COLUMBIA — One day nearly a decade ago, Charity Quinn was lugging bags of food to a homeless camp on the outskirts of Miami.
Many of the transients at the camp had been kicked out of South Beach for loitering.
Quinn, then 18, stumbled across a woman with curly, dirty-blond hair whose stomach bulged beneath her dirty clothes. The woman was probably no older than 35, Quinn remembered, but the ordeal of living on the streets and scars from routine beatings by her husband made her look much older.
In that moment, she said she felt an overwhelming sense of heartbreak. Giving the woman a little food and saying a quick prayer weren't enough. Quinn wanted to do more.
That day, she discovered a new sense of compassion for others. The episode in a homeless camp near South Beach would change the course of her life.
It began with her major. As soon as Quinn was back from break at Missouri State University, she switched it to social work.
Ten years later, Quinn is the executive director of My Life Clinic in Columbia, a not-for-profit resource center that serves women with unplanned pregnancies.
The clinic currently serves 75 to 80 clients a month. Last year, it served nearly 400 women.
At the clinic, women can participate in parenting classes and support groups, and receive medical consultation and vouchers for prenatal vitamins at no charge. My Life is the only clinic in central Missouri that offers pregnancy testing and ultrasounds for free.
The clinic provides various medical referrals but does not perform or refer clients to abortion services.
When available, the clinic also gives diapers and formula to struggling families.
“Mothers are motivated to change for their children,” Quinn said. “It’s so easy to follow in the patterns that they grew up with.
"By supporting them through difficult times, you have a chance to really mentor them and see them develop."
Quinn stepped into the job of interim executive director in 2008, when the clinic was struggling to keep its doors open. The position became permanent in April 2009.
She had been in charge of client services and knew it would be a struggle to lose direct contact with the women. But she also knew she could use her leadership skills to revive the clinic.
The decision paid off.
Within a year, Quinn helped erase the clinic’s $40,000 deficit by building bridges with more donors. They now receive personal thanks for their donations, updates by e-mail and, through a special program, anonymous ultrasound images from clients to demonstrate how their money is being used.
In much the same way, Quinn has also increased the number of volunteers. Instead of a calendar and a pack of peanuts, they get a pot of daisies in the spring, a card chosen by the staff and an invitation to a Christmas party in their honor.
It was her idea to redesign the pamphlets for My Life Clinic as small, square and more discreet so prospective clients can slip one into a back pocket.
Quinn also addressed community awareness through a Facebook competition. Participants earn points by posting updates and sharing links to the clinic’s website with friends.
During the week, it's not uncommon to find Quinn in the lobby meeting clients, offering snacks from the kitchen or marveling at a mother's 4-day-old baby.
Compassion is reflected in her voice, as calm and soothing as a mother comforting a baby. She has the same tone whether she’s downtown with friends or at work with her staff.
Quinn said that when she was younger, she learned the meaning of grace from her father. One Sunday after she and her sister, Kristina, had misbehaved during the drive home from church, he threatened to punish them. But instead of a slap, he gave them a soft tap.
That taught her about love, Quinn said, and how it feels even if it’s not deserved.
Growing up, she and her sister would often visit a nursing home in Kimberling City every Wednesday night through middle school and high school.
Each would "adopt" a resident, and Kristina said her sister always tried to find a connection with her “grandparents.”
“It wasn’t something she had to do,” Kristina said. “It’s something she enjoyed.”
For two years before she became executive director at the clinic, Quinn was on the volunteer staff at MU's Chi Alpha Campus Ministry. She mentored girls, listened to their problems and offered advice.
One of the girls was Tomi Farley, who remembers calling Quinn after she and her best friend split over a terrible argument. Quinn let Farley rant before reminding her that she really did love her best friend. That advice, Farley said, helped the friendship survive.
“There was never a time where I called and she’d say, ‘Not now,’” Tomi said.
Quinn, 28, could easily pass for an MU student in jeans, T-shirt and one of her eight pairs of Converse shoes. At the office, she dresses professionally in slacks, patterned tops and flats.
But when she isn’t behind her boat-sized desk, she's sipping coffee at Kaldi’s with friends, working on a stained-glass project or making pottery with her husband, Jerod, at the Craft Studio.
Most Sunday nights, she pulls out a tan-colored Fender Telecaster to practice with her worship band for Chi Alpha.
“You feel alive,” she explained, recalling when she first learned to play the guitar in college. “It awakens things in your spirit and who you are.”
At times, her schedule can be draining, but she said she relies on the encouragement of her husband to help her through the tough times. His support was apparent from the beginning.
One night during her sophomore year, Quinn hurt her knee, and he offered to take her back to the dorm. After she was settled in her room, he turned to leave — but at the door, he suddenly stopped.
“One more thing,” he said, and walked back and prayed that her knee would get better.
Although she didn't know him well, Quinn said she knew this was the guy she wanted to marry.
He still prays for her, and he is the kind of guy who will wear suspenders and a pair of Converse sneakers just because she mentioned she likes them.
“She’s really compassionate, which is a little foreign to me,” he said about his wife, “I’m still learning it.”
When the work is demanding, she often depends on him to calm her down.
He cooks dinner when she’s tired, drives when they visit her family in Branson and buys groceries so she can stay at home and relax.
The couple are expecting a child in April, and Quinn has given notice that she will leave the clinic to become a full-time mother.
Even though she will be stepping away from her job, she is determined to find other ways to help people, especially women.
“It’s the calling that I have,” she said.