© Gráinne McCarthy

Let’s start at the start. What is the Zoe Community? Where does the name Zoe come from and why did you choose it?

In 2015, I had a miscarriage. We lost our sweet little foetus at 11 weeks. It was too early to tell the sex, but we decided to give her a name anyway. We called her Zoe. When I was starting this thing back in 2018, I was stuck for a name…until the name of or our kid popped into my head. It seemed perfect. The name ‘Zoe’ means ‘life’ in Greek. I felt that one of the roles of our organisation was to be a breath of fresh air for women who are going through crisis pregnancy and are discouraged. There is so much negativity in this world – we want to be a voice of encouragement for them. 

You describe your organisation as ‘a community of courage’. What do you mean by that?

So many women go through crisis pregnancies alone, either by a reluctant choice (shame) or because they actually have nobody around them. We think that no woman should have to do this by herself. We believe that one solution is to equip local communities to dismantle shame culture and help women in crisis pregnancy to have courage and confidence.

I’m interested that you mentioned shame there – from your website it seems the Zoe Community are keen to promote an anti-shame culture for women in unplanned pregnancies. Could you tell me a bit more about this? 

Initially, shame culture wasn’t really on our radar when we were first exploring the concept of Zoe. But as we learned more about the root reasons behind why women seek out terminations, we discovered that shame plays a big part in some of those decisions (we think that it’s what’s labelled many times as ‘social’ reasons for statistical purposes). In fact, all the women we talked to who’ve gone through abortion in the recent or distant past did so because they could not face the shame that they would experience. We recognised that shame is a toxic, unproductive social construct that needs uprooting in our culture. We then made it a part of our mission to open up conversation about shame in Ireland and how it pertains to crisis pregnancy and women’s health. We are exploring creative ways that we can turn the idea of engaging with shame culture into a reality. We have one or two ideas brewing set to launch this year, so stay tuned for more info on that through our social media channels! 

How can you be a pro-life centre that is non-judgmental and supportive of clients regardless of what decisions they make?

We’re all just working out how to do this the best way. It’s a difficult path to navigate. Everyone is ultimately responsible for any decision that they make. Nobody has the power to choose a course of action for another. I think anyone who wants to volunteer to support women in Zoe or wants to pursue becoming an accredited psychotherapist needs to decide if they truly can accept this as part of their calling. It’s incredibly difficult to be present with someone as they make a decision that we feel will hurt them, but we can’t step in and be someone else’s brain for them. Our job at Zoe will be to help them see that they are strong women and are capable of more than they think (I feel that so much of crisis pregnancy culture is surrounded by discouragement and fear – we want to work against that onslaught of negativity). We will work to empower them to think through their current and potential resources, explore possibilities, and help them feel safe. It is difficult to accomplish this without asking ‘leading’ or ‘directive’ questions (believe me, in my professional career as a nurse and in crisis pregnancy training I’ve taken, this part is no joke!). But we will do our best in Zoe to encourage women to be informed without directing them. The decision power rests entirely upon them. Some would call this liberating, but I feel that it is an incredibly scary place for a woman to be. Any relief or guilt that she feels when the dust settles will be on her shoulders alone. We need to recognise that and surround her with our presence. She needs assurance that no matter what she decides, we will remain with her for as long as she needs and will not criticise her. Any one of us could be, or has been, in her shoes. 

What’s the scope of your support? Is it just during pregnancy, or does it go beyond that?

Far beyond just pregnancy! I think a lot of women fear that once they have the baby, everyone will forget they exist and think they’re sorted. We want to try to communicate to women that we are in it for the long haul, if they want us to be. Part of the beauty of bringing in a woman’s regular community around her is that the support isn’t temporary or foreign. Her support doesn’t involve travel or a queue – it can continue in an organic and familiar way, tailored to her own needs and context. In the future, we have ideas of how to involve the national community in support, but that’s still a growing concept. 

Could you give any specific examples of this long-term support?

Since we don’t have charity status yet, we aren’t officially offering support to the public at the moment (legally, we can’t officially advertise our services). We are brand new, so there’s much to do before we have a large client base. Once we do have things up and running, we could potentially see women being supported by Zoe volunteers when the children of crisis pregnancies are into their primary school years and beyond. That support could be anywhere from personal encouragement to childminding (those volunteers who are qualified) to financial support. The book is still being written on this – a lot of how we envision things is uncharted territory. It involves breaking out of a few traditional moulds and thinking outside the box. But all in all, the future is exciting. Back when I was doing nursing training, I had this class on community nursing that I felt was a huge waste of time (ah, dumb youth). The lecturer was so passionate about this concept of caring for patients in and through their local community. Fast forward to 2020 and I completely get where she was coming from. I feel passionate about community-based crisis pregnancy support. It’s another great method of caring for women that I think has huge future potential.

How important are transparency and accountability to you as an organisation? 

Extremely important. We have photos and bios of our staff and board members on our website. We also want people to know where our funding will come from and what it’s spent on. It’s important to us to become a registered charity because (1) it’s the law and (2) that will add even more accountability to our work. It doesn’t do anyone any good when an organisation is secretive about who works for and with them and where they acquire resources. We are proud of what we do and excited about the potential here. We want to create a brand that women can trust. I think the first step is to be as up-front as possible about who we are, what we do, and how we do it. I am a Christian, as well as the staff and board members. We decided from the beginning that we needed to be a Christian organisation. Our motivation for doing this is based on our individual relationships with Jesus, so we felt that we needed to own it! What does this mean for people who work with us / for us in the future? It means that we’ll treat you how we want to be treated – with dignity and kindness. We place value in the power of the individual to make their own faith decisions. That allows us to be open to anyone from any faith background working with us or receiving support through us.

Has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted your work?

We had to postpone our Dublin, Cork, and Galway training events until the autumn! But, that just means that we can spend more time going over our online training content over the next few months. Before the pandemic, we chose to put videos of our instructors in Google Classroom, so that part of the training is still active. We want volunteers to be able to spend in-person class time working through scenarios and sharing with each other rather than listening to content. We have been keeping in touch with volunteers through our classroom and email. It’s tough, because most of us struggle to think two weeks into the future, let alone after the summer. But we all need to have grace for each other during all of this. We aren’t in a rush and we can pick up where we left off very soon.

You say on your website that you welcome volunteers. What does volunteering involve?

There are two ways that people can volunteer their time with Zoe: (1) become a community volunteer or (2) volunteer with our staff. You can go to our website and learn more about how to sign up to volunteer in your community. That would involve coming to our initial training event (where we will learn how to support women though our online live chat and in-person), being interviewed, being Garda vetted and coming to any refresher courses or gatherings we might have over time. Aside from those tasks, day-to-day volunteering will involve answering live chats (for those who choose to be on the rota) and listening to women who make appointments at your local Zoe office space to meet face-to-face with a volunteer for practical support. For now, we are only interviewing women for community volunteering opportunities. If men would like to be involved, we welcome them to join our staff. We are currently seeking to fill the volunteer positions of administrator, financial coordinator, marketing coordinator, and scheduling coordinator. All you need to do is contact us through the website and we can discuss all the possibilities in detail!

Find out more at zoecommunity.ie