By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Amber Taufen
By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
By Michael Roberts
By Melanie Asmar
While Heather still resented the Christian influence at Shelterwood, she noticed that everyone she came in contact with who'd embraced Christianity seemed really happy. With nothing better to do, she began reading the Bible, starting with the Book of James -- because she had a crush on a boy at Shelterwood named James. In the Bible, she found scripture about sorrow and pain, about how pain develops perseverance and strengthens your character, about how you should be joyful when facing trials in life. She started studying Buddhism and Hinduism as well. And when Kristy Franson took Heather to India later that year, the trip resonated strongly.
"What really stuck with me was the concept of even loving people that you hate," she says. "Especially with how much I hated my dad for everything he put me through. I think humanity is really drawn towards grace, towards forgiveness and love. Love is way harder than hate, and I got into that message. I fell in love with that idea."
"It was amazing for her to come to that point where she was starting to find peace and acceptance in her life," remembers Mike Wilson. "For her to begin to realize that she is not refuse, something just to be tossed aside, but that God spared her life for a reason, that He allowed her to breathe each breath for a real purpose."
Working closely with Eckhardt, Heather thought long and hard about the concept of forgiveness. She realized it isn't a one-time thing, but a struggle people have to fight their entire life.
In 2001, after eighteen months at Shelterwood, Heather checked out of the facility and moved in with the Fransons.
"It was unbelievable, the change I saw in Heather," says Steve Franson. "When she went into Shelterwood, she was lost and very angry about what happened to her family. Her transformation was amazing. She grew up."
Heather attended Green Mountain High School with her second cousin Jen, whom she considers a sister. She was scared about going back into "the real world," nervous about falling back into her old ways. "I knew I had a difficult choice," she remembers. "I could suck it up and hang out with the jocks and the preppy girls that my sister was hanging out with -- which was so not me -- or I could just walk over to the kids who were smoking and meet a bunch of messed-up people and go back to where I was. So I decided to just focus on school and being positive."
Those preppy girls and jocks quickly became her core social group -- she still considers many of them her best friends -- and she even began dating a jock, Tyler. They were so close that when it came time for college, Tyler wanted to follow Heather. But Heather was looking forward to being on her own after coming to terms with a lot of issues, and they called things off. Heather had thought about attending the University of Colorado, where her father had gone, but she worried about the party atmosphere there. Instead she enrolled at Colorado Christian University in Lakewood, which was close to her support system. She'd also grown very attached to several middle-school girls she was tutoring through Young Life, a Christian mentoring program, and she wanted to see them through the transition to high school.
"I never really intended to graduate from CCU," Heather says. "I just figured I would go there for a semester or so and then transfer somewhere. But when I figured out I could graduate in two years, I decided I might as well go there and then go somewhere else for grad school if I was still interested."
She majored in social science and psychology, minored in biblical studies, and in 2003 studied in Israel, living in the old city of Jerusalem, passing the Zion Gate and the Wailing Wall every day on her way to school. After graduating from CCU in December 2004, Heather returned to Shelterwood -- this time as a counselor, a big sister herself. Five years after she'd been admitted to the rehab facility, she was now helping other lost girls come to terms with their lives, working grueling hundred-hour weeks.
"I didn't know what the hell I was getting into," Heather says. "The girls can be crazy, and it's very difficult to be around that rejection constantly -- because the girls, they just hate you. Well, they don't hate you, but they hate their situation, and you have to come down on them so hard in all these discipline areas, and I'm not good at that. I'm more the peacemaker type. It was difficult for me to be cleaning up blood all the time from the girls cutting or stabbing each other, running after girls trying to escape at three in the morning. It was intense. It was a hard year. It made me a little cynical."
It also brought back some of her own issues at Shelterwood.
"She was at the very facility where she went through working everything out," says Wilson. "You know, she walks through a room where she remembers something that only she remembers, and something triggers a painful memory that she has to deal with, and all of a sudden she's facing everything all over again. But she was able to deal with it and help the kids there. She was absolutely dynamic with the kids. She could relate to them on so many levels where a lot of counselors couldn't."