After Mary Michel lost her job, and as she was grieving the death of her mother and caring for a terminally ill father, she sat in her living room and had what she called a "God moment."
She realized she had made the mistake of identifying who she was with what she did, and "at that moment, I knew I had to reidentify myself and my life."
Asking "What now?" she took pen to paper and jotted down 5 1/2 pages of thoughts and ideas, plans and preparations for what has transformed into Journey of the Heart, a nonprofit Christian organization that provides services, such as through a comprehensive mentoring program, to women who are struggling with life issues.
What started out locally soon expanded, and Ms. Michel of Perrysburg, working with volunteers and a board of directors, is planting seeds of hope across the country and around the globe.
"We want to help women discover hope and healing for their everyday lives," said Ms. Michel, who has trained volunteers in Albania, and in February plans to travel to New Zealand, where church members have expressed interest in partnering with Journey of the Heart.
Locally, Journey of the Heart offers an array of services, free of charge, to women at its Center of Hope, 2048-2050 South
Byrne Rd. in South Toledo, that opened in 2008.
Women can drop by for a cup of coffee. They can relax and recharge.
"They can kick off their shoes and talk with friends. They can read a book," Ms. Michel said. "We give women a place where they can break away and take some time for themselves."
About 30 clients from northwest Ohio and southeast Michigan meet with trained mentors at the center. Some clients, who lack gas money or a reliable vehicle or who live in Texas, Utah, or other distant states, participate in the mentoring program via telephone. Clients range in age from late teens to early 80s.
"We help women discover hope and healing for their everyday lives," Ms. Michel said. "Women come here for a lot of different reasons. Some clients have suffered great losses, such as divorce or the death of a spouse, and do not know how to heal. We all go through grief. We all have losses. Unless you go through grieving, you cannot completely heal. When women hear grieving is a natural, normal process, it takes the sting out. They get hope."
Clients receive positive reinforcement, and to some, that's a foreign concept. "They might not receive encouragement from others. I tell a client, 'You're doing a great job,' and that is something they do not hear from others," Christy Zaborowski of South Toledo, a mentor and volunteer coordinator, said.
Because of the strict code of confidentiality, no clients could be interviewed for this article, but several clients have praised the program.
"The restoration I sought impacted every area of my life; it affected my relationships, my fears, my hopes, my dreams, my future, and my beliefs about who I was," commented a Perrysburg woman.
Women from Temperance and Erie, Mich., commented that they rediscovered joy, and mentors helped them become better people. "My mentor helped me realize that my life has purpose," stated an Erie resident.
Part of the job is to get the women to soar on their own, Ms. Michel said, and when that happens, it is cause for celebration.
Never do mentors tell clients what to do. "Clients make the decisions about what they are looking for and how they want their lives to be different. They learn to set and achieve goals. Women who have lived in abuse for years have lost themselves and do not know they have value or any worth. We are hope partners for them. We help them realize they do have value, and then they feel they can begin living again. They learn to laugh again."
When dealing with serious situations, that might sound sort of silly, Ms. Michel noted, but "without tears, you cannot heal. Without laughter, you cannot heal."
Ms. Michel, who has a background in business development and sales and marketing, founded Journey of the Heart in 1998 as she was healing from losses in her life. She crisscrossed the United States, meeting with women and asking them questions. She conducted focus groups.
"I got to know a lot of women. I found there are women across the country who are wounded, who are broken, who have no hope," Ms. Michel said. "Their lives are fragmented. It was clear to me women need hope again. I knew women needed a place where they could be accepted, cared for, and respected."
The Center for Hope has no paid staff. The center is funded by private donations, a few churches, and foundation and grant monies. Fund-raising efforts will be launched in the next 18 months, and other events will be held to raise awareness about the nonprofit organization.
Journey of the Heart would like to open a complex with a coffeehouse, child-care area, conference room, and training center in Toledo. Plans call for the creation of Centers of Hope in several other cities.
Ms. Michel, a certified mentor and life coach, traveled abroad twice to conduct hope-partner training sessions for staff and volunteers with Global Care Albania which, after working with families on development issues, noticed progress in children only went so far.
"They wondered how can we fix this," Ms. Michel said, and it came back to the oft-repeated saying, "If momma isn't happy, nobody is happy."
After hope partner-trained volunteers mentored the mothers, "they could see incredible changes in the children," she said.
Such experiences are "helping tumble us forward. We know it is time to accelerate. We know the need is great. When a woman's life is wounded and broken, it impacts the children, the family, the community, and ultimately the world."