It’s been a year like no other for Jean Wankum, director and cofounder of Birthright of Mid-Missouri.
The Immaculate Conception parishioner celebrated her 90th birthday, took part in 50th-anniversary festivities for Birthright, received special accolades from that organization for her decades of service, and was honored with the Missouri Catholic Conference’s (MCC) Citizen Recognition Award for the Jefferson City diocese.
Bishop W. Shawn McKnight presented the MCC award during the 9 a.m. Sunday Mass on Nov. 19 in Immaculate Conception Church.
Birthright of Mid-Missouri, one of over 450 Birthright affiliates in the United States and around the world, gives pregnant women and families who do not want to have an abortion the choice to give life instead.
The nondenominational nonprofit is founded on the principle that “it is the right of every pregnant woman to give birth, and the right of every child once conceived to be born.”
For those involved, including Mrs. Wankum, Birthright is a ministry and a gift from God.
“Jean Wankum not only talks about her faith, she lives it,” said MCC Executive Director Jamie Morris during the award presentation.
“Thousands of women, children and families all around the area have been directly impacted by the love, care and dedication Jean provided them,” he stated.
Fifty years ago, shortly after the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton decisions that legalized abortion-on-demand in all 50 states, Bishop Michael F. McAuliffe of Jefferson City, now deceased, asked Georgene Bernskoetter and Catherine Schrimpf to look into chartering a Birthright chapter in the Capital City.
They put the word out that they’d need volunteers.
“Jean did not hesitate,” said Mr. Morris. “As a mother of seven young children herself, she realized the sanctity of every precious life and was determined to help any woman who wanted to save their baby’s life.”
Eileen Plassmeyer, Barb Schmitz, Mrs. Bernskoetter and Mrs. Wankum became the founders of Birthright in Jefferson City.
“Jean took the first call the day Birthright opened and is still taking calls today, 50 years later,” said Mr. Morris.
Her gentle, reassuring manner has won the day for hundreds of mothers and the babies they would give birth to.
“Jean is a nonjudgmental, caring individual whose only goal is to love those who enter Birthright’s doors,” said Mr. Morris.
The MCC (mocatholic.org), public-policy agency of Missouri’s four Roman Catholic dioceses, presents the Citizen Recognition Award each fall to highlight an individual, couple or group from each diocese who exercises faith and citizenship in an extraordinary manner.
Award recipients exemplify good citizenship and the promotion of Catholic values in the public-policy arena and in their local communities and parishes.
Mrs. Wankum’s fellow parishioners stood up and applauded as the bishop presented the award.
“They need help”
Birthright of Mid-Missouri celebrated its 50th anniversary April 23 in a Jefferson City park.
Mrs. Wankum was an honored guest.
“It was incredible to see so many people that Jean had helped,” said Anne Rapp, a Birthright of Mid-Missouri volunteer.
Mrs. Wankum was quick to deflect any recognition onto other people.
“We’ve heard story of Birthright’s founding for 50 years,” she said. “People need to hear the story that’s going on now.”
What is that story?
“Right now, we’re finding women who are really in stressful situations, and they’re needing help figuring out how to get themselves on their feet and take care of their children,” said Mrs. Wankum.
“And It’s not just women,” she pointed out. “Sometimes, the father is right there with her. They just need the help. Maybe we’ll know someplace they haven’t thought of to get the help.
“Just a hand-up — that’s what I call it,” she said. “That’s what we’re trying to do.”
All of this matters because “you want to see the mom and the family having a better life, and you want to see that little one come into the world and not be as stressed-out as a lot of people are right now,” Mrs. Wankum stated.
Listening to understand
Before saying “yes” to Birthright, Mrs. Wankum discussed it with her husband, Ed. He said he’d give her all the help and support she needed.
Volunteers met regularly in each other’s homes, learning from medical professionals and attorneys about how to help the women who needed it.
“One thing they told us was that it had to be confidential,” Mrs. Wankum recalled. “That was a really big thing.”
She started out scheduling appointments by phone from her home, as she had several young children of her own at the time.
Many of the early clients were young and very naïve.
“Now, I would say the average age we’re seeing are in their 20s,” said Mrs. Wankum. “And it’s often women with families. They’re having trouble. It’s not easy.”
The first group of girls the chapter helped were a tremendous conduit of grace and affirmation.
“It was that great feeling of knowing you can help, that what you do can make a girl’s life a little easier,” said Mrs. Wankum.
Then as now, there was no guilt, no coercion — only listening and helping.
“If someone comes to talk to us, there’s already something in her heart, telling her that having an abortion isn’t what she wants to do,” she noted.
Mrs. Wankum eventually became a co-director with Mrs. Schmitz and later took on the leadership role.
Praying for answers
Mrs. Wankum talked about some of the women who attended the 50th anniversary celebration.
One was a mom who had been told by doctors that she wouldn’t be able to have any more children.
“She turned out to be pregnant,” Mrs. Wankum recalled. “We helped her through the pregnancy. My husband and I took her to Columbia to have her baby. And after that, she had two more.”
Another client was confused and miserable with morning sickness when she called.
“I suggested a box of crackers,” said Mrs. Wankum. “She said she didn’t have any. I took a box of crackers to her. We became friends. And her daughter is now studying in Boston. And the mother is now a nurse and furthering her own education.”
Mrs. Wankum thought back to other clients who came for help with a pregnancy after having already had an abortion.
“It’s been so hard for some of these girls,” she noted. “It’s very, very stressful. Some of the stories, you want to sit there and weep. I can understand how rough it is.
“It’s by the grace of God that they have the strength to step back and say, ‘This is what I want to do,’ and then ask for the help they need,” she said.
It’s somewhat less difficult now because society is more accepting of a single woman being pregnant.
“I’m not saying it’s easy, but it was a lot harder back in the day,” she said.
She knows the look of terror that fills some women when they find out they’re pregnant.
Sometimes, a woman just needs to talk through what she’s feeling.
“When I meet someone who’s at that place, I tell her that if she can feel in her heart of hearts that she wants to carry this baby, we will do anything we can to help her do that,” said Mrs. Wankum.
Listening is often the most important step.
“Just to sit and listen to their story,” she said. “And then you do a lot of praying that you find the right answer. I’ve said many a prayer!”
Louise Summerhill started the Birthright movement in Toronto, Canada, in 1968.
It has spread to more than 450 chapters — including several very successful Birthright affiliates in this diocese.
Birthright of Mid-Missouri is a Section 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that provides confidential information and resources to women.
These services include free pregnancy tests, maternity wear and baby items.
Birthright volunteers offer support and access to available community resource tools, addressing prenatal care, childbirth, adoption, child safety, parenting skills and referrals for medical support, financial, legal and employment resources, housing and counseling.
The Supreme Court reversed the Roe and Doe decisions last year, and Missouri banned elective abortions in the state.
But the work of helping mothers of pre-born babies remains urgent and necessary.
Birthright of Mid-Missouri helped over 500 individuals in 2022, including distribution of donated diapers, maternity clothes, baby formula, baby clothing, layettes, car seats and portable play yards, along with utility and rent assistance and other financial help.
Through the generosity of many, the group is on target to meet or exceed those numbers this year.
It remains the work of many committed volunteers.
“If it were not for all those women who said yes, I don’t know what we would have done,” said Mrs. Wankum.
She’s convinced that God transforms difficult situations into proof of his endless fidelity.
“He’s always there, he always wants to help,” she said. “And you can see that with the many, many women who have come to work at Birthright through the years. Each of our volunteers has beautiful stories to tell.
“And the contributors: People are so generous,” she stated. “It’s through those generous donations that we’re able to assist so many people and make such a difference.”
She asked for special prayers for families of pregnant girls.
“That they will see fit to be supportive of the girl who is pregnant,” said Mrs. Wankum. “So often, the families are not very supportive. Especially with the younger girls, that can be very tough.”
Mrs. Wankum gives thanks for all the help Birthright of Mid-Missouri has been able to give to women and girls these past 50 years.
“And I pray that more young people will be able to volunteer their time,” she said. “Volunteers are not easy to find these days. We could use some volunteers in the office.
“It’s a wonderful thing to do,” she stated. “There are some ladies who have volunteered almost as long as I have. If you talk to any of the volunteers, they’ll tell you it’s very rewarding.”
The Birthright of Mid-Missouri office is located at 1006 E. High St. in Jefferson City.
Individuals seeking help may call the 24/7 free Helpline at 1-800-550-4900.
For more information about volunteering or for local services, call 573-635-8822.