Sona Mehring’s early exposure at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire to technology and the power of computers in the early 1980s ignited a passion that led her to develop a communication platform nearly a decade before Facebook and Twitter launched.
Today, Mehring’s private and ad-free platform CaringBridge is a 26-year-old nonprofit company that receives 30 million visits per year from people sharing health updates about their loved ones. A CaringBridge site is created every 12 minutes for someone experiencing a “health journey,” as Mehring calls it.
“You’ve got to love what you’re doing and you’ve got to believe in what you’re doing,” Mehring, a 1983 computer science graduate, says of CaringBridge. “I really loved, and continue to love, what I did then and what I do now.
“Entrepreneurs are a special breed. They see a problem and they’re willing to take that leap and believe that it’s going to help people or solve a problem.”
Mehring wanted to help people when she enrolled at UW-Eau Claire in 1979 expecting to one day become a nurse. She soon discovered she didn’t have a passion for nursing and switched her major to computer science, despite having had no computer courses at her small high school in Weyauwega.
“I jumped right in with both feet and fortunately I just kind of had a natural affinity for computer science and I absolutely loved it from the get-go,” says Mehring, recalling that she helped a UW-Eau Claire faculty member automate a test as part of her work-study experience. “It was really addicting to be able to create software that people would use. That has been an inspiration ever since those seeds were planted of being able to use technology to make people’s lives easier or to help them out.”
Mehring worked as a programmer in the Twin Cities and operated her own computer consulting business in the 1990s as businesses sought creation of webpages to put on the burgeoning internet.
In 1997, Mehring’s friends had a baby who was born with health issues, and she was asked to relay medical updates to friends and relatives.
“It only took two phone calls for me to realize there had to be a better way,” Mehring says. “And most great ideas come when you are solving a problem. There is a need out there and you are finding a way to help that need. We needed to let everybody know what was going on, so I actually created a website for not only their baby but the mom who was also quite ill. They had a large group of friends and it instantly just became this community of love and support.”
Tragically, the baby only survived nine days, but the experience showed Mehring that all people going through a health journey need to be able to communicate along the way.
“I always think that maybe this is my way of doing nursing through technology, being able to have that kind of caring connection that people could have with each other,” Mehring says.
CaringBridge is the first and most widely used global communication platform for supporting health journeys, according to the company. It has grown to a platform that receives nearly 300,000 visits per day.
Mehring no longer is involved in the day-to-day operations at the company after retiring in 2017, but she continues to be approached by people who share their touching CaringBridge stories with her. She is proud that CaringBridge has made a difference in so many lives.
Likewise, UW-Eau Claire continues to hold “a special place in my heart,” Mehring says, as she remains in touch with lifelong friends she met in college. She passed along that Blugold spirit to her three sons, who all graduated from UW-Eau Claire.
“I have really great memories, from the dorm experience to the education and playing basketball for two years,” Mehring says. “I absolutely loved my time at UW-Eau Claire.”
Written by Gary Johnson