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Career Shift: Creating an Online Lifeline for Patients

Spurred by an infant's medical ordeal, tech consultant Sona Mehring started CaringBridge.org, a site that links patients with family and friends

By Wendy Schuman | March 21, 2013

When Sona Mehring was growing up in tiny Weyauwega, Wis., in the 1960s, she planned to be a nurse, like her mother. But while attending the University of Wisconsin at Eau Claire, Mehring discovered a passion for technology and switched her major from nursing to computer science. "In our small town we didn't have computers," she says. "I didn't even understand what they were."

Little did Mehring know that in 1997 her passions for technology and caregiving would intersect to create CaringBridge.org, a successful nonprofit online service based in Eagan, Minn., that lets people facing major health crises set up free websites to stay connected with family and friends.

A First Career in the Corporate World

Here’s how it happened:

After graduation, Mehring worked as a software engineer for General Dynamics in Connecticut then Unisys in Minnesota, developing widely used applications. Feeling bogged down by the corporate bureaucracy, however, she struck out on her own in 1990, opening the Beacon Point Technologies consulting firm. (Mehring and her former husband, Matt, who runs a project management consulting firm, have three sons who've inherited their parents' interest in technology: Nick works as a business analyst and Luke and Jake are computer science majors at college.)

(MORE: The Key to a Successful Career Shift: Asking for Help)

Beacon Point first provided custom software for small businesses and later began designing Web pages for them. In the mid-1990s, Mehring recalls, "you had to convince the plumber down the road that he needed a website." Over time, Beach Point attracted larger clients.

The Impetus for CaringBridge

Then, destiny intervened.

In 1997, two of Mehring’s close friends in St. Paul — JoAnn Hardegger and Darrin Swanson — were expecting a baby. Hardegger went into premature labor and Brighid was born three months early, weighing just one pound.

Hardegger was in critical condition, and Swanson, preoccupied with his desperately ill wife and child, asked Mehring to let everyone know what was going on.

"I couldn't imagine how I was going to make all those phone calls, some to people in other countries," says Mehring, 51. "I knew there had to be a better way of connecting everyone." The night Brighid was born, so was CaringBridge, named in her honor.

Mehring quickly designed a site where Hardegger and Swanson’s family and friends could log on for the latest information about the condition of the baby and her mother. She posted daily updates, pictures and messages from the couple. A guest book soon filled with letters of love and support.

Brighid's life was "a rollercoaster struggle that only lasted nine days," Mehring says. "But at the memorial service it was apparent what a difference CaringBridge had made. It brought everyone together in a community of love."

Hardegger credited reading the messages from the CaringBridge community with helping her recover.

Taking CaringBridge to the Next Step

"I just knew I had to keep the website going," Mehring says, "and expand it for other patients and their families who were going through similar experiences." So she wrote code to convert CaringBridge from a manual system to an automated one that allowed people going through medical crises to create their own content-rich, personal social networks.

This was one year before Google began and seven years before Facebook (Mark Zuckerberg was still in middle school). So social networking was not yet the buzzword it has become.

Mehring subsidized the fledgling site with income from her consulting work and CaringBridge grew by word of mouth. She began working full-time at the site in 2003.

(MORE: Passionate About a Cause? Start a Nonprofit)

Millions of Visitors

More than half a million people now visit CaringBridge daily. The site had more than 46 million visitors in 2012 and individuals have created 408,000 personal CaringBridge sites and "support planners," online calendars to help family and friends coordinate care and organize helpful tasks.

The company that began as a way for one woman to help two friends now has 67 employees and 1,200 volunteers.

CaringBridge is filling an important need. “Did you know that when someone has a serious diagnosis, the amount of time people talk to them actually decreases?" Mehring asks. "Just when they need the most support, they are cut off." 

The site encourages people to offer support and keep current on the health of someone they care deeply about, whether they're across the street or around the world. “You might not be there," Mehring says, "but when there's an important health event, you can give that virtual hug.”

How to Create a Personal Site

Mehring designed CaringBridge to be user-friendly, which is why you can set up one of its sites in just a few minutes with your computer or a phone app. The sites are sometimes built by the patient and other times by a friend, family member or caregiver.

The author puts in basic information about the medical situation, posts photos and writes a journal, sending invitations to join the site to an email list he or she creates. You select the level of privacy for the CaringBridge site; most are password-protected and require guests to register.

When you post a journal update, notifications go out to everyone who registered, through an email or text message. Guests can leave messages for the patient or family in an online guest book on the site.

The Site Changes Lives
 
Such connections can be lifesaving.

One user told Mehring that her husband, who was extremely ill with cancer, had been spiraling into depression. While the woman was updating his CaringBridge information, she decided he should read all the entries. She wheeled her husband over to the computer and he spent several hours going through the site. "His despair turned into hope and he started posting there," Mehring says. "He turned his fight around."

The Founder’s Goal

These days, she’s working hard to get the word out about CaringBridge.org. “We reach only 2 to 3 percent of the people who could benefit from the site," she says. "I want to eradicate the statement: 'I wish I'd known about CaringBridge when this or that crisis happened.' That's what's driving me now."

That and thinking about Brighid, who would have turned 16 this year. "This is her legacy," Mehring says.

(MORE: Two Women Who Launched Green Ventures in Midlife)

Mehring’s Advice for Creating a Nonprofit

If you’re interested in starting your own nonprofit venture, Mehring offers these tips:

Bring a for-profit brain to your nonprofit mission. "You need a business plan and a financial model for future sustainability," she says.

File the paperwork to establish your organization as a nonprofit as soon as possible. You’ll need to complete forms to apply for 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status with the Internal Revenue Service.

"This forces you to think things through," she notes. "If your cause isn’t one that can be pursued as a nonprofit, you’ll find out right away." Making your nonprofit a 501(c)(3) also quickly establishes your ability to get contributions.

Reach out to others with nonprofit experience for advice and input. "I was lucky that in Minnesota we have the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits, which has resources to help you get started and grow," Mehring says.

She also put several people with nonprofit experience on her founding board of directors.

Believe in your mission. Mehring acknowledges that it was a leap of faith for her to leave the corporate world to start CaringBridge. "But knowing how important it was to help people through a health crisis gave me the courage to make the change," she says.

Wendy Schuman is a writer and editor specializing in family and social issues. She has worked at Parents, Beliefnet and Mademoiselle.

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