By Linda Reeves, Catholic News Service
FORT MYERS, Fla. (CNS) — Mary Claire Dant is no stranger to handling challenging situations that come up along the sidewalk that she pounds every week to rescue lives.
“You never know what the day will bring,” said Dant, a sidewalk counselor, who drives more than 90 miles roundtrip every week to stand with rosary beads and brochures in hand near a Planned Parenthood, which offers abortion services.
She watches, prays and waits for just the right moment to make eye contact with a woman who is briskly walking up to the facility and to say just the right words to get her attention and change her mind about terminating her pregnancy.
“People see me and tell me that I am great at what I do,” said Dant, who is passionate about sidewalk outreach, which sometimes requires a great deal of resilience and strength and oftentimes doesn’t provide any immediate uplifting stories to share.
Pounding the public sidewalk near the clinic is a tough ministry requiring the counselor to stand in the hot sun and sometimes in the pouring rain and deal with strangers from all walks of life and situations.
“We don’t know how many babies we save,” said Dant. “We do make contact with people. We have people talk to us and then, go back to their vans. We have women turn around and leave.”
What brought Dant to this journey?
“I have always loved babies,” she said. “When I was a little girl, I would go to the hospital with my mother to visit people. I always wanted to go to the baby nursery.”
Dant is a native of Jacksonville and mother of three grown children and five grandchildren, the “loves” of her life.
In 2007, after working full time for 25 years as an elementary school media specialist in the public school system, she took a part-time position at a Catholic school in Ave Maria, Florida, east of Naples, where she settled to begin a new life.
She became active at Ave Maria Parish, her spiritual home. A strong supporter of the pro-life movement over the decades, Dant continued to be involved in respect life activities.
She eventually signed up for training to become a sidewalk counselor through the national nonprofit Sidewalk Advocates for Life.
Jeanne Berdeaux, director of Respect Life Ministry for the Diocese of Venice, Florida, said most of the sidewalk counselors in the diocese belong to that organization.
“They are not organized through the diocese so I don’t know how many people are involved, but it is a small but powerful group. They are so dedicated,” Berdeaux said.
Dant headed to the sidewalks and fell in love with her new found outreach ministry.
Today, she is retired, and serves as co-leader for Collier and Lee counties’ Sidewalk Advocates for Life helping organize sidewalk counseling at the Planned Parenthood clinics in Naples and Fort Myers.
“For me, it is the most rewarding, fulfilling gift that I have ever received,” she said about counseling. “Although faced with much of the public’s outrage that we would criticize women’s choices, I know that it makes a tremendous difference. Many lives have been affected by our just being there.”
Since the early days of the pandemic, Dant has made the trek to Fort Myers, where the Planned Parenthood facility in the area increased services offering abortions three days a week drawing more clients from the surrounding areas.
“There were no counselors in Fort Myers,” Dant told the Florida Catholic, Venice’s diocesan newspaper. “It has been almost two years now. We really have a group of dedicated people who go there.”
Six people take turns making the trip from Ave Maria to Fort Myers on Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. Two from Naples join them. “No one asked them to go there,” said Berdeaux. “They began this on their own.”
Dant said she prays while driving along the stretch of highway to Fort Myers preparing for what may come as part of her ministry day.
“I have been screamed at. I have been told to do all kinds of things that I never knew were possible. You never know what will happen. I never know what I am going to say. Every circumstance is different. The Holy Spirit helps me.”
Dant says that remaining positive and joyful is key.
“We always feel upbeat and hopeful,” she said. “We know with 100% certainty that we are doing at least something to stop this horrific slaughter of the unborn.”
The outreach ministry brings uneventful days. There also are those good days when a mother returns to the abortion clinic with a baby in her arms saved by God’s grace, she said.
“Just last week, we had a couple stop by to show us their baby boy, who would not have been born if we had not been there the day the man and his wife came to the Fort Myers Planned Parenthood for an abortion,” said Dant, who was happy to share the story.
“Can you imagine knowing that you were able to save one of God’s precious infants? A save gives you the greatest feeling. It is like you have had a baby of your own. It is an amazing feeling.”
How has sidewalk counseling helped Dant grow in her faith over the years?
“Sometimes it is scary,” Dant said. “I learned to have more trust in God. I say my prayers. I know he will take care of me. He has truly blessed me. This is really where my heart is. This is where God wants me to be.”