FARGO — A woman laden with worry pulled into the Holiday gas station at First Avenue North and University Drive. As she neared the pump, a pink sign on the building just to the north caught her eye: “Women’s Care Center.”

The words below promised something better than a tank of gas — pregnancy resources, including free pregnancy tests and ultrasounds, with “walk-ins welcome.”

“She came in before she got the gas,” says Angela Wambach, the center’s executive director. “We’ve had many more walk-ins in our new location. It’s definitely been fruitful.”

Though the center is celebrating 35 years in the community, much has changed over three decades of offering help to women with unplanned pregnancies, including the recent renaming from FirstChoice Clinic. But the June move from its former location off 13th Avenue South has been the most obvious.

“We used to be on the second floor of an office building with very little signage,” Wambach says. “Part of the Women’s Care Center (WCC) model is to be visible and accessible, so our goal was to find a busy street and a location with great signage and accessible parking.”

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Women’s Care Center is located at 103 N. University Drive in Fargo. David Samson / The Forum
Women’s Care Center is located at 103 N. University Drive in Fargo. David Samson / The Forum

Now, she says, the center can better meet the demographics of its clientele — often single women in their late teens or early 20s, though they’ve served those 14 to 40, married and unmarried. WCC offers free counseling and support to its clients, along with free pregnancy testing and ultrasounds, but it does not provide prenatal medical care or abortions.

“We have all sorts of information and education we can provide to help them make their best choice,” Wambach says, mentioning parenting classes, clothing and diapers, and resource referrals. “We are that free and confidential, objective, nonjudgmental place for women (in unplanned pregnancy) to come and just talk.”

Though the center remains fully funded by local contributions, its support base now resides in South Bend, Ind., where Women’s Care Center was founded in 1984. Jenny Hunsberger, vice president, says it all began in a tiny blue house after its founder, a University of Notre Dame professor, saw the needs of students facing unplanned pregnancy.

“Many voices on all sides were telling them what to do, but no one was offering unconditional love and positive, concrete support that makes a decision for life possible,” she says.

The first year, they served 391 women. “Now, more than 400 women a day come to our centers,” she says. “It’s a tremendous growth, and incredible to be part of this work, and now to be part of the communities in North Dakota as well.”

Along with Fargo’s location, 103 N. University Drive, Bismarck and Devils Lake also operate WCC locations, joining the largest pregnancy resource provider in the nation with 32 locations in 11 states, serving 30,000 women annually.

‘Radical hospitality’

The success of the WCC model stems in part from its “radical hospitality” philosophy, borrowed from St. Benedict.

“It means that anyone who comes through our doors should feel welcomed, warm and loved,” Wambach says, noting that everything, from paint choices to furnishings and wall hangings, is selected to ensure the client feels safe and secure. While they don’t evangelize, she adds, staff show Christ’s love through action, firstly, by offering food and water to each person who enters, like any honored guest.

“We’re no longer a clinical feel but that homelike environment. When a guest enters our home, we want to fluff the pillows, make the beds and set out food and drink.”

The playroom at Fargo's Women’s Care Center. David Samson / The Forum
The playroom at Fargo's Women’s Care Center. David Samson / The Forum

Cybil Johnson, who started as a counselor with WCC in October 2018, says that to her, radical hospitality means focusing intently on the woman before her.

“We don’t push women to make a decision one way or the other. We don’t have an agenda to make them do something they don’t want to do. We’re here to help them process, and to clarify what’s really in their heart,” she says.

During her four-month training in Indiana, Johnson says she learned from others with “a heart for loving women.”

“We’re trained to look for people’s strengths and identify those they bring to every part of their life, including possible motherhood if that’s what they choose,” she says.

The satisfying result, she says, often comes as “a demeanor shift, from fear of the unknown to this calmer, more relaxed can-do attitude.”

The ultrasound room at the new Women’s Care Center in Fargo. David Samson / The Forum
The ultrasound room at the new Women’s Care Center in Fargo. David Samson / The Forum

Lindsey Larsen came to the center in December 2017 after learning she was pregnant. She was 36, single and busy with her job, traveling and volunteering. Though abortion was firm in her mind, she says, a co-worker told her about then-FirstChoice Clinic.

“When I got there, my emotions were all over the board,” she says, noting that she didn’t feel equipped to parent alone. But Larsen says the nurse she talked to was “comforting, super supportive, and let me talk” through her circumstances. “She never pushed me to any decision.”

While deliberating her future, Larsen felt drawn back to church, and during a sermon at Prairie Heights Community Church, received consolation.

“It was about owning your own story and staying in the moment versus turning the page and running away from something,” she says. “I just knew God was telling me everything would be OK.”

If not for the center, she says, her little daughter, Ruby, probably wouldn’t be here.

“She’s the greatest thing I can ever imagine. I cannot love anything or anyone more,” she says.

Last fall, Larsen told her story at the center’s annual fundraising social, sharing the stage with Heisman-trophy winner Tim Tebow’s mom. The fourth annual Friends Night Out fundraiser, set for Oct. 14, will feature recovered drug addict Kailee Perrin, who will tell her story of transformation.

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If you go

What: Women’s Care Center's Friends Night Out fundraising social

When: 6 p.m. Monday, Oct. 14; program is 7-8:30 p.m.

Where: Holiday Inn, 3803 13th Ave. S., Fargo

Info: Visit www.teamfirstchoice.com or call 701-237-6530; for pregnancy help, go to www.womenscarecenter.org

Salonen, a wife and mother of five, works as a freelance writer and speaker in Fargo. Email her at roxanebsalonen@gmail.com, and find more of her work at Peace Garden Passage, http://roxanesalonen.com/.