Sarah Hart sat in a chair in front of a congregation full of guests at the House of Prayer Family Church’s sanctuary.
Her family and friends expressed their love, appreciation and support for Hart as the guest of honor frequently grabbed a Kleenex to wipe tears from her eyes. The words meant so much coming from each of them, including a handful of women proud to see their “sister” accomplish such a great feat. They know that they soon will be the one in her place.
On Dec. 2, Sarah Hart celebrated her commencement from The Healing House and New Beginnings program in Jefferson City. Founded in July 2013, the 501(c)3 nonprofit Christian recovery ministry is designed to help women grow in their faith in Christ and in their responsibility to the community. With most coming out of incarceration, a desire to recover from substance abuse is why women are accepted into the program. However, The Healing House, which opened its doors in May 2015, equips and empowers women who have experienced extraordinary life struggles to make an effectual change in their lives, families and communities through the application of spiritual principles rooted in God’s unconditional love and grace, as the organization’s vision statement declares.
Through discipline, guidelines, classes and internal and community support, each woman walks away from The Healing House ready to start their life renewed. It is a program that its founder and director, Heather Gieck, has wanted to establish in her hometown since she was given the same recovery opportunity years ago. The Dec. 2 commencement ceremony for Hart was The Healing House’s seventh, with three additional ladies completing the program this spring. For Gieck, these ceremonies don’t celebrate the ladies graduating from the program; they honor the important, positive path that lies ahead.
“A graduation suggests an end, where a commencement suggests a beginning of a whole new life. At The Healing House we learn how to walk a different way. In order to do that, we have a changed heart. That year at The Healing House is allowing the relationship to take place between us and the living God,” Gieck said. “I think I am most blessed because I get to watch them grow, watch them through good times in life. … I get the privilege every day of seeing God work in the lives of these beautiful women. I get the privilege to be one of the ones to plant the seeds in their lives.”
The hurt before the healing
Gieck delivers her words with emotion, passion and reason. Her genuine openness and empathy signifies “her changed heart and renewed mind” through her faith and relationship with God. That positive perseverance allows the seeds she plants in women at The Healing House to take root, and she continues to nurture the good roots growing within her.
Gieck used alcohol since she was 5 years old, took pills by the time she was eight, drank alcohol regularly by 12 and got her first DWI at 14. Her behavior was progressive, leading her down a path that eventually spiraled out of control.
In 2003, police arrested Gieck and others after investigating the group for a couple of months. She had multiple charges brought up against her, but Gieck was not upset. She was relieved, hoping she might be able to change her life.
She then started using intravenous drugs about four years before she went to prison at 35, and that is when her life took an even bigger turn.
“My life was always pretty dark, but I had went through the depths of hell at that time. I wanted to change long before I ever changed. … Because of the powerlessness I felt, I could not stop using on my own. … I wanted to die,” she said. “I never felt more shame and degradation in my life than when I was what society calls a junkie. That sense of hopelessness, doom and despair that washed over me, thinking I would always have to live my life that way, I wouldn’t be able to take a breath without having that substance in my body. …. That place of darkness I went to then was darker than any other place I’ve ever been in my life.”
After continually failing drug tests while on probation for her crime, the judge decided to send Gieck to prison. Relieved again, Gieck felt it was the “end of one life, and the beginning of another.” She had never had a relationship with Christ, but she felt God was the answer.
“My mother started walking with the Lord three years into her recovery when I was about 20. I knew it was some of her prayers that carried me through some of the deepest, darkest places of my life,” she said. “When I got to prison … I cried out to him with my voice. ‘Listen if you are real, I need you to do one of two things: you got to let me die or you got to change me. But I can’t do this any longer.’ … That began a lifestyle in prison for me to do some different things.”
She started using every resource available at the prison to learn about God, building and strengthening that relationship with him. By the time she was released, Gieck had changed, but she did not know how to live.
Through the help of a prison counselor, Gieck was able to apply and was accepted at Church Army in Branson. Entering the organization’s yearlong program, Gieck had affordable housing, recovery support, classes, tools, mentors and friends that helped change her life.
A 12-step program gave her a design for living. Unlike most individuals using the 12 steps to recover from substance abuse, Gieck re-entered society without a desire to use alcohol or drugs. Those steps were used in the area of relationships as part of her recovery.
“I got into a relationship with a man down there, starting to repeat the behaviors. It wasn’t until I was engaging in the behaviors that I realized I’m back to where I used to be. That area took me back to the place of the obsession and where I found myself wanting to self-medicate,” she said, noting that was the first time after working at an area bar and restaurant for several months that she saw an alcoholic drink she served appetizing. “It wasn’t that it looked good; I thought that is going to be my answer. That is going to self-medicate, that is going to make me not feel. … That was my biggest challenge. I realized that really was the root causes and conditions; drugs and alcohol were just symptoms.”
She did not take that drink and focused on her path to recovery. Gieck commenced after one year and became a house manager for the women’s program at Church Army, staying there for another nearly two years.
“Between the word of God, my relationship with Christ and the 12 steps, I laid a foundation for my life that was really unshakable,” she said.
Creating ‘New Beginnings’ for others
In October 2011, Gieck came back to Jefferson City and began to reconnect with her family. In 2012, the vision for The Healing House was born.
House of Prayer Family Church Pastor James Jackson and his wife, Dorene, gave her some information on how she could launch her vision to open The Healing House and New Beginnings as a nonprofit organization with a strategic plan.
“The first thing I started to do was journal everything the Lord showed me and called Church Army to let them now what I was desiring to do,” she said. “I would love to take credit for this happening, but I can absolutely not. It came together one piece at a time.”
She got a job cooking at Angelina’s Café, and through running into her former gym teacher there became a regular speaker for a 10th grade health and wellness class. She was inspired to go to back to school, attended Columbia College and earned her Bachelor of Science degree in human services and Missouri counseling credentials. She also began a women’s jail ministry in Cole County.
“When I came back to Jefferson City I wanted to give back to my community because I had taken so much,” she said. “God started to lay the groundwork for me to be able to have a respectable pathway into my community, where I already starting doing these worthwhile things that were not part of the plan.”
After Jackson introduced Gieck during a meeting regarding Missouri re-entry partnership, her “ears perked up” and she started to gather members for The Healing House and New Beginnings board of directors.
“James Jackson and his wife Dorene, they have been part of this vision since the beginning,” she said. “They believed in me when other people made fun of me and doubted me. They were the voices of faith in my ear, trusting in the plan and the vision. … The Healing House has a wonderful dedicated highly skilled board of directors that have poured themselves into this ministry.”
In April 2013, she bought her home in the 1400 block of West Main Street, with The Healing House officially opening its doors in May 2015. Gieck designed The Healing House to feel like a home. She painted the rooms with warm colors, decorated with comfy furniture and touches she would put in her own home and filled the air with inviting, soothing scents. Through the help of a local church program and the community, nature trails and a patio, picnic and fire pit area have provided residents with a relaxing place to socialize, study or spend time with visiting family.
Women are referred to the recovery program at The Healing House, but not everyone is allowed to stay at the beautiful two-story home.
“Seventy-five percent of the women in the program come from prison, with others coming from treatment centers, jail or off the street. There is an application process and a packet of information they read through. If they agree to abide by those guidelines, we do a background check (with habitual violent offenders and sexual offenders against a child or an adult prohibited),” Gieck said. “Then, we do a phone screening, in-person screening and final acceptance at that point.”
Originally able to house seven women, the house can now house up to nine. Gieck said once they come into the house, they do an assessment, finding out if they have garnishments that would prevent them from paying for their program fee or meeting obligations while living at the home for a year.
“We also look at resources they need – eyeglasses, bus passes, food stamp eligibility. Then, after about the second week they are here and their resources are met, they get employment and start working during the day, taking public transportation,” she said. “A lot of other recovery programs have curfews and more freedoms. Until you are at a certain point here, this is your home. You are here, at work or on the in between. You are not allowed anywhere else unless I know or you have an accountable person with you. All your time is accounted for.”
Part of that time is attending classes from 6-8 p.m. Monday through Friday. Those sessions include a recovery classes such as 12-step program of action, Adult Children of Alcoholics, mentoring, spiritual growth, physical growth such as knowing the importance of healthy diet and exercise, and housing and life skills, which involves the community.
“Program Action (the same class by another name Church Army gave Gieck permission to use) is a live presentation of the 12 steps that really goes through the cycle of addiction,” she said. “It uses my own experience along with the steps that bring each step alive. Each individual can see themselves in the process and it helps them.”
A ‘Healing House’ for a healthier community
Pastor Jackson wanted to help men in the same way as The Healing House by establishing a men’s recovery ministry and home in Jefferson City. The success of The Healing House prompted the organization’s leaders, including Jackson, to open the Koinonia House in July 2017.
Able to house seven men and ran by house manager Kennon Chalene, the residents come to the house for substance use or life change. The Koinonia House’s yearlong program mirrors the same guidelines, structure and discipline as its sister project and has many of the same board of directors members as well.
Gieck’s plans to further develop the skills of those in the programs in the future, with one idea she would like to establish by the end of 2018. Vernie’s Place, named after her late grandmother Laverne Lillian, is a restaurant serving breakfast and lunch. It would provide a safe working environment for residents at The Healing House, teach them work skills and develop a reference and stable work history while in the program.
“It will also serve as a place where we at The Healing House can really begin to be self-supporting. As it is now we don’t get any kind of federal funding or state funding, solely running off of the donation fees and generous contributions from the community,” Gieck said, noting a United Way grant helped build an office for Gieck at the home and an annual spring fundraiser and other events help raise money and awareness of the organization. “We love for the community to support us in any way they can, even by attending our fundraisers. … We do need more regular monthly donors and supporters, people who believe in the vitality of this mission.”
Gieck knows and the women at The Healing House learn that becoming part of the community means opening themselves up to changing their heart and renewing their minds.
“Substance abuse is a symptom to what is really wrong with us. Initially lasting change starts in the heart. Unless the heart changes you go back to what you know best,” Gieck said. “Both programs are rooted and grounded in the living word, it is only through Christ that a heart change can be affected in us. … It includes new information, and our minds need to be renewed, too, leading us into all actions that affect our lives. It has to start with the heart.”
For many of the women, their minds at first want to save money and get their kids back. However, Gieck said that heart change must happen first before an equally fulfilling relationship with their children can be achieved.
“If a mother’s heart gets changed, the child’s heart will get changed. When the children’s hearts get changed, our communities get changed. … We get in such a hurry, wanting to start saving some money and get the kids back. That is a good future goal, but not a good immediate goal. If your heart isn’t changed, then it is not going to make a bit of difference,” Gieck said, noting the woman must be in the program 30 days before they get a family day or onsite visit. It gradually increased as they spend more time in the program. “(One of the women in the house), she realized that she wanted her heart to be changed before trying to really develop lasting relationships with her children. … That is love right there; sacrifice for today for what you can have for tomorrow. … Some desire to get out and get their children back, and some women see the leadership potential in them begin to rise. You know you have sewn that into their lives and they are going to go out and sew it into someone else’s.”
Gieck has seen that in Hart, who will enter the organization’s Next Step program following her commencement. Two women who have completed The Healing House program live in an apartment leased by the organization during their time in Next Step.
“They are living by themselves. It has got its own set of guidelines, a little looser but similar,” she said. “They are accountable to each other, have chores, still attend three classes a week and also help facilitate a class. … Sarah is our third person to go into the Next Step program.”
Hart’s strength and growth was evident as she stood and addressed her commencement ceremony guests.
“It is more than just a home and more than just a safe place. God is there, moving and changing. You have shown me how to tap into that power that I didn’t even know existed, and it is just beautiful,” Hart said. “The things I went through have been tough, but the changes got me closer to God. … He was always there for me, giving me the strength to get where I needed to be in my life. … He used you Heather to start this ministry and I am so thankful for you … inviting me there. You have meant so much to me. All I can do is give back what was so freely given to me.”
For Gieck, she has done the “footwork” in establishing and running The Healing House. In 2016, she was named a Missouri Mental Health Champion, received the Jane Froman Courage Award from Columbia College, and last year became a Zonta Club of Jefferson City Women of Achievement nominee. But it is God who has and continues to pave the way.
“If it wasn’t for him, none of this would be. Sometimes people praise me and say look at what you have done. You have no idea who I am without him,” Gieck said as tears welled up in her eyes. “It is what he has done through me; I’m just the vessel he uses. That is what I am. It is only because of his love that I’m able to give back what I give back.”