'Like the loaves and fishes,' pro-life centers marvel at how God was able to provide for mothers in need during nationwide crisis
FARMINGTON HILLS — When the baby formula shortage erupted in February, mothers looking to feed their infants turned to Catholic parishes, crisis pregnancy centers and local nonprofits for answers.
And like the feeding of the 5,000 in the Gospels, coordinators at several local organizations say they were able to provide.
At Another Way Pregnancy Center (AWPC) in Farmington Hills, donations from parishes and community members allowed volunteers to meet the surge in demand — often in a near-miraculous fashion.
When mothers needed specialty formulas or a higher-priced brand, a donation would often come in that fit the bill, said Alyssa Burkett, client services director at AWPC. Once, a client came to the center looking for a specific formula that was in short supply, but Burkett had none on the shelves to give her. Moments after the client left, a donor came in with the exact formula that was requested. Burkett was thrilled to call the client with the news.
“Throughout the shortage, we’ve never been without formula,” Burkett said. “We had so much support before, and during the shortage when we saw an uptick in requests for formula, it was like the loaves and fishes. When our supply was getting low, we’d get more at just the right time and we’d be OK.”
In the wake of last Friday's Dobbs vs. Jackson Women's Health Organization decision from the Supreme Court, local pro-life organizations are continuing to do what they've always done, they say.
“We’re doing what we’ve always done, which is to go above and beyond to help mothers and their children,” Burkett said. “Whatever the need is, we’ll find a way to help.”
Another Way Pregnancy Center provides assistance to mothers while they’re pregnant and continues helping families through their toddler years, and longer if needed, Burkett said.
In addition to offering baby formula and help with other infant needs, the crisis pregnancy center walks with clients through its “Earn While You Learn” program. Through the program, mothers take classes to learn about childbirth, parenting and healthy relationships and earn money toward AWPC's “baby boutique,” which can be redeemed for clothing and nursery items. The center also offers a mentorship program for men and invites clients to attend Bible studies.
In Roseville, St. Pio of Pietrelcina Parish provides diapers, wipes, formula, clothing and other items for families in need through its own "baby closet." Like AWPC, St. Pio’s baby closet shelves are filled entirely with donations.
As formula became harder to find, the parish saw an increase in calls from desperate mothers.
“Everything is very expensive right now. Diapers are very expensive. A can of formula is very expensive, and one can doesn’t feed a baby for very long,” said Tina Bullis, Christian service director at the parish, who oversees the baby closet.
Still, only one request went unfulfilled, for a specialty formula; Bullis was able to direct that person to other resources.
Often, when a mother or father calls looking for formula, Bullis can supplement the request with Cheerios or milk from the parish's food pantry.
Bullis said she's been overwhelmed by the generosity of the churches within St. Pio’s Family of Parishes: Our Lady of Hope, St. Isaac Jogues and St. Margaret of Scotland in St. Clair Shores; and Holy Innocents-St. Barnabas in Roseville. She’ll often come to work to find boxes or bags with donations of formula, clothing or diapers in her office from anonymous donors.
“Mother Teresa is one of my favorite people,” Bullis said. “One of her main messages is that if you care for one another, you’re caring for God. We’re not meant to serve ourselves. We’re meant to serve Him, and we do that by serving others.”
Bullis has witnessed several “Holy Spirit moments” with the baby closet. At the end of last year, a young couple donated all the “doubles” from their baby shower — diapers, bottles, pacifiers, blankets, clothing, shampoo, lotion, onesies and books. Another woman who utilized the baby closet when her children were young now drops off donations to help others.
The formula shortage forced many families to think outside the box, with some turning to social media for help. On the Detroit Area Catholic Moms Facebook page, families exchanged help with one another, from extra formula to frozen breastmilk.
"It has been refreshing to see moms helping one another and posting when they have seen formula in stores," said Katy Conners, founder and administrator of the group, which was formed in 2020 during the pandemic. "It’s great to be in a group that is supportive and wants to build each other up as Catholic moms.”
Project Hope, an initiative of Catholic Charities of Southeast Michigan, also connects mothers with formula and other baby items. The nonprofit operates pantries in Romeo, Pontiac and Detroit serving more than 100 families each month.
“Usually we provide each mom with formula once a month, but during the shortage many of our moms requested formula out of schedule or called to ask only for baby formula,” said Andrea Spankie, who oversees Project Hope as well as Walking with Moms in Need, an initiative that helps parishes partner with local pregnancy resource centers.
“Even before the shortage, our moms relied on us every month to help fill the gap between the formula provided by WIC (special supplemental nutrition program for women, infants and children) and the amount that babies actually need in a month. They receive from us compassionate care, concern for their mental well-being, and a smiling face and conversation — something WIC and other government agencies don’t offer.”
Even apart from the formula shortage, inflation has taken a bite out of low-income families' budgets, Spankie said.
“In general, it seems like the soaring prices are affecting our clients more than the shortage of formula,” Spankie said. “In the last two months, we have added more new clients to the program than at any other time so far this year.”
At Another Way Pregnancy Center, some clients have requested virtual visits because they can’t afford gas to drive to their weekly mentoring appointments. Burkett has begun offering gas cards to help mothers come for in-person support.
Lakita Riley, a client at Another Way Pregnancy Center for about a year, said her twin boys were born just as the formula shortage was mounting. Riley has seen prices as high as $22 for one can of formula, which doesn’t feed her sons for two full days. She participates in WIC, but the program doesn’t provide enough formula to nourish her twins. Another Way has supplied Riley with formula beyond WIC and what she can afford on her own.
“Another Way has helped me a lot. I don’t know how I would get what I needed without them,” Riley said. “They help me with other things, too, like videos about the changes I’d be going through in the pregnancy and the changes in my babies now. It’s been nice to talk with someone who knows what you’re going through.”
How to help
While many people make donations at Christmas and during Lent, the need for support is ongoing. Contact these organizations to help this summer and all year round:
St. Pio Baby Closet or Food Pantry — To make a donation or learn what items are needed, contact Christian service coordinator Tina Bullis at (586) 777-9116, ext. 3.
Another Way Pregnancy Center — For a list of items to donate, go to www.awpcfriends.org/donate-items or click on the “How You Can Help” tab at the top of the page for other ways to assist.
Walking with Moms in Need/Project Hope — To donate supplies, go to www.ccsem.org/mom. View the wish list or make a donation under the “Get Involved” button. To start a Walking with Moms in Need program at your parish, contact Andrea Spankie at [email protected].
“Traveling Crib” — Through Walking with Moms in Need and Catholic Charities of Southeast Michigan, a portable crib is traveling around the archdiocese, spending a few weeks to a month at a parish or school. Parishioners and students are asked to fill the crib with donations of formula, diapers, wipes, and other items. If you’d like to host the crib at your parish, email Andrea Spankie at [email protected]csem.org.