Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Finding Freedom

Natasha Files sits in the lounge of the newly renovated Mercy Ministries, a home for young women with life-controlling issues.
Doug Shanks photo

By Hannah Sutherland - Peace Arch News
Published: August 17, 2010 11:00 AM
Updated: August 17, 2010 1:25 PM

Two years after first developing an eating disorder, Natasha Files exhibited full-blown symptoms of bulimia and anorexia.

She was just 15 years old.

Files recalls vomiting more than 20 times a day, and being so afraid of having anything in her stomach, she would throw up water. Some days she didn’t eat at all.

While also struggling with depression and self-harm, the now 24-year-old says she gained little from local community support programs.

It was through U.S.-based Mercy Ministries – a free Christian program for women “seeking freedom from life-controlling issues” – that Files saw a chance to recover.

In 2007, the former White Rock resident travelled to the group’s St. Louis, Mo. location, as Mercy Ministries Canada had yet to open a treatment facility at the time. For 6½ months, Files lived in a home with 30 other young women dealing with various issues, such as addiction, depression, unplanned pregnancy and physical and sexual abuse.

While there, she and the others were responsible for cooking meals, completing chores and attending daily classes where they were taught life skills. The women participated in recreational activities – going to the YMCA to exercise and walking the trails around the house – and had downtime on weekends when they could go to baseball games or the mall. They also took part in individual and group counselling sessions, where Files says she began to learn about her issues.

“I learned how to deal with healthy ways of coping,” she said. “I noticed a complete shift in who I was.

“I came home, and all of a sudden I was a girl with a strong foundation.”

Files – who noted she believes being adopted at birth had left her feeling rejected – said her “transformation” was all the more possible due to the facility’s comforting environment.

“It felt like a really big home,” she said. “I didn’t go into it with a mindset that ‘I’m sick, I need to be in hospital.’”

It’s that same sense of “home” the very first Canadian treatment facility is aiming for. After seven years in the making, Mercy Ministries Canada plans to open its doors this month in South Surrey to women 19-28 years old who will no longer have to travel to the U.S. for the program.

According to director Helen Burns, there are 11 applicants from across the country ready to move into the local house, at 19465 16 Ave., and 40 more are currently going through intake.

Burns expects the first group of 20 girls – a new group will begin roughly every six months – to arrive by the end of the month.

Burns – pastor of Relate Church in Surrey – said she was inspired to open the local non-profit residential home eight years ago, when she heard Mercy Ministries founder Nancy Alcorn speak at a conference.

Burns thought of her own daughter, who struggled with eating disorders for 10 years.

“I wondered what it would have been like had she been able to (go),” she said. “When I heard about Mercy, I thought we could fast track a very difficult process.”

Burns began speaking about the program – which also has facilities in New Zealand and the U.K. – and received a positive response from the public. Within six months, a non-profit society was established. Seven years later, the vision has become reality, with private funding paying for the 4.3-acre South Surrey property, the house and the salaries of 16 staff members, including counsellors, a nutritionist, a registered nurse and a household manager.

That funding also means the program and its offerings – such as food and counselling – are free of charge.

Burns said touring the home – which she did earlier this month during an open house – is that much more meaningful considering her daughter, Danica Goward, designed the interior.

Goward said she created a place she would’ve wanted to live had she been able to attend the recovery program for her own eating disorder.

“I love that she built it for girls,” Burns said, noting the stylish, modern decor. “It’s like walking into a dream. I can hardly come here without feeling overwhelmed because I know we’re going to save lives.”

The house includes a large kitchen; classroom area; staff and counselling offices; dining room; patio; gathering room; nursing station; washroom and separate shower room; an office fit with a bed for night staff; and multiple shared bedrooms, all decorated in a different theme.

There is also a “blessings closet” filled with donated clothing and accessories, where young women who gain or lose weight during their stay can pick out new garments.

Burns said many materials were donated, such as cabinets, drywall and flooring.

“So many people gave at-cost or donated,” she said, noting the cause is close to many people’s hearts. “Everyone I think has a girl in their world who could’ve used help.”

Files – who is now a youth worker for Township of Langley and is studying to become a counsellor – will join other program graduates in visiting the South Surrey facility and speaking with the new charges. Files said the message she hopes to get across is a strong one.

“Recovery is possible,” she said. “If I can transform my life, anyone can.”

For more information, visit mercyministries.ca