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(Photo credit: Diane Freeby Click her name for recent article on this)

Ann Manion (President Women’s Care Center), Dr. Janet Smith (founder) and Jeanne Thelen (an original counselor)

The establishment of the pro-life Women’s Care Center in South Bend, IN may at first glance seem like  a simple, spontaneous response to a local abortion clinic. And indeed perhaps it was. However, like a small seed can grow into a large tree, the organization’s growth was huge, its evolution into multiple centers has proven to be providential, and its success across state lines has exceeded all expectations.

More than twenty five years ago, Janet Smith, then a professor at the University of Notre Dame, used to pray in front of the South Bend, IN abortion clinic in her spare time.  She had a nagging thought, that ‘someone’ should open an alternative center, which would offer pro-life counseling for women who found themselves in crisis pregnancies. Eventually, she realized that she was the ‘someone’ and with donors’ help for financing, a little blue house, the new Women’s Care Center with life-affirming options, opened in April, 1984.

Shortly thereafter Ann Manion, a University of Notre Dame graduate, certified public accountant, and senior audit manager for PricewaterhouseCoopers, joined the board of directors at the Women’s Care Center.  When Smith left Notre Dame for another teaching position she asked Manion to step in as chairman of the board.  In due course Manion assumed the role of president/executive director. Under Manion’s leadership, the Women’s Care Center has grown from one to seventeen centers throughout northern Indiana, as well as Niles, Michigan and Columbus, Ohio, and Madison and Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

It’s been an unbelievable success. In St. Joseph County, IN, the venue of the first Women’s Care Center, the abortion rate has dropped 37% over the last ten years.  In Marshall County, the venue of another WCC, the abortion rate has dropped by 30%, and in Elkhart County, by an astonishing 44% since the inception of its Center.

In 2008, the Center served 10,700 women who made more than 56,000 client visits to the centers. Center services include pregnancy and one-on-one goal counseling, parenting skills education classes, which are taught both in English and Spanish, and the Crib Club Incentive program, which provides cribs, car seats and other infant necessities to young mothers in need who meet certain criteria– attending parenting classes, for example. A conservative estimate of the number of diapers given away each year is 350,000.

Manion recalls joining the board simply because she was attracted to the mission.  “I was young, newly married, professionally employed, and looking for something meaningful to do in my spare time,” she said.

In 1988 she decided to stay at home with her first baby, and this also enabled her to spend more time at the center.  “(Working at) the (Women’s) Care Center provided a way for me to use my business skills to a very good end, and because I was a volunteer I …had the flexibility to be…with my children most of the time.”

Working 20 to 40 hours a week and never drawing a paycheck for her Care Center work, Manion didn’t anticipate the eventual scope and impact of her “hobby”.

“I think this (success) is because God had the plan and not us. We simply said “yes” to new opportunities as they came along, “she said. “And we are supported by some very generous individuals and families who truly become our partners in the mission. Without these (primarily Catholic) supporters, we would never be able to say ‘yes’ to so many new opportunities.”

As president, Manion oversees new initiatives and projects. She writes proposals, fundraising letters and newsletters, and she assists with the development effort. Manion also uses her accounting background to make sure there is enough money for payroll and bills, and she performs bookkeeping, as well as acknowledges donor gifts. Finally, she provides a sounding board for issues that come up from the counseling directors. The Center employs a full-time foundation director, Bobby Williams, whom Ann calls, drawing upon her accounting background, “an amazing asset”.

The Women’s Care Center has several unique features which distinguishes it from other pregnancy help centers and models.  First, while the Center has explicitly Catholic roots it welcomes all clients regardless of religious affiliation or lack thereof, and its workers strive to be loving and non-judgmental in approach.

“Nearly all of the centers I have encountered over the years are evangelical,” said Manion, “Also, our founder, Janet Smith, had the foresight to realize that women in crisis don’t want a sermon or a lecture but just someone to love them unconditionally. Many of the women we serve have never experienced this unconditional love and support before. This can be such a turning point for them…and is the reason why so many young women choose life.”

Another distinguishing feature of the Center is that it employs paid counselors.  According to Manion, having paid professionals allows longer hours of operation and consistent follow-up with clients.  “Paid professionals make it possible for us to be open full-time and not just when volunteers are available,” she said.

The final difference between the Women’s Care Center and many other pregnancy help centers across the country, according to Manion, is that proportionally  the Women’s Care Center spends more of its budget on strategic facilities and signage than advertising. “We have found that centers which do best are those that are strategically located (near abortion clinics if possible), on busy streets and are highly visible and accessible. We also like bright, prominent, pretty landscaping and a homey environment. We do not seem to need a large advertising budget as the facilities themselves (and word of mouth) become a magnet for the women in need.”

The pleasant and welcoming appearance of one Care Center is something that Jessica H. knows about first-hand. She was a 19 year old student when she faced a crisis pregnancy and had plans to get an abortion. 

“All my friends were telling me to get an abortion. I just wanted to stop by (WCC) and get another opinion,” she said. Jessica admits she was “scared to death” the day she visited a Fort Wayne, IN Women’s Care Center.  “I was shaking. I was nervous. I was telling myself, ‘I don’t know why I’m doing this’,” she recalled.

She had been to the abortion clinic the day before, put $200 down for an abortion, and was treated rudely. Her fears melted, however, as she entered the Women’s Care Center.

“The (Women’s Care Center) building is cozy and nice. There were flowers, comfortable sofas, and nice décor. It just made me feel comfortable,” Jessica said. “They welcomed me in, were real friendly, “she continued, “They were the complete opposite of the abortion clinic (workers).”

The Care Center workers offered Jessica an ultrasound, which was ultimately what changed her mind about getting an abortion.

“They showed me there was a life in (me) when I thought there wasn’t,” she said, “They never once told me not to do it….They just shared their opinion…That’s what I needed. Someone positive to tell me it was going to be okay. “

Jessica stated she didn’t feel judged at all by Care Center personnel.

“The lady I worked with was in the same situation (that I was in) when she was 17, like 20 years ago, so she understood. I felt, for once, comfortable talking about this to someone.” 

Jessica was touched by one particular generosity: Care Center workers were able to secure donations to replace the $200 she had put down on the abortion she never had.

Fr. Kevin Russeau, C.S.C. first volunteered at the Women’s Care Center when he was a seminarian in 1997. “I loved this work,” he said. He answered phones to direct women to the centers and did ‘intakes’, special questionnaires designed to identify what services a woman needs.  Later he participated in outreach to the schools, doing abstinence training. He helped with a phone-a-thon and in opening the Elkhart, IN center.  Today, Fr. Kevin still assists when needed. He recently led a prayerful gathering for counselors and works with post-abortive mothers who seek spiritual healing

Fr. Kevin believes that the most important aspect of the Women’s Care Center ministry is the way it treats each person with radical dignity. “(It) cares for (the women’s) health. We help them financially, and we educate them.” He continued, “It’s not enough to convince people that abortion is wrong. We must also help them through the process of choosing life and raising the child. The Women’s Care Center does this, and makes every effort to follow up with the women they see. “

In fact, Jessica and her son Mason still visit the Care Center frequently.  After Mason’s birth, Jessica wanted to meet other young mom friends and the WCC workers helped her connect with other young moms. They also helped her make her bill payments, through donations from friends of the Center. Mostly Jessica visits now, however, because she views some of the workers simply as good friends.

Manion, who was named an Outstanding Notre Dame Alumnus in 2007 for her Care Center work, isn’t surprised by the multiple blessings that stem from this special pro-life work. She states that being involved with the Care Center has brought numerous blessings to her own family.

“It has deepened my faith, and that of my children,” she said, “They are all strongly pro-life, pro-abstinence and faith-filled. In fact, my college daughter Mary (who first started visiting the center as a baby with her mom) is training as a counselor on a volunteer basis.”

The future for the Women’s Care Centers is indeed very bright; however Manion states that it is no longer feasible simply to continue to add centers in new communities. “Both from a structural and funding standpoint,” she said, “(adding centers) would be unworkable. We are however, looking at a franchising model, whereby we can help start enters that will be managed and sustained by the local community. Over the next five years we hope to write a book, create a training manual, offer free training programs and provide start-up funds for (new) centers.  If the funds present themselves, we will do it. “

Below are photographs of various cozyWomen’s Care Center outreach centers- in Columbus, OH, Mishawaka, IN,  and Niles, MI, all from WCC websites.

(This article originally written 2/2010)