PERRYSBURG — It took three cruel blows within a six-month span to turn Mary Michel onto the life path she was meant to walk.
|Mary Michel, founder of Women’s Center of Hope (Photo: Enoch Wu/Sentinel-Tribune)
Michel, a longtime Perrysburg resident and founder of the non-profit Center of Hope for women in Toledo, was a high-powered corporate vice president and seemingly on top of the world when everything stopped on a dime.
What she now describes as a “God-inspired vision” to found a nonprofit organization called Journey of the Heart “came to me in August 1999 after three large losses in my life, one right after the other. I lost both of my parents within six months of each other, and I lost my vice president position.
“What I did was, I made the mistake many people make of mistaking my job for my identity. So now I don’t know who I am and I’m experiencing these losses on top of it.”
She came to realize that many other women had also lost their way, emotionally, due to an array of factors. The Journey of the Heart organization, incorporated in 2005, was her way to help fill a void she saw.
The organization’s Center of Hope, located on Byrne Road, followed in 2008. Its client base has exploded in just four years, with the number of women served increasing by 100 percent in 2011 alone.
“Women come here for all of life’s issues, anywhere from discovering their purpose, learning how to set goals, to women who have had a series of losses and see no hope.
“There are women who come that abuse has been a part of their life at multiple levels, and sometimes women come because of someone in their own family.” Divorce, addiction, depression, a deep loss, single motherhood, or serious health problems are also on the list.
The common denominator: “They have lost all hope and they need to heal.”
The center’s staff are neither psychologists nor counselors.
Instead, “we’re highly trained one-to-one mentors,” Michel explained. “It’s a really powerful thing. When they leave here they say things like:
• “I’m no longer afraid.”
• “I no longer see myself as a disabled, abused failure.”
• “I no longer feel that my life is sad or hopeless.”
• “I’ve grown more now than I have at any other point in my life.”
Michel and the other staff and volunteers at the Center for Hope understand that “when a woman is broken, it negatively affects children, family, and the community. When she starts to change and grow again, it’s a ripple effect. It’s really quite amazing.”
At its heart, the program helps women “redefine their lives. For some of them they can laugh again, they can regain respect.”
Clients come from all walks of life and all age groups. Fully 25 percent are ages 18 to 30, 15 percent are 31 to 40, 25 percent are 41 to 50, and 30 percent are aged 51 to 60.
The center sees 40 to 50 women in a typical week and “right now our biggest need is for more space,” especially office space “so we are prepared to handle the bigger numbers as they pour in.”
Women find out about the center that Michel founded in a variety of ways, but most frequently via word of mouth.
Sometimes the center receive referrals from community mental health centers, sometimes from pastors, or other professionals, and Michel predicted “we will get phone calls from this article.”
The top reasons why women tell Michel and her staff that they have come to the center are to find hope, dealing with change, loneliness, forgiveness, coping with tragedy, and relationships — in that order.
Services are provided free of charge and the typical woman comes for anywhere from three months to a year or two.
There are regular three-month checks, “mini celebrations of new decisions the woman has made” and invariably “we both will know when you are ready to soar.”
Sometimes a woman comes in who requires mental health counseling and then Center of Hope staff refer her to area agencies for professional help.
Michel knows the people of Toledo well because she is a native of the city. She moved to Perrysburg with her husband Terry, who grew up in Stony Ridge.
“When my husband and I married we decided we wanted to raise our daughter in a place with lots of young people.” Daughter Cassandra, now 26, attended Fort Meigs School from first grade on, and graduated from Perrysburg High School.
The Michels have “a marriage of opposites,” she admits, as Terry is an Eastwood graduate with a degree from Bowling Green State University, and she is the proverbial big-city girl.
Michel says she ignored the comment of one of her girlfriends through whom they met. “Oh, he’s not your type,” the woman said at the time.
The marriage is now in its 27th year.
Michel may take 'Journey' programs to remote sites
Perrysburg's Mary Michel is open to the idea of expanding Journey of the Heart's programs to the area outside of Toledo's borders.
"We've talked about having remote sites," she said, which is why "building strong partnerships is important to us."
A possible location for a remote site might someday be Bowling Green, she noted.
"We have a new director here that came within the past year, so now I'm able to go out as a CEO and founder and build relationships. That's new in the last two, three months."
Those who wish to contact the Center of Hope to obtain services, or to offer their assistance as a volunteer, may call (419) 720-2446 or visit the Web site at journeyoftheheart.org.