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Made In Minnesota: CaringBridge’s Local Roots

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MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) – It’s probably the most well-known Minnesota company nobody knows is here.

Half-a-million people visit CaringBridge every day to write about, or check on, the health of a loved one. And the popular social network was started, and is headquartered, right here in the Twin Cities.

Long before there was a thing called Facebook, there was another place where people got together to share stories on the Internet.

Celebrating her very first steps, Ellery’s mom has been documenting her child’s life since before she was born.

“I was 30 weeks pregnant when we discovered Ellery was sick,” said Heidi Case.

Case did what hundreds of thousands of people do all across the world — she started a CaringBridge website.

“I would update as information came in,” Case said.

She posted an ultrasound that showed all the fluid surrounding Ellery’s heart and lungs — a condition called hydrops. And then she wrote about Ellery’s premature birth with only a 5-percent chance of survival.

“It’s difficult to put into words what that feeling is like,” Case said. “Sobbing, I grabbed one of the nurses and said, ‘Please, please try to save my baby.'”

That story could then be shared with friends and family on CaringBridge, without having to personally retell the painful moments again and again.

“We have such a unique and personal impact on people’s lives,” said Sona Mehring, founder and CEO of CaringBridge.

CaringBridge is a “social network” she started in 1997 — long before anyone knew what Facebook was.

“CaringBridge is different than Facebook because Facebook … is for the small talk and pretty tangential ideas and maybe little status updates,” said Mehring. “CaringBridge is a different kind of community for a different conversation, and we actually treat them with much more respect and kind of protection.”

Protection because CaringBridge is a place where people share deep emotional connections while going through a health challenge. The power of the site kind of surprised this software engineer when she first started hearing from users.

“That did kind of make me sit back and think, wow, this has such an emotional appeal and really does provide that hope, love and compassion that people literally feel through technology,” Mehring said.

Unlike Facebook, CaringBridge has been nonprofit since 2002. With world headquarters in Eagan, a staff of 70 works to ensure CaringBridge will never share personal information, or post advertising on their pages.

“Really the mission is to just bring it to the world because we know the world needs it and we’re not motivated by commercial gain,” said Sami Pelton, director for program strategy.

She told Mehring she wanted to get involved after using CaringBridge for her dying sister.

“That was such a tremendous part of our experience that if there’s anything I can do to help you bring CaringBridge to more and more people, sign me up,” she said.

In fact, all around the office, there are personal stories.

Mehring started the site because a close friend gave birth to a very sick baby. The baby’s name was Brighid. That’s why it’s called CaringBridge.

“Well, Brighid’s life was a roller coaster nine days and ended tragically after nine days. But her legacy does live on,” Mehring said. “The ability of this one tiny baby to impact millions of peoples’ lives is really phenomenal.”

The stories that come from CaringBridge not only help those living through it, but can inspire all who read it.

“We have so many beautiful stories of healing and hope and survivorship that come from a CaringBridge experience,” Pelton said.

Case said the site has certainly helped her get through an emotional time.

“To know how many people were thinking about us and out there cheering us on, and cheering Ellery on,” she said, “it’s really a miracle that she’s alive.”

Another thing that’s really amazing about CaringBridge — 92 percent of all its funding comes from individuals who use the site.

CaringBridge will celebrate its 14th birthday on June 7. That’s how old baby Brighid would be if she had lived.

Joan Gilbertson, Producer
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