Best friends Zoey Pangborn and Jolie Kowalkowski share a lot of things: a love of musical theater, a certain warm-hearted effervescence and enthusiasm for life, and a birthday (well, almost — they were born just one day apart).

But what the seventh graders at Kettle Moraine Middle School have come to share over the last year has been, perhaps, the most meaningful link in their bond of friendship: a ministry of support for vulnerable moms and babies.

It started at a sleepover at Zoey’s house last summer, when the girls were hanging out in the basement and came upon a room full of baby clothes. “We were like, ‘Whoa, what are all these bags?’” recalled Jolie.

The stockpile belonged to Zoey’s grandmother Janet, who was planning to donate the items to Heavenly Babies, an initiative of St. Paul Parish in Genesee Depot that furnishes mothers in need with baby supplies. Janet Pangborn is a parishioner of St. Bruno in Dousman, which is clustered with St. Paul, and her lifelong friend Susan Fine is an active volunteer in the Heavenly Babies ministry.

“Zoey knew a little bit (about Heavenly Babies), but not much, and I knew nothing about it,” said Jolie. “Her grandma started telling us that it’s for moms in need who don’t have things for their children. Right away, we just went to work trying to help, trying to bag things. The next time I came over, we went right downstairs and asked how we could help.”

The girls were planning a joint birthday party for June 2022, and in lieu of gifts, they asked their guests to support Heavenly Babies. With the resulting donations of baby supplies and monetary gifts, they were able to fill 60 bags with books, onesies and stuffed animals, delivering them personally to the Heavenly Babies storage area at St. Paul.

“We have a very large working room that’s dedicated to the Heavenly Babies ministry and our volunteers come in and pack layettes for moms in need. It’s a well-oiled machine,” said Jamie Gapinski, Community Engagement Coordinator for the church. “Our ministry team knows in advance how many layettes to pack that month, every month, 12 months a year, how many baby boys and how many baby girls. There’s always a handwritten note that our volunteers create to slip inside, and a prayer. We call it a ‘baby shower in a bag.’”

St. Paul works with social workers from different hospitals and nonprofit organizations to coordinate the donations to moms, who are typically residents in Milwaukee and Waukesha counties. “Some of them are in pretty dire situations,” said Gapinski. “We want them to know someone is happy for them and really joyful about this new life that they’ve brought into the world, and share some love with them as they start this new phase of life as a mom.”

The visit made a big impression on the girls. “I really enjoy kids and I enjoy babysitting, and it wasn’t a great feeling knowing that some people can’t support their kid and don’t have enough things for their kid,” said Zoey, who is a parishioner at St. Anthony on the Lake in Pewaukee. “Jolie and I were like, ‘I feel like we could help, we could make a tiny difference, at least.’”

While there, Gapinski interviewed Zoey and Jolie for St. Paul’s website. “One of the things the girls told me in the interview was that this is all they want to do on their days off this summer — make outfits and ask people in their neighborhood for toys and books (for Heavenly Babies). I said, ‘Are you ever going to take a break?’ They giggled and said, ‘We’ll take a break if our favorite person in the whole world ever wants to ask us about Heavenly Babies.’ I said, ‘Who’s that?’ I was expecting them to say Taylor Swift or something. They looked at me and said, ‘Lester Holt, from NBC Nightly News: Kids Edition. We watch him every Friday at school, and we just love him.’”

Having a background in public relations, Gapinski was able to pull a few strings and a month later got in touch with a producer at NBC Nightly News with Lester Holt. The girls were interviewed for the news program’s kids edition in November.

“That was really cool for us. Just knowing that the whole world basically got to know what we were doing, and hopefully we could help other people help with the charity — if not that charity, then other charities,” said Jolie.

But the girls didn’t stop there. This year, they have continued their involvement with Heavenly Babies, learning to sew burp cloths and bibs, a much-needed donation item. Jolie hosted a lemonade stand this summer and used the money she raised to purchase supplies for Heavenly Babies at local garage sales with Zoey.

The girls have no plans to slow down. They want to continue to support the ministry, and others like it, as they complete middle school and even into high school.

“I think that I’m really lucky, how I have all the clothes and things that I need. Just knowing that some people are out there who don’t have food or clothes or the things they need — when we can help them, it feels so good to do,” said Jolie.

“At any age, you can make a difference. Any charity that needs your help or time or money, you can make a difference,” said Zoey. “It’s important to remember that.”

Gapinski said that the girls are a perfect example of “what it’s all about — just being the hands and feet of Jesus.”

Seventh graders Jolie Kowalkowski and Zoey Pangborn share a passion for serving Heavenly Babies, a ministry of St. Paul Parish in Genesee Depot. (Submitted photo)