Every day, thousands of people see the sign for Heartfelt House at Wollongbar as they drive between Lismore and Ballina. With the organisation embarking on a new stage, Echonetdaily was invited inside to find out what makes Heartfelt House tick.
Back in 2005, Heartfelt House was founded by a survivor of childhood sexual abuse who couldn’t find a support group, so she decided to start her own. These days, clients come from across the Northern Rivers and beyond.
Business manager Tracey Kristiansen remembers the building used to be the Summerland Boys Home. Now it’s a welcoming, nurturing space for women recovering from childhood trauma.
‘What we’re doing is providing programs for adult survivors of child sexual abuse,’ said Ms Kristiansen. ‘There’s not very many services in Australia just doing that.
‘The organisation is not for profit. We’ve got a board, and we’re funded by the government, via social services, and then donations.’
Ms Kristiansen started at Heartfelt House shortly before the COVID-19 pandemic began. ‘I came in initially to do a review,’ she said. ‘Then everything went into lockdown, and we had to stop all the programs, but we had this great opportunity to review the organisation. And we discovered the current business model was not sustainable.’
With high demand for their unique service, Heartfelt House faced the question of what to do.
‘It was looking quite dire,’ said Ms Kristiansen.
NORWACS to the rescue
With Heartfelt House facing closure, staff searched for another local organisation with aligned values, to see if a merger might be possible.
Ms Kristiansen said, ‘We approached Northern Rivers Women and Children’s Services Inc. (NORWACS) in Lismore, and they were delighted.
‘So that’s been our life raft, really, to say “yep we’ll help you and we’ll bring you on board”.
‘The government department’s been fantastic with agreeing to that, it’s quite a big ask to say this is what we want to do, to divert the funding from here to here and see how that works, but that’s worked out really well.
‘So we’re going through that process now.
‘NORWACS have their own great facilities next to Lismore Base Hospital, so they’ll stay there, but they’re going to support us with their governance and policy and procedures, and their systems, and we’ll continue to do what we’re doing here.’
Most of what happens at Heartfelt House is group work. Ms Kristiansen explains.
‘It’s getting survivors in a room together, and working together as a group, which is what makes us different. There’s a lot of one-on-one work in Australia and around the world, with people in those situations, but group work around this issue is quite unique,’ she said.
‘And some of that’s around doing some art, or thinking about different things that help you get through, and sharing those things.’
She said most of the women who attend Heartfelt House also have counsellors outside, ‘to make sure that they’ve got a good foundation for those times of need.
‘But here in the room, for those two hours a week, they’re in a group, which is quite lovely.’
During COVID, meetings were stopped initially, and then restricted to groups of six in a room, with two therapists, but Heartfelt House is hoping to resume group sizes of up to twelve as restrictions ease.
‘What we’re trying to do now is broaden our reach,’ said Ms Kristiansen.
‘So instead of having one program a week we’re having two programs a week plus an online program, in case we have another lockdown, and also for people that aren’t in the region. It might pop up and they go, “That’s something I need”, and they can hop on Zoom and join the meeting from anywhere.’
Tracey Kristiansen says COVID has generally made everything worse for people with underlying existing trauma.
‘It really brings to the top the anxieties, with anyone that’s got trauma, but particularly childhood trauma,’ she said.
‘Those anxieties are always there, and then you have something like a pandemic and it floats to the top. That’s very stressful. And not being able to come into a room like this has made it worse.’
Clinical Lead at Heartfelt House, Beth Cronin, agrees. ‘It’s been really really tough. COVID has presented a lot of challenges across the human services sector,’ she said.
‘It’s really highlighted to me that coming together in person is incredibly important.
‘We’ve had to adapt and be creative; changing the room spacing and looking at how we can make that safely happen, and also making sure we’re able to respond.
‘If there’s another lock-down, we know that the need doesn’t go away, so how can we connect in ways that really make a difference to people?
‘We didn’t get enough people for our online program, which I’ve found in other areas too – people are really craving human connection – but we continue to work on how we can create ways virtually to offer the same kind of connection and healing opportunities, and help everyone be comfortable about delivering in that way,’ said Ms Cronin.
Time and space to heal
Tracey Kristiansen told Echonetdaily, ‘A lot of the women are mums, and it’s a time when they can come into a room with no children, no work commitments, just for that moment there’s nothing else that’s begging for their time, except to be in that space and be present. And not being able to come here and have that has been very difficult.
‘So the online is good, but it’s different because some people can’t participate, because they’re at home with children, and it’s not possible for them to get on Zoom, put on headphones and dial in to that sort of situation, when they’ve got kids around them.
‘Post-COVID we’ll continue to expand, so we might get to the point where we’re having three or four face to face groups meeting, plus more online, and that will be wonderful. And then the house can be used to its full potential.’
Beth Cronin is excited about the merger and ‘very happy to finally open up the doors on this beautiful space again’.
In terms of the future, she said, ‘We want to make things really accessible for people.
‘Previously there was one 18 week program, and then another would start, but now we want to be able to offer a few different things that are shorter in length, and maybe some workshops. We’ll see what people with lived experience tell us to help us shape that.’
Planting and artwork is another of the ‘beautiful legacies’ of Heartfelt House.
Ms Cronin said, ‘There’s so much love and creativity have been put in here, whether that’s the garden that people have been planting and volunteers tending, or the art inside.
‘At the end of each group previously, they would plant a tree to symbolise the growth and the ending.
‘That idea of ritual and symbolism will continue to be really important,’ she said.
‘And as you walk around there’s been so much that’s been gifted or created or given to Heartfelt House from past participants, or people who feel moved by the work of Heartfelt House.
‘There’s quilts and incredible creativity and art around the rooms,’ said Ms Cronin.
In terms of therapy, Heartfelt House uses the Blue Knot Foundation guidelines. ‘That’s the leader in child sexual abuse therapies,’ said Ms Kristiansen.
‘The clinicians that are here at Heartfelt House are evidence-informed, so they’re using the best research and practices. They’ve all had years of experience working in group work, and doing individual work, so they understand the importance of one on one and also what you can bring to a group.
Clinical Lead Beth Cronin is also one of the group facilitators.
‘What we’re doing is bringing together cutting edge neuroscience, all the latest research and knowledge we have, with a really strong focus on a lot of ancient wisdoms as well, in terms of using creativity,’ she said.
‘It’s not all in our heads, we’re really working with our bodies and our hearts and our emotions, as well as drawing on the neuroscience about how trauma impacts the body, and how we promote healing.
‘One of the things that we’re very passionate about is how we bring in the wisdom of lived experience. For women who have lived experience of childhood sexual abuse, we want to create opportunities to really hear from them.
‘They might have been through the program and had ideas about what might work for them, or they may never have been able to come here but had other ideas about what they think really makes a difference.
‘So that’s going to be a really big push from us in the next couple of months, to help us shape what we’re doing next year,’ said Ms Cronin.
People often ask whether child sexual abuse is more common these days, or just being talked about more.
Either way, Ms Kristiansen thinks it’s healthy that the issue can now be openly discussed, and it’s never too late to begin the healing process by talking to someone in a safe environment.
It’s also the case that drug and alcohol addictions, and other adult issues, often have their roots in childhood trauma.
Funding for the future
Ms Kristiansen says there is a need for all NGOs to diversify their funding sources.
‘The problem is that with any NGO, you can’t rely on one stream of funding. It’s not the right model.
‘You really need a couple of streams, so if one falls over, or you get a change of government, then you’ve got other streams.’
With the future looking bright for Heartfelt House’s new chapter, Tracey Kristiansen wants everyone to know that they’re back up and running, and looking at expanding services. ‘Anyone that’s interested, just get in contact,’ she said.
The phone number for Heartfelt House is (02) 6628 8940. They’re also on the web at heartfelthouse.org.au. For trauma sufferers in need of emergency help, please contact the Blue Knot Foundation on 1300 657 380.
While Heartfelt House doesn’t provide services to men, the group SAMSN (Survivors and Mates Support Network), is a men’s child sexual abuse program which offers services in the Northern Rivers.
If this story has brought up issues for you, please contact Lifeline at any time on 13 11 14.