More than 25 years ago, Janet Smith, then a professor at the University of Notre Dame, used to pray in front of the South Bend, Ind., abortion clinic in her spare time. She had a nagging thought that “someone” should open an alternative center to 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 and a little blue house, Women’s Care Center, offering life-affirming options, opened in April 1984.

Shortly thereafter, Ann Manion, a Notre Dame graduate, a certified public accountant and senior audit manager for PricewaterhouseCoopers, joined the board of directors. When Smith left Notre Dame for another teaching position, she asked Manion to step in to lead the board. In due course, Manion assumed the role of president/executive director.

Under Manion’s leadership, Women’s Care Center has grown from one to 14 centers throughout northern Indiana, as well as locations in Niles, Mich., and Columbus, Ohio.

Successful Strategy

Statistics reflect the centers’ success. In St. Joseph County, Ind., the venue of the first Women’s Care Center, the abortion rate has dropped 37% over the last 10 years. In Marshall County, Ind., where another center is located, the abortion rate has dropped by 30%; and in Elkhart County, Ind., the rate has fallen by an astonishing 44% since the inception of its center.

In 2008, the last date for which records are available, 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 classes, and the Crib Club Incentive program, which provides cribs, car seats and other infant necessities to mothers in need who meet certain criteria: attending parenting classes, for example.

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.”

The Women’s Care Center has several unique features that distinguish it from other pregnancy-help center models: Women’s Care has explicitly Catholic roots, and it welcomes all clients regardless of religious affiliation. The center also 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 centers, 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.”

The pleasant and welcoming appearance was appealing to Jessica H., who was a 19-year-old student when she faced a crisis pregnancy. She was planning to get an abortion when she stopped by the Women’s Care Center in Fort Wayne, Ind.

“They showed me there was a life in my stomach, when I thought there wasn’t,” she said. “That’s what I needed: someone positive to tell me it was going to be okay.”

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

Father Kevin Russeau of the University of Notre Dame first volunteered at the Women’s Care Center when he was a seminarian in 1997. He believes that the most important aspect of the Women’s Care Center ministry is the way it treats each woman. “It’s not enough to convince people that abortion is wrong,” he said. “We must also help them through the process of choosing life and raising the child.”

The future for the Women’s Care Centers is bright: Women’s Care Center Milwaukee is scheduled to open this June.

But the effort hasn’t been easy. “Our building permit was revoked at the urging of a local alderman who learned of our efforts to establish the center there,” Manion said. “He was concerned because our proposed center was across the street from a large abortion clinic in the downtown area.  Our board in Milwaukee orchestrated a letter-writing campaign to the alderman, and he received numerous letters in support of our efforts, including letters from Archbishop Listecki, former Archbishop Dolan and Indiana Bishop D’Arcy. However, the alderman seemed unmoved. 

“In the meantime, I had started novenas to St. Joseph and the Holy Name of Jesus. On the ninth day (March 10), I was commiserating with my Milwaukee director, Sharon Hudy, about our seeming lack of progress.  I told her it was the ninth day of my novena, but that I hadn’t said it yet. She told me to go do it. Just a little over an hour after I completed the novenas, I received word from our attorney that the city had relented and we had our building permit.”

The next endeavor: franchising. “We can help start centers that will be managed and sustained by the local community,” Manion says. “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.”

Theresa Thomas writes from South Bend, Indiana.