From my front row seat

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Sign language is all I can hear right now...

“What’s happened to you since I saw you last?  You’ve been clinching your teeth!”  The dental hygienist went on to say the damage I had done to my teeth would ordinarily take ten to twenty years to happen on its own.  

Great.  Just one more reason to be mad at “It”.  

“It” was something that had turned our world upside down.  Like a thick, dark, evil liquid, “It” had permeated every single aspect of what we do at Blue Monarch.  Not one thing had gone untouched.
“It” reared its ugly head on March 13th.  As I was leaving a board meeting that evening, I called Jeannie before I drove out of the parking lot.  I had a strange feeling that something with her wasn’t quite right.  “Did everything go okay today while I was at the board meeting?”  Jeannie Driver is our amazing Program Director.  I have known her since she came to our program in 2003 as one of our very first residents.  She arrived with her three little girls and years later became a key figure in our Blue Monarch leadership.  Jeannie is woven through the very fabric of what we do.

“Yeah, everything was good.” I was still confused by the feeling I had, so I asked about her girls and she caught me up on how each daughter was doing. I hung up, still carrying a  dark feeling in my heart that I couldn't explain.

Just a few hours later, shortly before 10:00 p.m., my phone rang and it’s a moment I will never forget. Jeannie screamed hysterically, “Carmen’s been shot!  Please pray!”   Carmen had just turned eighteen a few weeks before.  Right away, an image of Carmen as a rowdy toddler flashed through my mind.

I immediately threw on some clothes and grabbed my purse on the way out the door.  “Please Lord, no!  Please don’t let this happen!  Please!” Right away it felt like an evil attack.

Shortly before I walked into the hospital, I learned Carmen had not survived.  I think in that moment my heart went hard.  I was angry.  Angry with the person who did this.  Angry with the people who do things like this all the time.  And most of all – angry with God for letting this happen to the sweetest person I know.  

When I found Jeannie, she was a puddle of grief, suffering from every parent’s greatest fear.  We cried like babies and I think it was in that moment that I became spiritually deaf.  I had no interest in anything God had to say from that point on because I was so angry with him.  Why didn’t he stop that bullet before it struck Carmen’s beautiful face?  After all, we know he could have!

It was shocking, really. Jeannie had brought many people to know Christ.  She had touched so many lives in powerful ways – not only through her job at Blue Monarch, but through her volunteer work in prison ministry, too.  She had served God well, so why didn’t he protect her? I found myself trying to come up with some divine reason for what had happened – but the truth was, it just sucked.  I decided right then and there that "Why did this happen to Carmen?" would be the first thing I asked when I entered the gates of heaven - right before "Where did you come from?", which was, until now, my first question.

As I sat in the church at Carmen’s funeral a few days later, I listened to all the crying and suffering from across the sanctuary.  It struck me how one person’s actions could cause so much pain for so many people.  It was a ripple effect that seemed endless.

This tragic event had a profound effect on our program.  The residents we serve could make no sense  of what had happened.  If this could happen to Jeannie, then none of us was safe! They were also angry with God and it manifested itself in ugly ways.  They resented those of us trying to fill the gap in Jeannie’s absence.  They no longer trusted us – how could they? After all, they no longer trusted God, either. As a group they became belligerent, bitter, uncooperative, and even disrespectful.  The world felt completely out of sync.  

Nevertheless, our staff members carried heavy hearts into everything they did to keep the ball rolling until Jeannie could come back.  We struggled to have patience with our residents while we dealt with our own grief at the same time.   We tried to do our jobs and raise money with enthusiasm – but it’s hard to do with a broken heart.  Yep, “It” had touched every single aspect of our organization.  The ripple effect was endless.

For weeks I kept my ears shut and refused to hear anything God had to say.  It was like that annoying, outdated phrase, “Talk to the hand.”  Don't talk to me.  My anger only got more intense as I walked alongside Jeannie over the following weeks - meeting with the detectives, reading the dreadful 911 report, seeing the photo of Carmen’s face after she had been shot, attending the bond hearing for the one charged with Carmen’s death, all while watching Jeannie’s heartbreak day after day.  

It was as if the only place that brought comfort was to go back to the moment before “It” happened.  Many times I wanted to take Jeannie’s pain for a day so she could just get some relief.  Too bad we couldn’t sign up for shifts – the way people sign up to bring food. “I’ll take Tuesday if you can take Wednesday.”

So here we are two months later and what I have seen is nothing less than a miracle.

Jeannie’s relationship with Jesus has only gotten stronger through this terrible tragedy, even though she still has lots of questions of her own.  Her personal story has become even more powerful as she describes "leaning in on Jesus and pulling from the heavenly bank we have as God's children."  I don’t know how she has done it, but Jeannie has shared her testimony with four large crowds recently, and no doubt, many lives were forever changed.  She has met with our residents one-on-one and has tenderly listened as they have shared their doubts and fears with her.  She has wept with them as they have shared her pain.  I have watched her come to work determined to serve, even on her heaviest days.  Jeannie has proven to our residents that one can experience even the worst pain without turning to drugs as a way to cope.  She has taught them to cling to Jesus instead.  They will forever remember her example of faith and strength, long after they leave Blue Monarch. They may even share her story with their children one day.  In other words, I have seen Jeannie bring her brightest light to Blue Monarch – even in her darkest hour.  

As we have gradually gotten back on our feet, I have come to realize, the ripple effect of “It” is not endless after all.  Once it touched the people it was going to hurt, it was finished.  There will be no more.  So, its power is very limited.

But the impact of Jeannie’s story and Carmen’s life will truly be endless.  Just look - in two months’ time, Jeannie has touched more people in beautiful ways, than “It” did in harmful ways.  In the same way that one sunflower can produce up to 2,000 seeds, I believe with every life Jeannie touches, she will be planting many more seeds along the way, which really IS endless. 

Something just hit me.  Even while I was stomping around clinching my teeth and refusing to listen for God, I see now that he was speaking to me the whole time. You see, he was saying some pretty powerful things to me through my friend, Jeannie. Guess God knew that sign language was the only thing I could hear for a while, so I'm glad my eyes were open, even if my ears were not.  Who knew that his voice would be such a beautiful thing to see? 

"Dear Lord, I guess we've got some catching up to do.  Let's start with these teeth..."       


After she had been incarcerated, Jeannie and her girls were reunited at Blue Monarch in 2003.  Since that time, through our program and the tremendous grace of God, over 260 children have been able to reestablish relationships with their mothers who had lost custody.  We are proud to name this rich aspect of our program, the Carmen Simmons Reunification Program, which will honor a part of our ministry that is dear to Jeannie’s heart.  And in this way, Jeannie and Carmen can partner together in helping others for many years to come.

Friday, April 12, 2019

Why is it so flippin' hard?

When my family and I first moved to the Cumberland Plateau, we didn’t realize we would be learning an entirely new culture and language, such as, “Don’t plant your garden until the oak leaf is the size of a squirrel’s ear.”  Good to know.

We loved exploring the nearby areas, traveling down long, curvy roads through the mountains, discovering all kinds of exciting things along the way.  But it took a while to learn the customs of the new world we had chosen.

For instance, on two different occasions we stopped at intriguing yard sales to rummage through the fascinating things on display until we were approached by the homeowners, only to discover nothing was for sale.  They were personal treasures that just happened to live in the front yard.  “So, so sorry…we just thought…”

Then there was the morning Clay and I found a new route down the mountain and we spotted a road sign for a nearby cafĂ©.  Awesome! We loved discovering new places to eat. We traveled down a narrow country road until we found it.  Friendly looking place - big, wide porch with rockers and a newspaper stand by the front door.

We parked our car in the gravel lot and entered the cafe.  It was quiet and a little dark inside, but hey, it was early.  We seated ourselves at one of the tables and waited for someone to appear.  A couple of minutes later a woman walked in wearing a house robe and slippers and said, “Who are you?  What are you doing in here?!”

“We’re just waiting to see a menu.”  

“Well, this isn’t a restaurant anymore.”  What? How about the tables and chairs, and the newspaper stand, and the sign on the road?

“Hasn’t been a restaurant in a long time.  We live here now.”  So, we apologized, quickly exited the building and were grateful we could leave peacefully.  

How could we be so confused? Honestly, there were days when it seemed we were looking at the world through a distorted mirror at the county fair. 

Sometimes I feel like our world at Blue Monarch must seem that way to the women and children we serve. There are many things they may have experienced with their families and friends at home, that are not the way we do things here.  We have rules about cooking, for instance, like do not pour grease down the drain – or in our neighbor’s cow pasture, either.  We do not allow spanking but encourage time out instead.  The list goes on, and on, and on.  

It’s pretty remarkable, really, that the families we serve are expected to change almost every single thing they are accustomed to – the way they spend their time, how they spend their money, how they parent their children, how they solve problems, how they treat others, how they handle relationships – even what they feed their children.  I often think I would not be able to adapt to so many changes if I were asked to do the same.

But sadly, there is one single thing that stands out more than any other, the one thing that is the hardest to change.  They believe they can trust no one.  This applies to the women and the children.  The children are just more obvious about it.  Sometimes it takes weeks for the children to even make eye contact with our staff.

This suspicion is so deeply engrained in them, it takes months and months to prove we can actually be trusted, and even then, they very cautiously grab onto this concept.  They reach out one hand at a time, always keeping one eye open just in case.  Consistency is so important in gaining that trust.  Just one slipup can be a deal breaker – and then the process starts all over again.  

For crying out loud, it’s no wonder.  Many times, it is the ones they should have been able to trust the most, who hurt and violated them the most.  I cannot even count the number of stories I have heard of mothers who prostituted their daughters for drug money - or biological fathers who sexually abused their daughters, or the countless other combinations of offenders who were allowed into the home by someone they trusted.  How would one ever trust again?  They may not have trusted anyone since that first awful incident as a child.

I had a young mother sit in my office recently.  With tears in her eyes she confessed that in her seven months with us, she had decided to trust only two people, and even that seemed scary to her.  I was honored to be one of the two, but it hurt my heart to think of all the wonderful people she had encountered over the past seven months, that she was still keeping at arms’ length.  She just can’t let go of that defense mechanism.  The pain this causes her was evident in her face - even in the twisted way she was hugging herself in my chair and wrapping her legs into a knot.

After this woman left my office, I found myself sitting there thinking about all she was missing out on because she could not trust others.  It made me angry toward all the ones who had hurt her because they robbed her peace and totally changed the lens through which she viewed the world.  I considered all the struggles that could have been simpler if she had not been so distrustful.  The joys she could have experienced if she had just let go of her fears.  She was making it so hard!  Harder than it had to be!

And suddenly this started to sound familiar…

There was a time in our early years when I had a big, screaming fit with God.  Blue Monarch was a young non-profit and money was scarce. I barely had the money to pay the electric bill, and I definitely didn’t have enough for payroll the next week.  In tears, I bent over my kitchen table, white-knuckled the edge and yelled, “Why did you ask me to do this if you weren’t going to give me the resources to make it happen?!  What were you think-ing?!”

The immediate answer came loud and clear.  “You’re the one who makes it so hard because you don’t trust me.”  This stopped me in my tracks, and I began wondering, have I not? No, I realized I was trying to do Blue Monarch in my own power – not in His.  No wonder it was so flippin’ hard!  

Since that time, when I get completely overwhelmed and feel like I can’t even take a deep breath, I have to remind myself, “Hey, this is God’s plan, not yours.  Trust Him to take care of it, because it’s too big for you.”  And you know what?  That always brings such relief.  

So, Lord, that’s the change I so desperately want for this woman. I want her to learn to trust you and the ones you put in her path.  I want her to love life – not just survive it.  I want her to make up for lost time that was taken by the ones who hurt her.  I want her to open up those twisted arms and reach for you.  Please speak to her and teach her just like you taught me – that it doesn’t have to be so flippin’ hard.  Well, maybe those weren’t your exact words, but hey, you know what I mean.  Amen   

Footnote:  Turns out my neighbor was right.  I should have waited until the oak leaf was the size of a squirrel’s ear and my lettuce would not have frozen.  

Thursday, February 28, 2019

A Midnight Surprise

It was around midnight and I was sound asleep when all of a sudden my husband said, “Susan!  Someone’s coming down the driveway!” What?!

Clay and I live on a bluff - in the woods - with virtually no neighbors.  Unless the moon is bright, it is darker than dark with no lights in sight. Our gravel driveway is over half a mile long and during the twenty-plus years we have lived there, I think I have only seen two wandering cars venture all the way to the house before turning around. 

The vehicle slowed way down, then the headlights turned off while the car was still creeping toward the house. Once it stopped rolling, even in the darkness, we could see a shadowy figure get out - and then another.  As they began approaching the front porch, Clay grabbed a shotgun and I ran for the phone.  It had to be a home invasion.  There had been lots of stories like this on the news lately, but they were always in the city – not way out where we lived.  And they all ended poorly.  My heart was beating out of my chest as I prepared to punch in the numbers for 911. 

Clay and I waited in the darkness at the door as the two figures stepped onto the porch. When they finally reached the door, Clay suddenly flipped on the porch light, and I was shocked at what I saw.  Our intruders were two former Blue Monarch graduates, for crying out loud.  When they saw Clay’s shotgun, they both began screaming, “Stop!  Don’t shoot!  It’s us!” 

My word.  My first thought was, “Why in the world can’t you take care of anything during normal business hours?”  Turned out, Amy had violated her probation, there was a warrant for her arrest, and she had been on the run for about ten months.  The other graduate was along for moral support but needed some calming down of her own.  She was a nervous wreck.  Amy wanted me to take her to jail so she could turn herself in.  Again, why did this have to happen in the middle of the night, and why did she need me to do it?

Amy eventually confessed that she had come to me because she wanted someone to pray for her before she went back to jail.  Alright, I could do that.  We prayed together and then Clay and I took Amy to jail to get booked.  By the time we got home it was time to get up.

I spent the next few days struggling to see what we had really accomplished with Amy.  Seeing her go back to jail felt like such a failure. 

Several days after this overnight ordeal, I checked the mail and was happy to see I had a note from Amy. Turned out it was a thank you note, written in pencil – thanking me for taking her to jail, and thanking Clay for not shooting her.  I told myself, “Well, at least that girl learned how to write a thank you note.  At least there's that.”

Thank you notes are important to us at Blue Monarch.  If you have given us a gift, you have probably received one from our residents. I hear more about these thank you notes than anything else we do.  People love them!  I remember visiting a monthly donor at his office one day and much to my surprise, he had mounted every single thank you note he had ever received on a bulletin board in his office.  He cherished each and every one.

It's funny how our thank you notes are blessings in both directions. Our donors are blessed by what the notes say, and our residents are really touched that so many people out there, people they don't even know, want to give their resources to help them. Some women even get tearful when they grasp this idea for the first time.    

This thank you note process takes some learning, though.  Not only is it the very first time most of our residents have ever written a thank you note - but for some, an attitude of gratitude is also a new concept.  I remember one first-time thank you note in particular that needed some work.  It went something like this:

“Dear (So and So), I think you have such a great name!  I love weird, unusual names.  Do you like your name?  I have always wished my name was GI-Jane.  Don’t you like that name?  Love, GI-Jane.”

And then there was the woman who enjoyed using words she did not know, and often misused the ones she did know.  Sometimes she would even make up a word, use it with great confidence, and just hope no one noticed.  She wrote a donor one time thanking him for “giving her an opportunity to expose herself.”  Not exactly what she really meant – and definitely not something we would promote.  

Sometimes I think our residents’ thank you notes are a great indicator of how far they have grown emotionally and even spiritually.  Just look at this recent note from “GI-Jane”.  She is hardly the same person she was when she walked in the door almost a year ago.  And now she's proud to use her real name.

I need to level with you.  I wasn't sure I would even be able to write a blog post today because I have been a bundle of mixed emotions. We had to discharge a woman this morning and it was heartbreaking, disappointing, frustrating, and even a little infuriating. I'll be honest. I've done a little pouting today. This woman is so much better than some of the choices she makes.  One of her children was born while she lived here, so it was especially hurtful to see him leave. Blue Monarch is all that child knows. And we adore her older child, too, so we will miss them both a lot.  I found myself wondering what we had really accomplished with this woman, much like I had questioned myself about Amy. This was simply not the way I wanted things to turn out. However, God has been speaking to me in a gentle way and He has given me a good reminder that I needed in this moment. 

While digging through some old files to find the thank you note from Amy – you know, the one thanking me for taking her to jail, and thanking my husband for not shooting her, I also found this huge stack of letters Amy wrote to me while she was there.  As I pored through the pile of letters, I began to realize, each one mentioned something valuable Amy or her two boys got from Blue Monarch during their time with us.  Apparently there were many seeds planted along the way - even though I may never know how they grow and bloom one day.

It suddenly dawned on me, what was I thinking?  Amy learned much more than just how to write a thank you note.  She and her children gained a lot while they were here.  A whole lot.  

And then it hit me. I know this is also true for the woman who left this morning.  There were many seeds planted for her, and also for each of her two precious little children.  

So, instead of feeling sorry for myself that we don’t get to watch those seeds bloom for this family, I should be thanking God for the privilege and honor of planting them.  

As I sit here and ponder this thought, I can hear God gently speaking to my heart, "You see, a seed can’t grow if it isn’t first planted...and sometimes that's all I need you to do.  Trust me.  I will take it from here."  

Dear Lord, thank you for allowing us to plant the seeds that you continue to grow, and for the blessings that bloom even when we aren't watching. Thank you for this beautiful and amazing gift. Amen

Monday, January 28, 2019

Who's that in the Cockpit?

For the past twenty-seven years, every time I have boarded a plane, I have peeked into the cockpit to make sure Larry, a former boyfriend of mine, isn't the pilot. He was reckless and wild, which made him a lot of fun, but he wasn't someone I'd want to trust with my life.

I'm never quite sure what I will do if I find him in the cockpit one day, even though I have imagined this scenario many times through the years.  Will we laugh at how our last date was so bad someone published it in a book?  (Long story...)  Will we exchange pleasantries before I sprint back to the terminal shouting, "Wait!  Don't shut the door!?"  Will I warn other passengers on my way out?

I have always been fascinated with flying so I thought Larry was my ticket to learning how to fly.  He flew commuter planes for a commercial airline and one weekend he offered to give me a flying lesson in a small, private plane.  Awesome!  Right off the bat, however, I was terrible.  I couldn't quite grasp using my feet to steer the plane so we looked like we were square dancing down the tarmac.  I couldn't make any sense out of the garble on the radio.  Math apparently played a big part - and it was my worst subject.  

Although I did an okay job flying in midair, Larry landed the plane of course, and I remember thinking it was a pretty rough landing for a professional pilot.  In fact, he took off and landed several more times to prove he could and only got worse.  A few weeks later he failed his simulated flight test to move up to a bigger plane (forgot all about the landing gear) and I decided maybe we should stick to the ground from then on.  Not too long after that I gave up my dream of flying - and the boyfriend.  

One of my greatest pleasures at Blue Monarch is teaching Work Ethics right before a group graduates from our program.  It is a pretty intense 9-week course that I designed from all my bad experiences employing the population we serve.  It has turned into a pretty effective course, and this is where I actually get to see the light bulb come on.

Back when I did jail interviews myself, it always broke my heart that so few seemed to see anything bright in their futures.  I would ask, "What are your goals?  What would you like to see yourself doing one day?"  Invariably each woman would look back at me like I was crazy and say, "I never thought about it."

It took me a while to realize there was no way to focus on a bright future when basic needs like food, shelter, and safety were more critical.  Add to that, where are my kids right now, and it's no wonder they looked at me that way.

So at Blue Monarch, by the time our residents take my course, they have worked through some pretty enormous issues such as, why did I begin using drugs in the first place, who do I need to forgive, how can a personal relationship with God bring freedom and not just sobriety?  It is not until things like these are behind them that they can even begin to consider a fulfilling job or career.

Right away I try to encourage them to step outside the box and broaden their horizons.  I'm often quoted for saying, "The sky's the limit!"  I love to get them to imagine doing something they love.  Often one will say, "But I'm afraid of failing."

"Well, the only way you can fail is if you don't try.  You have not failed if you try."  

In the weeks leading up to my most recent Work Ethics class, Lauren said to me several times, "Miss Susan, I'm really concerned.  I just don't have any idea what I want to do."

"Well, Lauren, we are going to figure that out," and then I'd walk away praying that we really would.

As I spent some time with Lauren I realized that she was going to need something pretty exciting to keep her out of trouble.  She couldn't afford to get bored - that could easily send her back into addiction.

Finally it came to me.  Aviation!  That was it.  I thought the whole world of aviation would be exciting to Lauren and asked her if she had ever considered it.

"Yes, actually I have."  So I arranged for a good friend of Blue Monarch's, a pilot who loves to buzz our campus from time to time, to come meet with Lauren.  I asked Jim to discuss all kinds of aviation jobs with Lauren - ground workers, mechanics, etc.  Everything related to flying. 

By the time we had that first meeting, Lauren had already decided she wanted to be a pilot.  She was grinning from ear to ear and about to come out of her seat with excitement.  This must have impressed Jim because before our meeting was over, he offered to make her dream possible by covering the costs of getting her license, even loaning her his private plane for lessons.  That moment immediately fell into my collection of memories that include the men walking on the moon.  It was too amazing for words.

A few days later Jim took Lauren and me for a ride in his plane.  I took this photo of Lauren with the sky ahead of her, and her face beaming.  I couldn't help but laugh.  She took me literally.  The sky really was the limit for her!

Lauren had a permanent grin on her face for weeks - until reality eventually set in.  Her lessons got more and more challenging.  She struggled to remember what she had just learned.  The math was really hard.  Her instructor was retired military and Lauren tends to be quite sensitive, so this was a clunky mix.  Arranging her flight schedule as a single mom with lots of responsibilities became stressful.  There were many tears and Lauren was ready to give up.

But she didn't.  She worked on arranging better childcare to free up her schedule on good days to fly.  She found ways to study that helped her remember what she had learned.  She got her children to help her practice flash cards.  She and her instructor found a better way to communicate and this gave her more confidence.  She repeated the radio calls until she knew them backward and forward.  She began to dramatically improve.

...Okay, this is ironic.  Lauren called just now as she was leaving her flight lesson this morning.  She was anxious to tell me that she did so well today, even with all the high winds, her instructor congratulated her and said he could finally see light at the end of the tunnel.  She was over the top excited.  "Miss Susan, he gave me a fist bump!"

"Thank you so much for sharing that, Lauren!  You know I'm living vicariously through you, don't you?"  Lauren laughed and said one day she would teach me how to fly.  How 'bout that?

We don't know yet how this story will end, but I suspect there will come a day when I will peek into the cockpit to see if Lauren is flying the plane.  But I won't be running back to the terminal.  I will be happy to take my seat.  Then I will probably turn to my neighbor and proudly say, "Don't worry.  Our pilot is a woman of great courage.  I know that because I was there the day she decided to try."  

Lauren's children, Cadence and Jonah, are also very proud of her.  Click below to hear what Jonah has to say about his mommy the pilot...