We try to be the wings to hold up the women who are feeling lost. To remind them that there’s always hope. We hold them up until they can hold themselves up. – Kimberly Wilson
There’s no telling when or how a person will shine forth with resilience and fortitude that can only be described as heroic – even the description of superhero would suit some of them. There are, of course, people like Nelson Mandella whose heroic journey in the face of extreme injustice and adversity makes it onto the world stage and he takes a rightful place as a legend. But there are so many unsung heroes in this world. I was fortunate enough to interview one such person.
When I saw Kimberly, a doting new grandmother, there wasn’t a hint of her traumatic backstory in her demeanour. Warm, welcoming and open, with a loving family, it seemed she would have always led the perfect life. Yet, only a few years ago, Kimberly found herself homeless and isolated on the streets; battling alcoholism, suicidal ideation, and mental health issues.
With an alcohol addiction that spanned thirty-five years, her life took one wrong turn after another. Her disease was at its peak in 2015, and it was at this juncture when in her mid-fifties, things unraveled so much so that she became homeless.
Before living on the streets, her biggest fear had been that her addiction would lead to her losing her beloved home, yet her cravings did indeed take over and all she could do was drink and watch her security fade away.
“It got so bad that I just walked away from everything,” she says. “Somebody just dropped me off at a shelter. And that was it for me. I said goodbye to my family, I tried to commit suicide. There was just nothing left. Nothing left at all.”
The human heart has a way of making itself large again even after it’s been broken into a million pieces. ― Robert James Waller
After moving through a variety of homeless shelters, Kimberly’s depression deepened. Eventually, emotionally and physically exhausted, she found herself at a newly opened shelter called Georgia’s Healing House.
Kimberly was the first-ever resident to walk through those doors, and she was received by the best doctors and professionals around Virginia. Nevertheless, after previous years of rehab, her expectations of this latest attempt to get her sober were not high. Historically, within days, she would always end up back on the street or within the clinical walls of the emergency room.
This is what happens when people hit rock bottom; they make choices from a place of dysfunction and a domino effect ensues. Their discernment and self-trust is shattered. They lose all sense of hope because their reality confirms their situation is hopeless over and over again. It’s a vicious cycle that perpetuates unless the right interventions align.
The wound is the place where the Light enters you. ― Rumi
As she predicted, after only one night at the new shelter, Kimberly checked herself out. Some habitual negative self-talk and the pull of the addiction took control. That night as she walked through the streets of Charlottesville, she somehow continued to feel drawn back to Georgia’s Healing house – a feeling she had not experienced with any other shelter. Some intuitive persistence made her feel like this time it could be different, that perhaps this could be the chance to turn her life around. It seemed that Georgia’s Healing House had a pull of its own.
In Memory of Georgia
In 2006, Georgia Barbour tragically passed away in jail after a long struggle with alcoholism. In the wake of her passing, those who knew her felt Georgia had been cheated out of life. If only she had the right place to recover and grow, she would still be alive. In the year following Georgia’s death, one of her close friends, Dorothy Tompkins, formed a group called Georgia’s Friends, Inc – an organization with a vision to provide safe, supportive housing to women in early recovery. In 2015, they opened Georgia’s Healing House, giving women the chance to recover with dignity and unwavering support.
One big difference with this programme, which felt critical to Georgia’s Friends, was to not have a restricted defined time to stay and get well. The pressure of that is often a recipe for relapse. This cultivated a wider sense of community within the shelter, allowing the women to build a new life within a supportive, loving network that focussed on peer-to-peer support as well as professional staff who facilitate treatment and support from local services and agencies.
Families are welcomed with open arms and are given the skills needed to get their own lives back on track. Addiction and its ramifications hit the whole family and circle of friends. The approach leans far more into self-responsibility and community healing rather than a quick-fix from an intermittent charitable handout. So far, Georgia’s Healing House has provided more than 12,500 beds to women fighting addiction.
Eventually you will come to understand that love heals everything, and love is all there is. – Gary Zukav
A Second Chance
Soon after returning to Georgia’s Healing House and finding herself embraced by a conscious, understanding community, Kimberly found the determination to turn her life around.
“Things have progressed really well for me and it’s been unique, in the sense that I have created a life for myself that I can manage. It’s not one of these cookie-cutter places, where you go into a six-month treatment and you hear the same thing repetitively, over and over and over. You stay as long as you need to (up to 2 years). This afforded me the opportunity to learn how to deal with my bipolar disorder, as well as what would work for me with my alcoholism. Those two together, it doesn’t sound like much, but it’s huge.”
Statistics show that people with addictions are up to three times more likely to be diagnosed with mental illness. When given the space and time to work through the barriers of diagnosis and treatment, coupled with ongoing professional support, there is a far greater success rate of getting their lives back on track. Every track looks different but they all are laid with realistic hope, quiet (at first) aspirations, self-respect, self-worth. Then everyone works together on track maintenance. It’s no quick fix … but a fix isn’t useful in a life that keeps happening. Resilience and bounce-back strategies are what is needed. Perhaps your track is well maintained … it’s at times like these that the women might have the capacity to help maintain or help build some other struggling women’s tracks. Kimberly explains, “Many women have nothing when they come here. Some come from jail, so they’re coming with whatever’s on their back.” Kimberly is emotional whilst conveying her gratitude for the House. “You come here and you’re just accepted: It’s your new family while you’re here. This is your family and this is your home.”
With a newfound community and sense of purpose, Kimberly and the other women started developing skills both to deal with their addictions and become contributing members within the house. Gardening and culinary programs are just a couple of the areas the residents co-create and co-participate within. This gives a sense of accomplishment and pride as they creatively fill in their skill-gaps. Kimberly expresses the importance of self-worth and self-belief, things that are missing from the lives of many of the women.
Georgia’s Healing House also works with community colleges to get women back to school and into useful educational programmes. Some residents don’t have a formal education and within the Healing House they get the chance to complete their high school diploma amongst other springboard qualifications. They work with business organisations to help the women find employment. This has a great success rate with, to date, ninety-per-cent of the women finding gainful employment.
“It’s just getting back on some kind of track,” Kimberly says. “To start piece by piece by piece, getting life in some kind of order.”
Each day at the Healing House, Kimberly and her housemates support each other and move forward, but it isn’t always easy.
“Recovery can become so overwhelming. I would stay in my room and just do the next ‘right thing’. Even if that next ‘right thing’ meant brushing my teeth, I would do that. And I would piece the next ‘right thing’ together with the next ‘right thing’ after that. And that’s how I got through a lot of the hard pieces until I actually felt a light at the end of the tunnel. I remember walking in to see my therapist day after day, telling her, ‘I don’t have hope.’ And she just kept telling me, ‘just put another tomorrow on today. And they’ll add up.’”
Kimberly explains how these were just words at first, and without the support of the other women who were going through the same process, she may not have found the meaning behind them.
“That is why this community in this House is so important,” she says. “Because those of us who have seen that light at the end of the tunnel, we try to be the wings to hold up the women who are feeling lost. To remind them that there’s always hope. We hold them up until they can hold themselves up.”
In holding other women up, Kimberly found her calling. After moving through the Healing House as a resident, Kimberly now holds a professional role in the organisation, helping other women who are in a similar position as she was four years ago. Learning to stand on your own two feet and then the ability to give back are fundamental tenets of healing. Independence and empathy can have a huge impact on social structure and societal well being.
“I actually love these women. I genuinely love them with all my heart. And I think women need to be there for women. And just piece by piece by piece this can happen. I hope in my heart of hearts that more places open like this. That actual homes are created for women – not places that feel plastic.”
The Gift of Giving Back
Healing yourself is connected with healing others. – Yoko Ono
Holding back tears, Kimberly tells of some of the women she has seen come through the House. One woman, who had been in jail and Kimberly describes as ‘so beat up’, has now reconnected with her family and is driving a city bus. After being by the woman’s side during an arduous journey, eventually seeing her driving the bus was an emotional moment for Kimberly.
“The transformation is incredible. I could never measure before what actual joy was. But watching her park that bus is joyful.”
Another woman was told by a judge that she had no chance of ever ‘straightening up’, and against all the odds is now sobre and working as a nurse. “She is just something else,” Kimberly says. Seeing the inner transformation of women like this is what sometimes gets Kimberly through a bad day.
When you have bad days and you want to drink or use drugs, saying, ‘How can I be of service right now?’ gets you out of your head and actually doing something for someone else. We take what we’ve been given and we keep giving back. It helps us, it helps the next woman who walks through the door, and also helps the community. – Kimberly Wilson
A New Way to Move Forward
“Georgia’s Healing House has given women like me an opportunity for a decent life … Without it, I probably would be dead by now. Because two and a half, three years later, there would have been no answer for me. I was at the end of the end.”
Kimberly’s last words echo those of a close friend of mine, who lives hundreds of miles away and recently felt as if life had come to a dead end. Surrounded by the bustle of a large city, my friend for the first time experienced crippling loneliness. And he is not the only one feeling this way, millions of people around the world suffer from disconnection. Imagine if more people were given the loving, supportive and non-judgemental hand that has helped raise up the women in Georgia’s Healing House. Imagine if this well-honed proverb was applied in all shelters and half-way houses …
Give a man some beans and he will eat for a day. Teach a man how to farm beans and you feed him for a lifetime. – Anon.
“The way society handles people with addictions is to just throw them in jail and forget about them. And that’s not the way to handle addiction. The jails are full and they’re overcrowded with people with addiction issues and mental health challenges.”
I wonder how many of those in jails around the world, are suffering from a lack of connection. I wonder if my friend could end up as one of the statistics. I wonder what support programs could be around to help someone like him.
“If the women at Georgia’s Healing House hadn’t loved us enough to start this program, we wouldn’t be here,” Kimberly continues. “They have such kind hearts. You don’t even have to really understand addiction to love people and support them. Just open your heart.”
In particular, Kimberly is grateful for the work of the founder, Dorothy Tompkins, MD, who worked to bring the organization to life and never doubts the strength of the women who pass through the House. “I owe her the world, but it’s not mine to give. She tells me to just pass on my blessings to women who need it.”
Kimberly says she still struggles with cravings, but she now has light and purpose in her life. And just that is enough to joyously push through.
“There are these gifts that you start seeing when you live your life: One is my daughter and our amazing relationship. I no longer look for money and things that used to be the filler. What Georgia’s Healing House has given me is something that’s attached to my soul. It’s the truth. It’s just something that’s spiritual that you just can’t put a price on … I have everything I need. There’s really nothing I want. But I’m just grateful. I was so empty before, even before the alcoholism took over. So this has filled me with something that I didn’t know was out there.”
Heroes didn’t leap tall buildings or stop bullets with an outstretched hand; they didn’t wear boots and capes. They bled, and they bruised, and their superpowers were as simple as listening, or loving. Heroes were ordinary people who knew that even if their own lives were impossibly knotted, they could untangle someone else’s. And maybe that one act could lead someone to rescue you right back. ― Jodi Picoult, Second Glance
What have your experiences been when you (or someone around you) has reached out for connection? What ways do you see society creating more connection? We look forward to hearing from you in the comments below!
Blessings and true home-comings to you all.
And a special shoutout to all the unsung heroes … we see you, we hear you, we feel you and we love and appreciate you so very deeply.