Cathy Thompson, Carol Wunder, and Connie Amon are heading to work at the University of Central Florida (UCF). They carry the bare necessities, stuffed in a big bag: needle and thread, Kleenex, baggies, pens, hand cream.
And, of course, cookies. Loads of cookies.
In the quad near the student union, they find shade. “The greatest occupational hazard is the heat, it almost kills us,” says Cathy, the founder and brainchild behind the Ask Mom outreach.
It’s 100 degrees in the shade but “it’s ok,” Carol chimes in. “The heat gives the cookies that ‘fresh-out-of-the-oven’ taste.”
But the purpose isn’t to give out cookies. “The purpose is to have conversations,” says Connie.
Many incoming freshmen hesitantly walk by, reading the giant tri-fold board that says, “Ask Mom,” that advertises, among other things, “Cookies, Hugs, Advice and Prayer.” An upperclassman approaches the table, faces the freshmen and exclaims, “Don’t you know?! These are the moms! These are good people. Come get a cookie!”
In 2002, at a Cru conference about evangelism, Cathy realized generations have changed. I have the gift of evangelism, she thought, but Cathy was torn. She had just moved to the Orlando area and being a staff mom -- one who doesn’t go into the office every day like her husband -- she didn’t know what to do.
“I couldn’t be the average staff person, I didn’t have time,” Cathy says. “I have kids to take care of and a house to be in charge of every day, but I love college students.” She prayed, Lord, all I can do is be who I am.
The Lord reminded Cathy what she was good at. She felt Him saying, You’re a mom, be a mom. Do what you’re good at.
After trying it once alone, she wanted help. Cathy enlisted her friends, Carol and Connie -- also staff moms -- and together they took cookies on campus to give away and talk to students.
1 Corinthians 9:19-23 talks about reaching all ranges of people: “religious, nonreligious... immoralist, the defeated, the demoralized” (The Message). Cathy read this and knew she needed to enter the college students’ world and try experiencing things from their point of view.
“We ask questions,” Cathy says. “We want to learn about these students and show love to them.”
Cathy even began attending staff meetings with the campus team at UCF and asked the regional office if she could do anything to help. She became an adjunct staff member with the campus team.
The moms can be found standing in front of their table, mingling with students and faculty who stop by for a cookie and oftentimes a question or request for prayer. “Sometimes we go to other tables and talk to kids,” Connie says. “Usually on rainy or colder days.”
“Even though we introduce ourselves by using our first names, we are 99% of the time called ‘Mom,’” says Connie. The moms get a lot of attention from students who have been around for a few years. Those older students help the new students learn who the moms are.
Students like Michael Newman. Michael is a senior and also serving as Mr. UCF because of his outstanding grades, service to the community and talent. He represents UCF at community events, parades and in his fraternity.
“The moms have established relationships with people from all walks of life,” Michael says. “They embrace everyone they come in contact with. These days, everyone is trying to sell something, but the moms are there for [the students'] benefit, they care about us.”
Students literally run across the quad to give the moms a hug. “They actually care about me,” Michael says. “That’s so rare.”
With respect to the intimate and confidential conversations they have with students, the moms requested students’ names not be used here. The moms have known many students since their freshman year.
Last year, the moms met a girl who was involved in an adulterous relationship. Each week the girl would come by the Ask Mom table and tell more about her story.
“We just listened,” Cathy says, “and asked questions."
Because the moms built a relationship with her, they met with her a few times over lunch. “We’ll text her and she comes to see us,” Connie says. “She likes to stop by the table and chat.”
One day over lunch, she told the moms she had witnessed the death of her best friend in a car accident. Trying to wipe his mangled body from her memory, she played Russian roulette with a loaded gun. Bargaining with God, she decided if He could help her, He wouldn’t let her die. If He couldn’t, then she would die.
With teary eyes, she told the moms, “God wants me alive.”
The moms discussed how she could renew her relationship with God, which she received positively. She later broke up with the married man.
The moms get asked the most questions about relationships. “It’s a treat to see these kids after 4 years searching and interested in spiritual things,” Cathy says.
Each week the moms pray before going on campus. They keep a journal with names of students they are praying for. They’ve prayed for hundreds in the past 5 years.
“After we’re done for the day, we go out to the car and jot down a student’s name and then something distinctive about them, like if they are tall, have a certain tattoo, are a member of ROTC, a basketball player, or something particular we talked about with them like birth control or moving in with a boyfriend or girlfriend,” says Cathy. This helps the moms remember students’ names.
“The fun part about what we do is we have students who have things they really need to talk to someone about but they can’t talk to their parents, don’t have the money to go to a counselor, don’t want to talk to their friends and so they come talk to us,” Connie says. “We become like these ‘street counselors.’ We let them know, when it’s appropriate, that our advice isn’t of our own making, but it’s based on the Bible,” Cathy says.
Last year, the moms met a young man who became a particular favorite. “He didn’t want to open up as much with us, but then he met a new girl and introduced her to us,” says Cathy. The moms gave the new couple FamilyLife marriage conference material and kept praying for a chance to talk with this couple about Jesus.
During his senior year, he stopped by the Ask Mom table to chat and told the moms he’d had a bad experience at a local church. Cathy sympathized with him and suggested trying a different church.
About a month passed and he came back and said, “Oh, guess what? I thought you’d be interested in knowing that my girlfriend and I visited the church you recommended and we really like it. So now we’re trying to go more.”
“What we’re doing is a natural platform for loving people,” says Cathy. “We don’t come on campus with an agenda. In our heart of hearts we long to reflect Jesus.”
The moms may be taking the slow path to get there, but if they want to serve people, they can’t have their own agenda. “We’ve learned what to do and what not to do,” says Cathy. “We’re trying to love them.”
The moms want other moms to use this strategy on a campus in their area. Learn how you could start an Ask Mom.
They emphasize it is a very slow, very relational process. The results are long term, if you see any at all.
“Our ministry is very much like a mom’s job,” Cathy says. “Thankless at times, with joys and sorrows. Things just aren’t hunky-dory. Things are messy. We’re not shocked when kids ask questions like, ‘I’m trying to decide if I should move in with my boyfriend.’ Many times we just try to encourage them to do the right thing.”
And sometimes the moms just give a hug, because that’s all they can do. “There are some kids that are very blunt and you can be blunt back to,” Carol says, “Others you have to be more gracious and gentle with.”
The moms run out of cookies every week, but even when the cookies are gone, the moms linger to talk. The cookies aren't the priority.
Some students say they don't want a cookie, they just need advice. The moms want meaningful conversation. They do this by standing outside for 2 hours in all weather conditions, handing out cookies and advice with a smile.