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KEARNEY — The words on the wall of the College Center explain its mission: “In the soft depths of the soul, everyone deserves to feel beautiful.”
Collage offers support to women experiencing unexpected pregnancies, giving them a shoulder to lean on as they decide how to proceed. The collage is not pro or anti-abortion. He abstains from politics.
“We deeply believe in the beauty and value of each one of us. We believe our job is to provide medical services that help women discover their value and worth,” said Gaye Tillotson, executive director of College in Kearney and Grand Island.
Collage provides free medical services to anyone who walks through the door. Perform pregnancy tests and sexually transmitted diseases, both in men and women. She also performs limited obstetric ultrasounds to confirm a pregnancy.
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Whether you see tears, confusion, shock, or disbelief, the staff responds with deep kindness, a listening ear, and offers of support.
“Everything is done at no cost. Our services allow us to meet people at the crossroads of major decisions in their lives and reposition them to thrive,” Tillotson said. “These days, people talk a lot about what they are up against. We are vocal about what we are for.”
Collage defines itself as a “comprehensive sexual health center” where people come with physical needs, “but as we earn their trust, they often invite us to attend to their emotional needs, relationship needs, and sometimes , spiritual needs,” Tillotson said.
It was founded in Kearney on December 8, 1987 by a group that wanted to support women facing unexpected pregnancies. Tillotson said unexpected pregnancies will always occur in both married and single women.
Tillotson rarely uses the term “abortion.” He prefers to “terminate a pregnancy”. She knows that the word “abortion” can be painful for women injured by the procedure.
Many women deny their pregnancies until they see evidence on the ultrasound. At that point, “we started working together to empower that woman to reposition herself to thrive. Each option is difficult. There is no easy choice, but we seek to empower them to find the best option and give them the space they need,” she said.
Women in unexpected pregnancies have three options: keep the baby, give it up for adoption, or end the pregnancy. The Collage staff will discuss all three options to help a woman decide what is best. While adoption is the least chosen option, Tillotson called it a “very brave and selfless decision.” Collage can provide names of adoption agencies and help women explore their options.
Upon request, Collage provides a list of physician referrals for prenatal care, as well as a list of licensed emotional counselors.
Abortions are currently legal in Nebraska in two ways: Pregnancies up to 10 weeks can be terminated with pills, and pregnancies up to 22 weeks can be terminated with a surgical procedure. “Knowing how far along in a woman’s pregnancy is is just as important as our ability to provide them with medical services,” Tillotson said.
“Many girls are afraid to tell their parents about their pregnancy. We want to help equip them so they can do that, but we never force anything. We just offer. Our job is to continue to love them, to seek a relationship with them and to be there for them, whatever they decide to do,” she said.
Born in Minden, Tillotson grew up in Fremont and moved to Kearney in 1983, where she served burgers at Wendy’s for eight years. “That taught me a lot about running a business,” she said.
He has degrees in management, organizational leadership, and biblical studies from the now-closed Grace University. He worked in finance and office administration. He also led the ministry of Christian author and speaker Dee Brestin.
She became the first paid staff member at Collage 21 years ago (volunteers ran the nonprofit until then) and has never looked back. “When the board asked me if I would become CEO, I jumped at the opportunity. I was able to see the potential impact we could have,” she said.
The budget for the combined offices is $612,000 per year. Collage is funded through donations and grants and is a partner agency of the United Way of the Kearney Area. “We are so incredibly lucky to have people who believe in what we do. Part of the beauty is that so many people who have been helped by Collage find the opportunity to give back, whether financially or in other ways,” Tillotson said.
Her Kearney staff includes Julie Pack, RN, center director and nurse manager. On Grand Island, Joey Ruff is the center’s director and lead sonographer. Together, the two offices have seven employees.
By the end of 2023, Collage hopes to open in Columbus. “Columbus and Norfolk have close to 70,000 residents, and the surrounding community adds to that need. No other organization provides the services we do at no cost,” Tillotson said. “If a community wants to partner with us, we will come and support them.”
In 2010, to keep up with changing times, Collage created a new logo and online presence, redecorated and launched a blog “that doesn’t shy away from ‘culturally relevant topics,’” Tillotson said.
That blog focuses on its target audience of sexually active women ages 18-24 who may be experiencing an STD or unexpected pregnancy, or struggling with a previous pregnancy decision. “We wanted them to feel safe coming to us,” she said.
Men are also welcome at Collage. They can be tested for sexually transmitted diseases, which are on the rise. In the 1970s, one in 47 sexually active people commonly contracted an STD. Today, it’s one in two, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Men also come to support their partners, as do fathers, grandfathers and others. Ultrasounds are always done in private, but afterwards, if the woman wishes, she brings her support person with her.
“The ultrasound is not just about the baby, but about the woman first,” Tillotson said. “You can empower yourself to make decisions not only in the best interest of her child, but also in your own. We create bridges, not walls,” he said.
Collage recently hosted a weekend retreat for women who have been hurt by abortion. The weekend was “dedicated to helping them deal with the pain and unimaginable consequences that they have dealt with for not just years, but decades,” Tillotson said. “We are here to help a woman get through that pain in a compassionate way.”
She described Collage as “a safe place. Women know that we will be there for them no matter what, before or after a decision is made, no matter what the decision is. They realize that we are not going to judge them or minimize their feelings of loss,” she said.
“All of us have circumstances where we just need someone who is compassionate and walks by our side. That is our promise. We will be a safe place, a place of hope and restoration,” she added.
Not too long ago, a young woman rushing to the hospital to deliver her baby stopped in Collage to thank the staff for their support during her pregnancy. “That’s our niche,” Tillotson said. “We walk alongside people to the extent that they allow us so that we can be their safe place.”