When Planned Parenthood refused to sell its long-empty ground-floor office space to Pregnancy Center of Addison County (VT), the pregnancy center simply went over the abortion giant’s head. They bought the upper floor.
For the Middlebury-based center, buying an office—and this office in particular—felt in many ways like coming home. Since opening in 1986, the Pregnancy Center of Addison County had bounced between multiple rented locations, including the very same second floor space on Court Street it purchased this year.
Most recently, the center had occupied a windowless former pizza parlor below a church in the center village, a spot chosen for its low rent and proximity to the Middlebury College campus.
And that was where the center’s story almost ended.
“In the middle of summer 2016, we hit bottom,” board chairman Bill Kipp said. “The previous director left, we were only a board of three, and our donations were drying up. We started to pray in earnest, wondering if we were going to have to close.”
That September, the board made two hires: Joanie Praamsma as executive director and Fawnda Buttolph as client services director. Bringing in those two women has proved to be a much-needed boon for the center, and put them in a position to land on a long-term building solution a year later.
“At that point, things really changed dramatically, where the Lord got involved and answered prayer, and we found Joanie and Fawnda,” Kipp said. “With those two directors, and following the Heartbeat International outline for how to be an active board, all those things combined began to restore what we wanted to be: an effective pregnancy ministry in our county.”
While Praamsma and Buttolph launched a website and held office hours, they initially kept the center’s profile low, knowing their location was not yet adequate for serving clients.
“There was no natural light, no windows, just one room with a three-quarter wall, so there was no privacy,” Praamsma said. “It was moldy and had no bathroom you could get to, unless you went through a section that was not ours. When I took over, I said, ‘We can’t see clients here.’ All the challenges you can imagine were there.”
In October of 2016, Buttolph asked an area realtor about properties for rent. She learned that the 1,440-square-foot former Planned Parenthood clinic was for sale. It had stood empty for three years.
“Word on the street was they were desperate to sell, eager to get it off their hands,” Praamsma said. “When we found out it was only $75,000, we knew that would be way less mortgage than any rent we would have to pay.”
Her board approved pursuing the purchase, and fundraising began. Planned Parenthood’s realtor warned them the abortion business knew they were looking at the building and had already made clear they had no intention of selling to them.
Undeterred, the center’s leadership continued putting together a solid offer for the entire asking price.
“By springtime, we had the down payment and financing secured,” Praamsma said. “We made an offer in April. The realtor came back and said, ‘They’re not going to sell it to you. They turned it down.’”
“I said, ‘I’d like an opportunity to talk with you as a first step, because I looked at your mission statement online and looked at ours, and there shouldn’t be a reason you couldn’t sell to us,’” Praamsma said. “And they just said, ‘We’re not selling to you.’”
Rather than instigate a legal battle, the pregnancy center chose to stay focused on building its positive reputation in Addison County. Within two weeks, its property problem was solved.
“In the meantime, our realtor had spoken to the owner of the upstairs,” Praamsma said. “It was the exact same square footage. He was renting it out to a massage therapist. The realtor told him what Planned Parenthood had done and he was shocked. He said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me! They were so eager to sell. Heck, I’ll sell you guys mine if you want it.’
“At first he was asking for a little more than Planned Parenthood was, but we said, ‘This is what we’ve raised; this is what we can afford.’ So he agreed to that.”
The deal closed In June, with the realtor sweetening the deal by giving all her fees to the center. After the previous tenant moved out Oct. 1, Pregnancy Center of Addison County moved in the following week.
“The interesting part was the [other] realtor dropped Planned Parenthood, because they had a full offer and refused it,” Praamsma said. “So I don’t know what’s happening with the downstairs. It is being rented now. But there’s no ‘for sale’ sign, so as far as I know it’s not on the market.”
A Permanent, Professional Presence
Kipp said the new office space has already begun proving its value to the ministry.
“It’s very well suited for what we need,” he said. “It’s private, secure, and comfortable for our clients. Also because we own it and it’s in Middlebury and it’s permanent, I think it’s reassuring for our donors.
“The building also lends itself to a certain degree of professionalism. When doctors, nurses, and other contact people drive by and see our sign and our location, they see we’re here to make a difference, we’re here to stay. We’re people they can work with.”
This new center includes a counseling room, a combination office and waiting area, and an administrative office. A fourth room displays racks of clothing and baby items available through the center’s new Earn While You Learn program.
Even the center’s purchase of its Earn While You Learn curriculum has been a testament to a providential revitalization that’s swept through the center’s work over the past year. A local Knights of Columbus chapter stepped forward to sponsor a large portion of the cost, and the center also received an anonymous $5,000 donation at Heartbeat International’s Pregnancy Help Institute in August.
For Praamsma, who’s lived in the area all her life, Pregnancy Center of Addison County is now poised to fill an important gap in services she recognized during her 10 years working with Bethany Christian Services.
“I saw the need for women to be told about all of their options, to have the ability to make the best, most well-informed decision,” she said. “I felt that was something they weren’t getting, unless they made it to a pregnancy center.”
To help grow community awareness of its services, the center hosted a free fill-a-bag event on November 28. In addition to a beefed-up online presence, Praamsma and Kipp have posted signs in the local hospital, a parent-child center, homeless shelters, and the high school to promote their work.
Next, Praamsma plans to reach out to the Middlebury College campus, a liberal arts university with about 2,500 students.
Someday, said Kipp and Praamsma, they hope Pregnancy Center of Addison County will own both levels of its Court Street building, enabling them to provide ultrasounds and expanded services for women facing crisis pregnancies. At this point, being visible and available for the women who need them is key.
“If we reach just five more women next year—or even one—we would feel successful,” Kipp said. “You can’t really quantify life, right?”