FARGO - Pam Erickson can scarcely recall a day when her nurturing drive wasn't fully engaged.
One of her first and most vivid memories from girlhood involves an emotion-filled attempt to save a pair of googly-eyed amphibians from certain death.
"I was carrying these two frogs around our cabin and screaming because a dog was chasing me, and I was so afraid they were going to get hurt," said Erickson, who grew up the youngest of four children. "If I see anything that's hurting in any shape or form, I'm naturally drawn to it and to fixing it."
She's gone well out of her way to save lost pets, and a recent vehicle collision with a deer left her a weeping mess - not because of vehicle damage, but because she'd killed something.
Erickson even once saved an abandoned baby squirrel, aptly named "Squirrel." For months, she carried the critter inside her sweater, like an infant in a sling, while running errands around town.
But as the animals in her life have benefitted from her ways, even more so the people; particularly the many young mothers who've come into her fold.
Beth Bach is among those whose mothering has been "sculpted" by Erickson's influence.
She was pregnant and 18 - a year older than Erickson was when her first of four children was born - when Erickson reached out.
Recognizing that Bach might need an accommodating environment in which to support her baby, she suggested applying for work at the YMCA, where she was supervisor of the playroom for kids of Y members.
"I was being raised by my dad, so I really just had that male influence at the time," Bach said. "Pam brought me into a whole new community of moms. Working there - and being able to bring Taylor to work with me - changed the direction of my life."
Not only did she offer a supportive, non-judging environment, Bach said, but Erickson formed a special bond with Taylor, who even began naming all her dolls "Hannah" after Erickson's youngest daughter.
"If Taylor was sick, Pam would want to know if she was OK and what was wrong. And when I went on to have other kids, she promoted breastfeeding and different types of parenting methods that I wouldn't have been exposed to otherwise," Bach said. "It was like a mother relationship and it was like a friendship, too. I always felt like I could trust her with anything going on in our lives."
Nine years ago, Heidi Nordby was in the thick of mothering her three boys when she applied to work at the Y's temporary childcare, since renamed the Playstation.
"Pam would hire people who needed the job not just for a paycheck but the influence of the women who were working there," Nordby said. "So I started getting to know her there and saw early on what a mentor she was."
Once, when a family crisis erupted and Nordby was called to the hospital in the middle of the night, Erickson watched her kids so she could leave. "Second to my own mother, she's the one I look up to the most," Nordby said, adding, "Some of the old-time Y staff, we still joke about how we want to be like Pam when we grow up."
Driven to serve
Even after Erickson moved on to a different position within the Y, Nordby said she continued to be inspiring, taking on such challenges as becoming a foster parent with her husband, Jon, even though they'd achieved empty-nest status.
"What makes her who she is is her serving heart and her willingness to be open to whatever God is asking her to do. And oftentimes it's the little things - like a mitten drive at the Y," Nordby said. "She sees a need, sends out an email or whatever it takes, and gets the person what they need. Even in just knowing her I've become a better person."
When Jennifer Mitchell met Erickson nearly a decade ago, she was a stay-at-home mother with three boys feeling somewhat isolated, as well as conflicted about not helping with finances. Erickson hired her and the voids vanished.
Almost immediately Mitchell began to witness the depth of Erickson's influence. "Hearing the stories of the other staff and watching how she spread her angel wings, I don't think any of us who went through there weren't helped by her in significant ways."
Far from a disconnected boss, Erickson was a fellow mother who'd been in the mommy trenches herself. She understood such near-impossibilities as getting out the door on time with little ones underfoot. "It can be chaotic, but she was like, 'Let's get it out of our system and have a good laugh about it,' " Mitchell said. "And she would turn a bad morning into a laugh."
Bach also appreciates Erickson's humor, calling it an unusual mix of teen-like sensibility with a strong dose of wisdom. "She likes to have fun - she's someone you can have a glass of wine with - but she also has that maturity to go with it," Bach said.
The laughter, however, eventually gives way to a seriousness sustained by strong faith convictions. Erickson describes herself as a person of principles, a fixer of the broken.
"It kills me to hear people say, 'What can I do for you?' but then not do it," Erickson said, "or to promise to pray but it's an empty promise."
"She knows what her values are," Bach said, "but she's also very open to letting people in who don't make those same choices."
"It didn't take me long to know what book Pam uses for a manual," Mitchell said. "You don't get a big loving heart like Pam without having a Bible close by."
The part of Erickson not satisfied with mere sentiment came out strongly the year one of her staff members experienced the death of an infant. She immediately went into care-giving mode, Bach said, passing around sign-up sheets for meals and other help.
According to Mitchell, staff members at the Y haven't been the only beneficiaries of Erickson's nurturing. "She taught us how to read the body motions of the moms coming in, to the point we could almost see what kind of morning they'd had by the time they'd gotten here."
Inspired by faith
Erickson said she views every sphere of life as mission territory - a chance to serve God right where you're at, whether in the grocery check-out line or through opening the doors to the disenfranchised. "We did foster care because these kids seemed to have no other option," she said, "and really, it ended up that they changed our world."
After moving on from the Playstation, which Mitchell now supervises, Erickson continued helping those needing connection. She's organized Bible studies, support sessions for foster mothers and a weekly group for parents and kids that includes craft and play time.
And Erickson's insight proved life-saving on an emotional level when Mitchell's son was diagnosed with high-functioning autism. She helped her see that a diagnosis could never change the essence of her child, nor her love for him.
She's also kicked to the curb the vision of the perfect mom. "She always gave me the feeling that a quiet, calm, organized house is not as fun as a messy, loud, crazy home, and to just live life as it comes," Mitchell said.
Though no longer under Pam's direction at work, Mitchell often uses her as a barometer when in a difficult spot concerning her family, asking herself, "What would Pam do?"
It's like she's a GPS for moms, Mitchell said. "You give her a topic and she knows how many bumps and curves and what you're going to go through on that topic, and she knows where you're going to have to stop and refuel, too."
Christine Soukup, another of Erickson's mentees, described her as a family-oriented person who accepts advice just as willingly as she offers it to others.
Indeed, Erickson has been mentored, too, including by a long-ago neighbor whose small, loving gestures stayed with her; particularly one evening when her daughter, Sarah, who'd been out selling raffle tickets, disappeared for a while.
"I was hysterical and the whole neighborhood and the police were out looking for her, and I remember being by Hawthorne School sitting on the stones looking over the ball field, screaming and crying, 'Sarah, Sarah, where are you?' " Erickson said. "And I walked into my house and there, with everyone else, was Ene with muffins and orange juice."
One woman gives, another receives, and the giver doesn't always know the impact.
Without Erickson's influence, Bach said, her life could have been very different. "There are so many directions in the road you can take. I could have gone any direction, but she taught me about being a mom and mothering, without judgment."
"Beth is really my hero," Erickson said. "She did it alone, and she has this brilliant, gorgeous daughter. And I just think, 'How did those single moms do it? How did they function or go to school or hold it together?' Because I don't know if I could have."
Bach concluded, "She knew the struggles of being a young mom herself, but she turned that into a very positive thing. And now she wants other moms to come in and embrace motherhood. Through Pam you realize it's not, 'Oh no, I'm pregnant,' but rather that these kids are gifts, and you're bringing another life into the world."