CaringBridge connects hearts

  • Article by: SHANNON PRATHER , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 25, 2012 - 8:17 AM

The Eagan woman who created CaringBridge 15 years ago uses her passion for technology to fuel her other passion: comforting families in medical crises.

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Sona Mehring, founder and executive director of CaringBridge, held some of the words that reflect the network’s mission.

Photo: Glen Stubbe, Star Tribune

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Sona Mehring thought she would follow in her mother's footsteps and become a nurse. But it just wasn't the right fit, so Mehring looked for another calling. "There wasn't a lot of soul searching. I went to the career office and said, 'What is the highest job placement and what pays the most?' And it was the computer science major," Mehring said. Through computers, she did end up in the field of caring for people, but not at bedsides.

Mehring is CEO of CaringBridge, a website that has helped nearly 400,000 families share the latest news on a loved one's health event. The Minnesota-based social network, now a worldwide phenomenon, is celebrating its 15th anniversary.

What started in an Eagan home is expanding from patients and families grappling with medical crises, to those dealing with a whole spectrum of health issues and chronic conditions. And new tools help families better organize care and coordinate tasks such as child care and meal preparation.

"We started with the crisis need, but we've expanded out to anywhere along the continuum of care, where people need to connect to friends and family and bring that amplified love and hope," Mehring said.

Mehring, 50, grew up in the small town of Weyauwega, Wis., the youngest of three children. Her mother was a registered nurse and her father dabbled in a variety of businesses. Her parents owned and operated a nursing home, where she helped out.

When she graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire in 1983 with a computer science degree, she took a programming job with a large defense contractor in Connecticut. She moved to Minnesota three years later to work for Unisys, now Lockheed Martin.

"Those first jobs were with very large companies," she said. "I really liked what I was doing, but you are very detached from making a difference or seeing the results of your work."

Looking for a way to make a difference, she went out on her own, customizing software for businesses. She was writing a program to mix chicken feed when she had an epiphany.

"Right in the middle of that project I thought, 'I want to do more with my talent than make chicken feed.'"

When a friend developed a life-threatening condition mid-pregnancy, the spark that fueled the creation of CaringBridge was lit.

Mehring asked how she could help, and the couple asked her to tell everyone what was going on. Instead of making phone calls, Mehring created a website. She remembers obsessing over the project, working day and night, taping notes to herself on the walls of her home office. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg was still in junior high and Google wasn't even a word when Mehring starting writing code for the site.

"I always say that the same night their baby, Brighid, was born, that first CaringBridge site was born," Mehring said. Relatives from as far away as Switzerland and Alaska could keep up with the baby's progress.

Brighid, who weighed less than a pound at birth, died in surgery nine days later. People who attended the memorial service told Mehring that they'd felt a deep connection with the family because of the website.

"That was just instantly that 'wow' experience,'' Mehring said. "In a way, it brought a lot of my personal journey together -- the nursing and my mom with the RN and the passion for technology. It all came together."

After that experience, Mehring maintained the CaringBridge site, supporting it with her consulting business.

When breast cancer was diagnosed in her mother, Mehring saw the power of her own creation. Less than a year after her mother died in 2001, Mehring decided to make CaringBridge a nonprofit.

"I didn't want to have a revenue model based on advertising or selling data," she said.

Today CaringBridge, which is headquartered in Eagan, has about 70 employees. The nonprofit has developed relationships with hospitals, clinics, insurance companies and other nonprofits, including the American Cancer Society, AARP and the Fisher House Foundation, which helps military families. They help spread the word about CaringBridge.

The site has rolled out new online services including SupportPlanner, which helps with scheduling meals, hospital visits and other support services. The site also has gotten a facelift, with a new design and logo.

Unlike many other social networking sites, there's no advertising or data harvesting. The nonprofit is fueled entirely by charitable donations, mostly from individuals and families.

"They recognized a need for folks to communicate with close friends and loved ones in a health crisis," said Ed Bennett, director of Web and communication technologies at the University of Maryland Medical System, a nationally recognized expert on hospitals' use of social media. "A lot of the services and tools we take for granted on Facebook and Twitter, CaringBridge was doing 15 years ago."

The growth of other social media and networks hasn't eroded CaringBridge's use, Mehring said. In fact, the site gets about 500,000 visitors a day and people often use Facebook and Twitter to direct family members and friends to their CaringBridge sites.

Emily Eaton knew all about CaringBridge. Her Minneapolis consulting firm EatonGolden had worked with the nonprofit to improve users' experience. She started a CaringBridge site when leukemia was diagnosed in her 3-year-old son, Julian. He died 16 days later.

"I was so thankful to have this method of sharing the facts with friends and family," Eaton said. "The unexpected benefit was the therapeutic nature of putting some of those things into words."

Mehring, too, has found an unexpected benefit from running CaringBridge, which has had 1.7 billion visits since its inception.

"It's phenomenal," she said, "and doing it with technology, which most people think is cold-hearted and ripping society apart -- it's not. Used the right way with the right motivation, it helps and improves people's lives."

Shannon Prather is a Shoreview-based freelance writer.

  • CARINGBRIDGE

    BY THE NUMBERS

    500,000

    Number of people who visit the site every day.

    15

    Years in operation.

    400,000

    Number of personal sites created since its founding.

    $8.3 million

    The amount of donations the nonprofit received last year.

    SONA MEHRING CARINGBRIDGE CEO AND FOUNDER

    Age: 50.

    Family: Divorced; sons Nick, 23, Luke, 21, and Jake, 18.

    Education: B.A., computer science, University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire; 2011-2012 Policy Fellow, Humphrey School of Public Affairs, University of Minnesota.

    Hometown: Weyauwega, Wis.

    Current residence: Eagan.

    Hobbies: Running, traveling, photography.

    2011 salary: $169,240.

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