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By Melissa Butler

During this time of year, filled with twinkling lights, time spent with friends and loved ones, and a feeling of good cheer, many of us take stock of the things we’re thankful for. We feel good about paying forward the kindnesses we receive from others. The founder of a unique alcohol and substance abuse treatment center in Jefferson City, Missouri, however, pays it forward all year round.

Heather Gieck will graduate from Columbia College in December with a Bachelor of Science in Human Services. Completing her degree is a true milestone for the self-professed recovered alcoholic and drug addict who was incarcerated for three years at the age of 35.

While in prison, Gieck encountered something life-changing. She felt called by God to a better life. She began reading and working to understand the Bible, and after those three years behind bars, she found a new perspective on life.

“There was too much pain involved in the way I was living, both for me and for those closest to me,” Geick recalls of the revelation.

Upon her release from prison, she entered a Christian ministry treatment program called Communities of Recovery Experience (CORE), in Branson, Missouri. After completing the program, which integrates the 12 steps used in Alcoholics Anonymous, she stayed on for two additional years, becoming both a house manager and an instructor.

It was here that Gieck found the inspiration to open her own recovery program, where she could help others as she had been helped and pay these positive experiences forward in her own way.

Gieck knew that to be both credible and successful in a business endeavor, however, she would have to go back to school. That’s when she enrolled at the Columbia College campus in Jefferson City.

“It boosted my self-esteem and the way I saw myself, because when I began to excel in school, I thought, ‘Wow! I can really do this!’ and that gave me the courage to continue to branch out and do other things,” Gieck says.

Gieck’s instructors also noticed her enthusiasm.

“I found Heather to be an extremely upbeat, positive and confident student,” says Raymond Hune, math instructor at the Jefferson City campus. “She always put forth her best effort to succeed.”

With the completion of her degree in sight, Gieck opened the nonprofit Healing House in Jefferson City in May. The residential addiction rehabilitation program serves women only and can accommodate up to seven women at a time.

The rehabilitation program is demanding. Healing House embraces a holistic approach to recovery, rooted in Christian ministry, designed to heal all aspects of the participant’s life. To qualify for the program, female participants, who are often overcoming incarceration in addition to substance abuse, have to be from the surrounding community. To provide structure and education in this year-long program, they are required to attend classes and are instructed to apply the Alcoholic’s Anonymous 12 steps. Program participants are also mentored by a licensed professional counselor, provided with spiritual guidance, opportunities for physical growth, and housing and life skills.

Just seven months after opening Healing House, Gieck has big plans for the future of the program, including potentially providing job opportunities for participants who successfully complete the program.

“Everything I’d done in my past since the day I walked out of prison counted for something, and this is what I feel has been put in my heart,” Gieck says. “To help others who have faced the same struggles.”

She’s also thankful to Columbia College for its contribution to her success. Because of her degree in human services, Gieck is eligible for the Recognized Associate Substance Abuse Counselor (RASAC) certification, for which she is currently applying. Once that application has been accepted, she will work toward receiving certification to be a Certified Alcohol and Drug Counselor (CADC), which she hopes to complete by October 2016.

“The education I’ve received will serve me well in this specialty field,” says Gieck – education she’ll use to pay it forward.

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To learn more about the Healing House and Gieck’s efforts, click here via the Columbia Missourian