BUENOS AIRES, Argentina  -- Three years ago, Aida Miranda found herself alone and pregnant in the Argentine capital. The young Paraguayan Catholic woman was so desperate that she began to consider abortion, which is illegal in Argentina.

"I felt a heavy moral burden, how could this have happened to me, I had a religious formation," recalled Miranda, now 29, who once considered being a nun. "I was terrified. Raising a child alone in Argentina is not easy."

A friend told her about Gravida, the voluntary Argentine organization that accompanies young pregnant mothers until well after the birth of the child. Miranda said it took all of her courage to go to her first meeting, and she was trembling so much that the volunteers had to physically help her inside.

She told Catholic News Service that she is thankful she took those first steps, though she is well aware that the road ahead of her as single mother is a long and difficult one. She was taken under the wing of Gravida psychologist Florencia Smurra, and today she supports herself and her son by cleaning houses.

On a recent Saturday, Miranda sat in a Gravida meeting in the community room of Buenos Aires' Immaculate Heart of Mary Parish. Her 2-year-old son, Gonzalo, trotted around the room, clutching a toy car in his hand and playing with another little boy as volunteers kept an eye on them.

The five young mothers in attendance spoke on topics ranging from diaper changes to pacifiers and going out to dance for the first time since the birth of the baby.

Miranda said the volunteers and other young mothers at Gravida have become her strongest support system and replacement family.

"They have helped me see that my son is a blessing, though it is very difficult to raise a child alone," she said.

Going back to Paraguay with its weak economy is not an option, and her family is not in a position to provide her with financial or emotional support. She said she wants to raise her son in an emotionally healthier environment than she had as a child, and Gravida has helped her learn to appreciate her own self-worth and abilities.

Founded in 1989 by layman Juan Martin Reddel in the province of Buenos Aires, Gravida has since grown to include 27 dioceses and 45 locations in which it reaches out to young pregnant women at risk of abortion or without an adequate support network. Its headquarters is in the city of San Pedro.

Through meetings and workshops, the Gravida volunteers work to bolster the women's feeling of self-worth, self-esteem and self-appreciation, said Diana Castillo, national director. In addition to professional neonatal and postnatal counseling, they provide hands-on workshops in handicrafts and cooking so the young women, many whom have not finished high school, can gain skills to help support themselves. The volunteers also encourage the women to continue their studies, when possible, and help them find child-care alternatives.

Though the number of women who seek help from Gravida fluctuates, the foundation's officials estimate that they have been helping an average of 1,000 nationally over the past decade. Gravida is funded mostly from international donations from bishops' conferences in Europe and the United States, as well as some private donations.

"We help accompany the young mothers, we don't impose or try to convince them to do what we want," said the national spiritual adviser, Father Bernardo Ruiz Moreno. "We try to enrich their life so that they can go on to reconstruct their life in dignity and respect. In this way they can contemplate (other options), thanks to this experience of God and this faith."

Gravida helps the women realize the opportunities to widen their support network in other places, while also allowing others to become a part of that network. But Father Ruiz said it is also important that the women realize that Gravida is not there to solve, nor can it solve, all of their problems.

He noted that as the economic situation in Argentina has worsened and the gap between rich and poor has grown, the social fabric of the traditional family unit has begun to unravel, and there are more incidents of teen pregnancies.

"It is not only a question of more young mothers, but this process (of deterioration of the cultural norms) of the society has made the young mothers less prepared in general to move forward with their maternity, making the adolescent mothers more vulnerable," he said. Many of these issues, he added, are cross-cultural and not unique to Argentina.

Because these young women have been abandoned culturally and emotionally and excluded from educational possibilities, Gravida seeks to strengthen them as mothers, said Castillo.

"We are interpreting their needs, including them in programs to give them what they need to be better mothers and women," she said.