Stories & Commentaries

The "Richest Woman in Keene"

Christine Weis: one woman, two scholarships, and a family of 16

SWAU alumna Christine Weis, also known as "Mama Weis," is pictured here

Southwestern Adventist University alumna Christine Weis, also known as "Mama Weis," is pictured here with photographs of two students (of many) who she and her husband, Alan,"adopted" through the years by welcoming them in their home.

They call her Miss Chrissie, Mama Weis, Rental Mom, Queen Christine, Lady Weis, or, most often, simply “Mom.” But without question, they all agree: Christine Weis is pure gold.

“My girls have always known they could bring anyone home who seemed lonely, or who needed a place to go, a home-cooked meal, or just some friendly conversation,” Weis, a 1989 Southwestern Adventist University (Keene, Texas) graduate, says. “Their friends have always been welcomed in our home.”

When Weis’ twin daughters, Nikki and Kilory, were young, she had a second peephole installed about three feet off the ground.

“Their little friends were always coming over, but they were too short to be seen through the regular one,” Weis says with a laugh. “We called it the Halfling Hole.”

From the Halfling Hole, high school parties and study sessions, to Sabbath lunches during college at SWAU, Weis never failed to open her home to her daughters’ friends. One of these friends was Avram Neal. 

“Kilory and Nikki kept bringing me plates of cookies and brownies from their mom, and eventually they invited me home for Sabbath lunch,” Neal remembers. “As soon as I walked into the house I felt instantly at home.”

Over time, the girls introduced more and more college friends to their mother, and to every one of them, Weis would say, “Stop by anytime. Just knock on the door — you’re welcome here. Bring anyone else who needs a home away from home, too.” 

The regular crowd grew until a second table had to be added, and on Saturday afternoons the living room floor at the Weis house was covered with napping college students and pets. Monthly birthday parties became the norm. 

It wasn’t just fun and food Weis offered, though.

“There was one time I was sitting in Mom’s living room telling her all the studying I needed to do that night for finals,” Neal recalls. “I told her I’d be up all night and she immediately said, ‘Well, you could do that, yes. Or, you could go to bed at a decent hour, get some good rest, and then wake up early to study so it’s fresh in your mind for the test.’ She’s always like that — looking out for our health and showing us new and better ways of doing things.”

Weis herself admits that if she thinks students' current fashion, health, or social decisions are not in their best interest, she can and will “nag as incessantly as any biological mother.” She has taken on her “kids” over their hairstyles, personal Facebook pages, study habits, and more.

“I’m not all sugar,” she says honestly. “If I’m afraid they’re shooting themselves in the foot, I get louder than the gunshot. Though,” she admits, “I’m also not always right.”

Open Family Policy

Weis says having an “open family policy” was just part of her upbringing. From a very young age she understood that she shared her grandparents with every other child in the church. Her childhood experience taught her that every kid is better off with more than one set of parents looking out for them. 

“I constantly told my daughters to get advice from their rental parents to make sure they got a perspective that was outside the box in which I raised them,” Weis admits. “I put a hedge of protection around them, but multiple perspectives is crucial to growth and wisdom. No parent can provide everything; we need each other's help.”

So Weis and her husband, Alan (‘84), became that second set of parents for many of SWAU’s young people.

“I’ve heard one side of many painful phone conversations,” Weis says. “I’ve sat with students as they wept on my couch, broken, hurt, confused. I’ve cried many, many tears alongside them, because sometimes, that’s all I can do. Many of our special moments are warm, cuddly, and filled with laughter, but sometimes they’re soaked with snot and tears.”

Being there for someone who’s hurting is no small thing. When Neal found himself feeling alone and lost, he also found himself on Mama Weis’ couch. 

“She told me I was loved there,” Neal says. “She told me I was family. Mama Weis kept me from slipping into a really really dark place.”

Weis knows how to care for the whole person — body, mind and spirit — and she takes this role very seriously. Her “family” has grown to 16 people, and she has fed, housed, laundered for, made and mended clothes for, counseled, prayed for and loved on every single one of them. 

Hard Work Pays Off

When several of her “babies,” as she calls them even today, were set to receive scholarships during an award ceremony at SWAU, they invited her to attend in support. She would have been there anyway; in 1996 Weis had set up an endowed scholarship fund in honor of her friend, Wes Stoops (‘89), who was killed in a car accident.

“Wes was one of the best people who ever walked the face of the earth,” Weis recalls. “He was such a joy to have on campus, always looking for ways to bring smiles to people’s faces — like filling the fountain outside the Findley Building with soap every October 31. He also had a huge heart and at one point had several college students living in his apartment with him who couldn’t have afforded to remain in school otherwise. I couldn’t let his legacy be forgotten.”

Despite his generally poor grades, Stoops loved learning, and was the smartest person most people would meet. Weis remembers him being a fantastic student because he brought a palpable love for the subject into the classroom, which infected the other students. But because he didn’t qualify for grade-based scholarships, he had to leave school to work and earn money in order to return and graduate much later than his peers.

The Wes Stoops Memorial Scholarship rewards one SWAU student each year who demonstrates a desire to learn, contributes positively to the learning environment of the campus, and who is in need of financial assistance to stay in school. 

Weis firmly believes that the term "merit-based” should be changed to "grade-based.” 

"GPA is not the single metric of merit while on campus,” she points out, “and it doesn’t matter at all once the student is out there representing Southwestern to the world."

In addition, the Weis Heritage Endowed Scholarship was established to honor the many Weis family members who have attended and graduated from SWAU. This award, too, is based less on grade merit and more on work ethic. Students can only be nominated for the Weis Heritage Scholarship by their work supervisor. 

“Many students don’t have time to study because they’re working so hard to afford school that their grades are suffering,” Weis says.  “We need more safety nets for these worthy students.”

And so, Weis was happy to have multiple reasons to attend the 2015 award ceremony with her “rental children.”

“I went to the registration table to pick up my nametag,” she shares, “and asked if they happened to know who would be receiving the Wes Stoops Scholarship. They said it was Avram Neal and I burst into tears.”

Nearly a quarter of a century later, a scholarship Weis had set up to benefit Christian education was not just benefitting a student who needed it. It was benefitting her son.

“She’s told us the story behind the scholarship many times,” Neal says. “I think she sees a little of Wes in all of us, but she also sees so much more than that. She sees our unique potential and contribution to each other and to society, and to be the recipient of something set up before I was even born by someone who cares so deeply for me is an indescribable feeling. There’s really no end to the ways Mama Weis has helped me on my journey, and it’s something I can’t ever repay.”

Michael Lewis knows that feeling, too. 

One summer, Lewis and his roommate, another of Mama Weis’ “kids,” had nowhere to stay while they worked on campus. As Lewis analyzed his budget and tried to find something that would work, Mama Weis took action.

“Her mom, who lived nearby, had an old RV she wasn’t using,” Lewis explains. “Mama Weis sent her husband over to get it, and they parked it on their driveway. Then she called me and told me to stop worrying about a place to live, because she had taken care of it. We stayed in that RV until the air conditioner died; then she took us into the house.”

As a child, sometimes the only meal Lewis had in a day was from the lunch line at school.  When Weis heard that, she swore he would never go hungry again. She filled her fridge with all sorts of foods and told all of her “kids'' to help themselves at any time, day or night. 

“People ask me how I can afford everything I do for my kids and I just tell them I’m the richest woman in Keene,” Weis says with a grin. “These young people give me so much more than I give them. There’s youthful optimism and energy in my house and my heart is overflowing with love. What more could I ask for?”

Students like Neal and Lewis are why Weis set up and continues to contribute toward her endowments at SWAU. She says the need is not just financial, but also one of morale. 

“In some cases, maybe this is the only way this student is going to be able to keep going,” she points out. “While they’re struggling financially, they need to know someone cares. That there’s a reason to continue fighting. That there’s a reason to stay.”

Luckiest, Richest Woman in Keene

Weis challenges others to set up endowed scholarships for students like Neal and Lewis, who may not always have access to grades-based awards but who want to be in school, are hard workers, contribute positively to their community and to the campus and have strong work ethic.  

“They couldn’t attain grade-based help,” Weis says. “Avram is smart, but was overworked while suffering from a surgery that didn’t heal properly. Michael is smart, but dyslexic. He needed a scholarship like I’ve set up,” Weis adds. “His work supervisors loved him; he was dependable, contributed a joyful demeanor and love of life and is kind and cares about others. Michael didn’t get straight As, but he’s a fantastic citizen and he makes SWAU look good.”

Today, Lewis, who graduated in 2020, is using his psychology degree as a case manager for a local mental health center. Neal graduated in 2016 with a computer science degree and is now a systems integration engineer for a robotics company in San Antonio. Both worked hard to get where they are, and both credit Mama Weis for contributing significantly to the determination and motivation that got them there.

Weis’ “kids” still came “home” often, even after graduating; many of them returned regularly to have dinner, celebrate birthdays, have a Star Wars marathon on May the Fourth and just to simply chat — until COVID made those gatherings impossible. Unable to bear being separated from her children, Weis started a Facebook group near the beginning of the pandemic for her entire “family.” Weekly her “tribe” posts conversation prompts, and the group gathers virtually to share the best and worst of their week. Two were married — to each other — in early 2021, and the “family” attended virtually. 

“It’s been hard not being able to hang out at Mama Weis’ house,” Lewis admits. “I drive by as often as I can and we wave and shout hellos, but it’s not the same.”

When Mama Weis’ father passed away in 2019, Lewis wrote her a poem of comfort since he couldn’t be there in person. 

“All of us support her as much as we can,” Lewis says. “She does so much for us and we want to give back, but it’s hard. She has a hard time accepting anything from us because she cares so much. My parents have been asking me for years what the perfect gift would be to get Mama Weis to say thank you for all she’s done, and I always say the same thing: I have no idea. Nothing seems significant enough. Honestly, the day I met Mama Weis, I found gold.”

Though all of her “babies” have finished at SWAU and have moved on to the next chapter of their lives, Weis knows they’ll always be her kids. She looks forward to holiday family reunions, “grandbabies,” and many more Sabbaths filled with laughter.

“SWAU has given me my family,” Weis says. “They’re there for me when I need them and I’m there for them when they need me. I’m the luckiest, richest woman in Keene.”

— Becky St. Clair writes for Southwestern Adventist University.