Kelly Tolman, founder and director of Seneca, Choices for Life, was a carefree 19-year-old on a full Air Force college scholarship in Daytona Beach, Florida when she unexpectedly found herself in her dorm bathroom holding a positive pregnancy test. Kelly’s first instinct was to have an abortion. “I was going to take the easy route. There were three abortion clinics in Daytona Beach so I picked one and went there,” said Tolman. But when she arrived, the front desk clerk notified her she “just wasn’t meant to be a mother.”
This flippant remark infuriated Tolman because she thought she’d make a great mother someday. She left and went to another clinic. But her second attempt at having an abortion ended when she pulled into the parking lot and saw a crowd of people standing outside praying.
“I couldn’t get out of the car. I was afraid they were going to look down on me for what I was doing.”
Finally she chose a different location but on the way to her appointment, she got stuck in construction behind a car with a “Choose Life” license plate. She never made it to her appointment that day.
She withdrew from her rigorous pilot program and the baby’s father joined the Army to provide for their new family. Two years later, married with 2-year-old little Nicholas, they were transfered to Ft. Benning in Columbus.
Holding Nicholas after his birth made Kelly acutely aware of how close she came to having a void for the rest of her life. These feelings prompted her desire to work with the pro-life movement.
The first day she showed up to work as a sidewalk advocate at the abortion clinic in Columbus, she worried the women entering the facility would feel as judged and humiliated as she had years ago. When given the chance to speak to them, she didn’t want to come from a place of pride or finger-pointing.
She showed real concern for their well-being and noticed most of them responded positively to her caring approach. “We were able to offer solutions to problems the women felt were ‘too big’ to handle. Problems like needing a job, a place to live or even something as minor as not having a car seat for the baby.”
Kelly watched the relief on the women’s faces when they realized they had an ally to help them successfully transition into parenthood.
But conversation was limited while standing outside in the summer heat or the freezing cold weather. Kelly tried to keep them talking long enough to prevent them from walking through the doors of the abortion clinic. But eventually, she decided, she’d need her own building to give the women another door through which to walk.
She began to search for empty buildings in the office complex where the abortion clinic is located. She never dreamed the one immediately next door to the Columbus Women’s Healthcare Organization would be for sale.
With a deadline to purchase the property closing in, she was still halfway from her financial goal when an anonymous, substantial donation was made. Her doors were opened in May 2016 with Seneca as the name in honor of Seneca Falls, New York where the first women’s rights convention was held in 1848.
“The original leaders of the women’s rights movement saw abortion as a sign that society had failed women…stripped them of their ability to independently care for her children in a patriarchal society that treated women as property,” said Kelly.
In the year they have been open, 35 women have come for their appointments at the abortion clinic in Columbus but entered Seneca’s doors instead. They’ve been given a hot cup of coffee or a cold bottle of water while they sit on comfortable couches and share about their immediate and long term needs whether they plan to raise their baby or pursue adoption.
As a result of some listening and compassion by the Seneca staff, most of these women have now walked back through Seneca’s doors holding their babies in their arms. Approximately 10-20 women have come back to Seneca post-abortively to meet with counselors including local nuns. Now Seneca is realizing the next phase of their vision. Thanks to a donation by the Knights of Columbus, they now own an ultrasound machine and are transitioning to “medical center” status with a nurse manager on site. For free, women will be shown images of their baby as compared to a mandatory charge of $100 at the abortion clinic where the screens are restrictively turned away from the women. “We want them to see their baby as a gift. Then we walk with them on their journey up to 24 months after birth. We find resources in our community to help them obtain a safe, healthy, self-sustaining living environment for them and their baby whether that’s a foodbank or a safe house for domestic violence.”
Because costs will now increase in order for Seneca to maintain their medical facility status, a fundraising event was held on April 6th with close to 500 people in attendance. Pledges at the event were made in the amount needed for Seneca to operate for almost an entire year. Kelly hopes ongoing contributions through the mail or Seneca’s website will continue to give women an alternative door to walk through. If you would like to learn more about Seneca or to make a donation, visit www.senecacfl.org.