Leading the pro-life generation

| Jessica Weinberger | January 11, 2018 | 0 Comments

Kristan Hawkins speaks during the National March for Life in Washington, D.C., Jan. 22, 2016. Courtesy Students for Life of America

In 2001, high school sophomore Kristan Hawkins arrived at a pregnancy resource center in Steubenville, Ohio, ready to complete 100 hours of community service for her honors program. But as the future valedictorian filed paperwork, organized the supply closet and designed the donor newsletter, her eyes were opened to the powerful work happening around her. The teenager soon completed training to serve as a counselor.

“Being there at the center, meeting the women and reading the stories of those who had been affected by abortion really cemented in my mind [that] this is something that is horrific and needs to be stopped,” Hawkins said.

Now 32 and a parishioner of St. Jude of the Lake in Mahtomedi, Hawkins leads Students for Life of America, the only national pro-life organization dedicated to training college, high school, middle, medical and law school students in pro-life leadership. The organization’s team is headquartered in Washington, D.C., and its members support groups across the country that educate their peers about the violence of abortion, create new pro-life advocates, and support pregnant and parenting students on their campuses.

Since the nonprofit was formed in 2005, its members have trained more than 44,000 students. All 50 states have SFLA groups; Minnesota has 34. Each year SFLA hosts the world’s largest pro-life conferences, drawing an average of 2,700 students to San Francisco and Washington. Youths from the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis regularly attend the Washington SFLA conference, which coincides with the National March for Life in January.

Hawkins and her husband, Jonathan, pose with their four children: Gracie, left, Gunner, Maverick and Bear. Courtesy Students for Life of America

“For so long in the pro-life movement, everyone had a youth outreach division, but it was a secondary thing,” said Hawkins, who became SFLA’s first full-time team member in August 2006. “Our entire organization is focused on developing the pro-life generation because we realize these are the people being directly targeted by abortion.”

Hawkins carried her passion for pro-life issues to Bethany College in West Virginia, where she launched its campus’ first pro-life group. She studied political science and planned to earn a doctorate degree, teach and later start her own pregnancy center or maternity home. After graduation, she worked in Washington for the 2004 Bush-Cheney re-election campaign and the Republican National Committee. She later served in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Center for Faith-Based and Community Initiatives.

Through her RNC connections, she met a group of students hoping to launch a pro-life student ministry. They received a start-up grant from an angel investor, and it was enough for the newly-married 21-year-old with no experience running a national organization to quit her job and cover her salary. She launched SFLA’s full-time efforts in 2006.

As president and SFLA’s official spokesperson, Hawkins is at the helm of what she sees as the most important political campaign — ending abortion. She has tripled the number of campus pro-life groups in the U.S., exponentially grown attendance at the national conferences and authored SFLA’s 2013 self-published book, “Courageous: Students Abolishing Abortion in this Lifetime.” SFLA’s black-and-white posters reading “I am the pro-life generation” are mainstays at pro-life marches around the country.

In June 2016, Hawkins participated in then- Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump’s outreach meeting with faith-based, pro-life leaders. She has appeared on CNN, Fox News and MSNBC, and she speaks across the country on pro-life topics. In 2015, she was the keynote speaker at the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis’ Champions for Life Awards.

Hawkins sees SFLA’s growth and media prominence as only one metric of success. The real impact of its work, she said, is the ultrasound photos she’s received of babies saved by student groups serving as sidewalk counselors in front of abortion facilities.

Hawkins has also helped launch several investigations into the practices of Planned Parenthood, the nation’s largest abortion provider. She has supported David Daleiden’s anti-abortion efforts specifically targeting Planned Parenthood, including undercover videos filmed by his organization, The Center for Medical Progress. She visited facilities undercover herself multiple times, including while pregnant with her oldest son, Gunner.

“I got sick to my stomach,” she recalled. “It was awful going into those centers and just realizing that babies were being killed in the other room.”

Hawkins has also made sure that pro-life women’s views are represented in women advocacy efforts. Last year, SFLA members briefly led the Women’s March in Washington with its banners “We don’t need Planned Parenthood” and “abortion betrays women.”

As The Catholic Spirit reported at the time, the banners led the march for only a short time; within minutes, other marchers had blocked them with their signs, chanting “my body, my choice” and even stole one of the banners. For Hawkins, however, those few minutes were enough.
“We changed the media narrative,” she told The Catholic Spirit after the march.

While living in Washington, D.C., Hawkins searched for a church community that aligned with the beliefs and traditions of her non-denominational Christian church back home. She wanted to remain active in her faith, but struggled to find the right fit.

Hawkins found herself surrounded by Catholics, many of whom could speak confidently about their faith and beliefs. She delved into faith-based conversations and research, feeling a strong pull to the Church’s philosophical consistency and unwavering theological tenets. After moving to Minnesota, she joined the Catholic Church in 2015 through the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults at St. Jude of the Lake.

Her faith guides her as she juggles the demands of parenting four children with her husband, Jonathan, in Mahtomedi. Raising a young family would keep any parent busy, but for the Hawkinses, “busy” takes on a new meaning. Gunner, 9, and her youngest, Gracie, 2, have cystic fibrosis, a chronic illness that causes severe damage to the lungs, digestive system and other organs in the body.

Each day requires a routine of nebulizers and intravenous medications interwoven with hospital stays. Jonathan gave up his public school teaching career to stay at home full time and homeschool their children when they moved to Minnesota in August 2014 to be near the Minnesota Cystic Fibrosis Center at the University of Minnesota, which is among the world’s leading treatment centers for the disease.

Hawkins’ Catholic faith and, specifically, the Church’s view of suffering, has influenced her perspectives on marriage and motherhood. When she learned that Gracie had cystic fibrosis days after she was born, Hawkins was able to lean on Church teachings and the core belief that every life is sacred, even in deep disappointment.

Now with their children baptized in the faith, the Hawkinses work to maintain a sense of gratitude for their blessings as they navigate each day, following Christ through the good and the bad. She said they need God’s strength to move forward with purpose every day.

“We talk a lot about suffering — why did God give me this disease, why was I born this way, why this isn’t fair,” she said. “My faith has really helped me, and it continues to help me as we have these conversations at my house.”

Hawkins splits her time between her basement office and a non-stop travel schedule, interacting with pro-life activists on the frontlines who serve in the more than 1,200 SFLA chapters nationwide, including the Twin Cities.

Maddie Schulte, 21, has worked with Hawkins for more than two years in her role as SFLA’s northern regional coordinator. Together, they’ve walked in the March for Life, stuffed thousands of bags preparing for their annual conference, and collaborated on efforts in Minnesota and Wisconsin.
She describes Hawkins as a visionary, practical and ethical leader who has set a tone of success and “fire for life” within SFLA.

“Kristan Hawkins is the most fearless and courageous person I know,” said Schulte, a student at the University of Wisconsin-LaCrosse and a parishioner of St. Peter in Forest Lake. “There is no jump too high or run too long for Kristan.”

She recalled a request from Hawkins for SFLA to collect more than 328,000 baby socks nationally to represent the number of babies killed annually by Planned Parenthood. Initially stumped by the bold request, SFLA soon filled a van with socks and traveled across the country with the powerful display.

It’s these impactful initiatives coupled with daily actions as a mother, activist and leader that continue to inspire young people like Schulte.

“She will book the redeye flight after talking to thousands of students, so she can be home when her kids wake up. She will jump on team calls from the hospital as she takes her children to their doctors’ appointments,” Schulte said. “She takes time to become friends with her employees and assures each of us that our work is making a difference for SFLA and for the most vulnerable.”

As a part of many pro-life coalitions, Hawkins also works regularly with other leaders in the movement. She supports organizations like St. Paul-based Pro-Life Action Ministries, speaking at its gala and working with its executive director Brian Gibson on joint rallies.

When asked about potential burnout or set-backs like the U.S. Senate’s failure to withdraw government funding from Planned Parenthood — one of SFLA’s legislative priorities — she simply states that she just keeps moving forward.

After all, this isn’t a job for Hawkins. It’s a mission.

Pointing to social movement victories in her lifetime, such as the smoking ban in public establishments, Hawkins said that it is possible to make abortion illegal and unthinkable. And it starts with the upcoming generations.

“You change culture by changing the attitudes of young people,” she said.

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