In 1997—well before the proliferation of Facebook, Twitter and the blogosphere—Sona Mehring launched the inaugural CaringBridge website, effectively pioneering one of the earliest online social networks in an era where social media was nonexistent. Seventeen years later, half a million Web users continue to connect on CaringBridge everyday, sending messages of encouragement to friends and family during their darkest hours.
The caring social network that has attracted over a billion visitors worldwide was initially created for a tiny, premature baby girl in May 1997. At the time, Sona was charged with the difficult task of notifying friends and family about a close friend’s life-threatening pregnancy. “When my friend JoAnn prematurely gave birth to her daughter, Brighid, her husband Darrin asked me to let everybody know what was going on,” Sona recalls.
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After placing a few telephone calls, Sona soon grew overwhelmed and emotionally drained. Seeking a more efficient way of disseminating the news, the web design and technology consultant turned to the Internet. Within hours, she had created an online website where she could share regular updates, and where loved ones could log on to post messages of encouragement for JoAnn, Darrin and Brighid.
The website proved to be an instant blessing, a beacon of light during a time of great despair. “It had an unbelievable ability to connect everybody. It gave people a way to provide support and to understand what was going on,” Sona recalls. “It became a very powerful community.”
When young Brighid passed away after nine days, Sona posted the tragic news on the website and immediately received an outpouring of love and support from countless friends and family. Recognizing the strength a simple website could bring to a family immersed in the throes of a devastating medical event, Sona was galvanized to keep the concept of Brighid’s site alive.
“I have always loved technology, especially thinking about the ways it can make life easier and bring people together,” Sona says. “To be able to use technology in such a compassionate way seemed very fulfilling.”
Capitalizing on her knowledge of technology and web design, Sona developed a user-friendly interface that enabled people to create free, personalized websites and fill in the content themselves. Just like that, CaringBridge.org was born. The name “CaringBridge” is a nod to the website’s initial inspiration—young Brighid—and also a reference to the website’s objective of serving as a “bridge” between patients, their families and their communities.
For individuals facing any sort of life-altering health event—an accident, an illness, a surgery—Caring Bridge offers a crucial lifeline of hope and support. Similar in functionality to a blog or online guestbook, each CaringBridge website provides a protected digital space where individuals can share health updates with friends and family, and where loved ones can leave encouraging messages. “CaringBridge amplifies love, hope and compassion, making each health journey easier,” Sona says. “It connects people to provide that love and support when they need us most. It transforms despair into hope.”
As CaringBridge began to attract more users, Sona decided to close the doors on her consulting company and pursue CaringBridge as a fulltime endeavor. “I really sort of just took a leap of faith,” she says. But her leap of faith was not in vain: Today, CaringBridge has blossomed into a charitable 501(c)3 nonprofit headquartered in Eagan, Minn. In 2012 alone, 46 million individuals visited a CaringBridge website.
Since CaringBridge’s inception in 1997, Sona has been privy to hundreds of thousands of touching personal stories. From tales of childhood cancer to traumatic car accidents to debilitating illnesses, each CaringBridge website is a lesson in veritable hope, courage and tenacity. “I hear these stories every single day. They’re very compelling, to me and to others. Many people have told me, ‘You should write a book,’” Sona says.
In her new book Hope Conquers All, Sona chronicles the history behind CaringBridge and shares several inspiring first-person accounts from CaringBridge users. The goal of the book is two-fold: To raise awareness for the CaringBridge service, and also to deliver a message of hope to individuals touched by a serious health crisis. “I felt compelled to share this collection of unique stories, which is really just the tip of the iceberg of the millions of people who have connected on Caring Bridge,” Sona says.
Seventeen years after the creation of young baby Brighid’s site, CaringBridge stands today as a testament to the transcendent power of hope, the indelible bonds of community and the sustaining ability of love. “When people are brought together in a time of need, great and miraculous things can happen,” Sona says. “People’s connections are truly amazing.”