For the 10th consecutive year, Catholic Social Services (CSS) has been named Pennsylvania’s “Service Provider of the Year” by Real Alternatives, the nonprofit organization that administers the Commonwealth’s Pregnancy and Parenting Support Services Program.

During fiscal year 2021, CSS assisted 3,905 clients, of whom 1,877 were pregnant and 2,208 were parents of newborns, infants and toddlers.

Casa del Carmen Family Service Center, a CSS outreach located in Philadelphia’s Hunting Park section, was recognized as the Real Alternatives “Site of the Year” for serving 758 pregnant women.

At its June 7-8 conference in Hershey, Pa., Real Alternatives also presented CSS director of community-based services Amy Stoner with its Dedication Award, honoring her 26 years of “crucial” work toward Real Alternatives’ “success and growth,” said president and CEO Kevin Bagatta.

That commitment to “abortion vulnerable women” and their families has only deepened over the past three decades, said Stoner, a licensed social worker who describes her work as “women supporting other women, and mothers supporting other mothers.”

The agency’s model is “a combination of outreach” that focuses on material, social, educational and emotional support, said Stoner, adding that she and her team “help clients with whatever they need so they can be the best parents they can be.”

Through CSS’s “Beautiful Beginnings” program, expecting and new families can access a range of resources, including prenatal and parenting classes (offered both in person and online), assistance in finding medical services, benefits counseling, baby food, furniture and diapers.

“Abortion-vulnerable women are experiencing a lot of challenges in their life – relational, or situational, such as poverty,” said Stoner. “Or it may be something they’re experiencing internally, like questions over how confident they’ll be as a parent.”

Whether they have practical concerns or are “just feeling isolated and needing to connect with other people,” clients receive “support and connection” that can make the difference between choosing to have an abortion or to give birth, she said.

Amy Stoner, director of Catholic Social Services’ community-based services division, describes her work as “women supporting other women, and mothers supporting other mothers.” (Gina Christian)

“There could be a lot of reasons why someone would think that abortion would be the way out of the situation,” she said. “But while abortion ends the pregnancy, it doesn’t end the pain or anything that’s behind that decision.”

The “key factor” in an unexpected pregnancy is “feeling a close connection to somebody who cares,” Stoner said. “That’s probably the tipping point.”

She’s also against “stigmatizing pregnancy” by describing the condition as a “crisis.”

“We’re not targeting women that are having a ‘crisis pregnancy,’ because many pregnant moms would not consider their pregnancy a crisis,” she said. “I don’t like that word. When you think about pregnancy, it’s a beautiful thing, right? So I wouldn’t want to label it with something negative.”

A more accurate approach, she said, is to “start with where women are,” recognizing that their pregnancies present them with a number of stressors and issues to be addressed.

Stoner also disagrees with those who claim pregnancy support outreaches offer false information” in order to prevent abortions.

“We’re not coercing anybody,” she said. “It is just mind-blowing to me that (critics) would not see what we’re doing is helping these pregnant moms get access to prenatal care, nutritional services – all things to help promote a healthy pregnancy,” she said. “Why would thousands of women be turning to CSS if we weren’t helping them? Because if we weren’t, word would get around fast.”

Stoner said that work will continue regardless of how the Supreme Court rules on an upcoming decision could overturn Roe v. Wade, which provided federal protection for abortion on demand.

“There’s going to continue to be a need for our services, and we’re going to continue to be there,” she said. “That will not change, and we will do what we’ve always been doing.”

Yet broader changes are needed to ensure families can truly thrive, she said.

“There’s so much more we should be advocating for – paid maternity and paternity leave, access to childcare for all, flexible workplace schedules, livable wages,” Stoner said, calling for “changes in current policies and laws” in this regard.

In the meantime, she and her staff continue to focus on bringing peace of mind and “joy” to their clients, she said, noting that the benefits of CSS’s mission are mutual.

“There’s something really rewarding about journeying with a pregnant mom, and then seeing her be successful,” said Stoner.