“Ultimately, I want to empower women to make healthy, thoughtful decisions…without pressure.” – Wendy Schmidt, FirstChoice Clinic West center director
By Roxane B. Salonen
Soon after accepting a position at FirstChoice Clinic West in Bismarck, Wendy Schmidt knew she’d found her purpose – empowering and loving women where they’re at.
“I quickly realized how often women were being told, ‘You’re not worth it.’ They’d say, ‘I got pregnant but it’s my fault,’ and the guys would threaten to leave,” she said.
One client shared that her boyfriend had threatened suicide if she didn’t have an abortion. She proceeded to lift up her shirt, revealing welts she’d acquired during beatings from the father of her child.
“I worked with her, talked her through her choices, helped boost her confidence,” Wendy said. “It took about three months, but she did end up leaving him. She’s now married to a wonderful man and she and the baby and have just blossomed.”
Ultimately, she wants to empower women to make healthy, thoughtful decisions about their pregnancies, their sexual health, and the direction of their lives without pressure.
“I want our clients to stop and think about their decisions, and to let them know they are not alone in the midst of it all,” Wendy said. “These should never be quick decisions made in fear. The reality is that these decisions will affect our clients for the rest of their lives.”
First What? FirstChoice Clinic is a nonprofit, faith-based clinic that provides free health services and education that helps mainly young women experiencing an unplanned pregnancy to think through their options with a caring staff.
Along with education, FirstChoice Clinic offers free pregnancy testing, ultrasound, and the recently added service of testing for sexually transmitted infections (STIs), which can be treated on site.
Though celebrating 30 years now in North Dakota, FirstChoice Clinic West in Bismarck opened its doors relatively recently, in 2010, joining Fargo-Moorhead and Devils Lake sites.
Tom Frei, executive director, said medical knowledge, facts, truth and charity guide the relationships between clients and staff. “Our clients deserve medically accurate information and support to make good decisions,” he said.
And while FirstChoice Clinic enjoys a support base and collaboration from all faiths, he said, it welcomes anyone needing its services.
“We’re not set up to wage political battles,” Frei clarified. “Our focus is to serve our clients’ needs. With regard to our name, we believe ‘choice’ ultimately to be a corollary of our freedom, a gift from God, and not something to avoid.”
A Welcomed Match After her 1998 graduation from St. Mary’s High School in Bismarck, Wendy attended nursing school at the University of Mary, setting her sights on labor and delivery. “That’s the only reason I went into nursing.”
She got a job right away at Meritcare in Fargo and worked there for a year. When her fiancé, now-husband Cody, moved to Wichita, Kansas, she followed and began working there in high-risk labor and delivery.
The couple later moved to St. Paul, where Wendy worked three years in high-risk labor and delivery, then for another year as a nurse in a perinatology clinic helping care for women with high-risk pregnancies.
Following the birth of their first child, Finley, the family returned to Bismarck, and Wendy began several part-time jobs, including working as a nurse manager for an eye specialist and a Lamaze instructor. In March, 2010 they welcomed their second daughter, Piper.
But Wendy began missing her work with pregnant women and started searching for something that would meld her work history into one place.
She saw an ad for a nurse-manger position at FirstChoice Clinic West, applied and was offered the job.
In March 2013, Wendy stepped into her new role as center director. “I fell in love with it the minute I started,” she said. “I realize now that this was what my nine years have been preparing me for.”
Since then, the site has implemented several new services, including testing for sexually transmitted disease (STD), and a text line to allow potential clients to text in with questions they might not want to ask by phone.
FirstChoice Clinic West has been expanding like crazy, Wendy said, with increased offerings of community outreach, including educating teens and young adults on sexual health.
Minimizing Misconceptions One of her most pressing missions is helping the community better understand what FirstChoice does. Many clients believe only pregnancy tests are offered, but there’s so much more, she said, with education being a key component.
Wendy said she wants FirstChoice Clinic to become more proactive by helping young people become more knowledgeable about their sexual health, and to make choices to decrease unintended pregnancy.
Reasons to visit FirstChoice Clinic include: You’re sexually active. “It’s important to be tested for STDs once a year,” Wendy said. This service is free of charge at FirstChoice. You’re considering becoming sexually active. “What does that mean for you? What’s going to change in your relationship?” she said. Even if you’re not currently sexually active but you have been in the past, it doesn’t mean you don’t have an STD, she noted. You’re pregnant and you are wondering, ‘Now what?’ “That’s the main person we want to reach,” Wendy said. “We’re the people that can help them find the answer to that question.”
When someone who is pregnant and uncertain comes in, the first thing they’re usually asked is how they feel about the pregnancy.
“At FirstChoice we have time that the medical community usually doesn’t have to spend with our clients thoroughly talking through their options,” Wendy said. “We want to help them slow down and make a decision based on facts, not on fear, and one they can find peace with for the rest of their life.”
“I want to say, ‘Women, we can do this, we’re worth it, and we deserve to be loved and cherished.’ If we can love the woman, that gives her the freedom to make her most authentic choice,” she said. “We have lots of support here so we can walk with our clients for a long time. We say that we’re here for women and we mean it – to me, this is what the mission of FirstChoice Clinic is all about.”