Tina Simmons still remembers the first woman who came to her Earn While You Learn (EWYL) pregnancy care program, which is part of the St. Francesca Resource Center at Notre Dame Parish in Chippewa Falls. The program involves watching videos on prenatal/postnatal care and parenting skills, with each viewing earning credits toward assorted baby items.
“She was four months pregnant,” said Tina. “She was considering the different things she could earn, and suddenly her eyes opened wide and she asked, ‘How many videos do I need to watch to earn that crib?’ I said, ‘You know, let’s not start out that way. How about you watch a few of the videos and see how you like them, and then we’ll work towards that crib one way or another?’”
The young woman happily agreed. She and her husband had already been coming regularly to St. Francesca Resource Center’s (SFRC) food pantry, so Tina was familiar with them. They came together to watch the videos, and “they both loved them,” said Tina. “In fact, they watched way more than they needed to for the crib. We would talk for a long time after each one.”
Tina remembers the day last spring when they finally came to pick up the crib. “As they walked into the Avila Room, I looked at the husband and I’ll never forget the smile on his face and the bounce in his step,” Tina said.
A true friendship developed between Tina and the young couple as they awaited their baby. “We would text each other from time to time and I would send them links to more of the videos,” Tina said. “Then one morning in July my phone beeped. It was a picture of their new baby boy, four hours old! I was so touched to be one of the first people they contacted.”
Tina has gone to the couple’s home on several occasions since then to bring diapers, baby supplies and food, and “I got to meet the baby!” she joyfully recalled.
It was fellow parishioner and Social Justice Committee member Matt Elstran who recruited Tina to the St. Francesca Resource Center, and specifically to the Earn While You Learn program (see Matt’s story on page 4). She and her husband, Dave, have been members of Notre Dame Parish for 14 years, and both have a special heart for pro-life work. In fact, in the video “Metamorphosis,” which Matt produced, and which tells Katie Stelter’s story of post-abortion conversion and redemption, Dave and Tina play Katie’s parents.
Matt’s vision for SFRC was multidimensional, including a food pantry and clothes closet, a pro-life outreach to expectant mothers and young parents and an evangelizing aspect with a light and respectful touch. As he and other parish volunteers got the initial food pantry going, Matt kept asking Tina if she could take on a larger role. At the time, she was working full-time for Walmart in identifying products that needed testing and quality control. Her position helped her obtain generous clothing and diaper donations from area Walmart stores. She assisted at SFRC in numerous other ways as she was able.
As the parish Social Justice Committee discerned what direction to take the pregnancy care aspect of SFRC, its members toured the Options for Women pregnancy resource center in River Falls. They were impressed, and Tina was particularly struck by their “Bright Course” curriculum from Heritage House, a company that produces pro-life resources. The videos were fresh and appealing, and the program utilized a subscription model, which meant updates could be added to the streamed content instead of relying on stacks of outmoded DVDs.
Things were moving forward nicely for SFRC, whose food pantry had gone from serving four families when it opened in December of 2014 to serving 80 families a week. More and more of the old Notre Dame Parish school building was being given over to this outreach of love, and dedicated volunteers kept it humming. But Matt told Tina he wanted to hire someone to establish and oversee the pregnancy care program, and he hoped it could be her. She mentioned that to Dave, and he said, “Pray about it.”
Finally, in the fall of 2019, Tina told Matt she would accept the position of services and outreach coordinator. “I gave my two-week notice to Walmart and never looked back!” she remembers. When a co-worker at SFRC had to leave to care for her ailing father, Tina’s title and tasks expanded to SFRC program coordinator. Her work with young mothers continues, but
she is responsible for overall operations as well.
It is in the Avila Room on the main floor of the old school that the Earn While You Learn program for young mothers unfolds. The Avila Room consists of an office reception space, an adjoining video viewing area and a room containing the baby items that can be earned through the program. The environment is cheerful, and the viewing area has a unique full-size statue of St. Anne, the mother of the Blessed Virgin Mary, standing with her daughter depicted as a young child. Indeed, SFRC is adorned with tasteful religious art throughout the facility. The words “Faith Working Through Love,” inscribed in large script on one wall of the food pantry, beautifully sum up its mission.
Tina glows when talking about her work. “I love talking to people,” she says, “and young moms are super fun!” They fill out an intake form, and one of the questions asks if they are interested in talking about faith. “Before COVID-19, I had five women I was working with and all of them answered ‘yes’ to that question,” Tina said. They would watch the videos
and complete the associated worksheets, and then “we would have the best talks!”
Tina made a habit of walking through the food pantry and clothes closet and “asking any young mom walking through if she was interested in the program, and many were.”
Then the pandemic hit, forcing SFRC to switch to curbside pickup for the food pantry and a distance learning model for the Earn While You Learn program. Thankfully, because of the online video content, Tina was able to continue working with young moms by sharing links, texts and phone conversations. But it just wasn’t the same. Thankfully, the in-person program for mothers has reopened, but people have been taking an understandably cautious approach with the pandemic still active.
As they walked into the Avila Room, I looked at the husband and I’ll never forget the smile on his face and the bounce in his step.”
On Oct. 22, Tina and Dave Simmons were proud to travel to Oconomowoc to receive an award on behalf of the St. Francesca Resource Center. The setting was Pro-Life Wisconsin’s Love for Life Gala, where SFRC and 16 other pregnancy resource centers from around the state were recognized “for their lifesaving service to parents and their precious preborn children.”
Tina gratefully accepted the award as an affirmation of the life-changing work of the St. Francesca Resource Center and its Earn While You Learn program for young mothers. Sure, Walmart was fine, but this mission of working for God, for the poor, for mothers in need, and for the sanctity of human life, leaves no doubt in Tina’s mind or heart: “This has truly been the most rewarding job I have ever had!”
Director of the Office for Ministries and Social Concerns
Published January/February 2021 Catholic Life issue