Karin R. hasn’t had a drink in seven months.
That might not seem like a big deal if alcohol has never been your thing, but from the time she was 12 years old, Karin needed it to get through the day.
Karin is 25 years old now, and so when she thinks about where she’s been and where she is now, she can’t help but cry.
“Everything I wanted – peace, love, acceptance – I looked for in a bottle,” she told me. “I never thought in my wildest dreams I’d find it all here in Jesus at Gilgal.”
I’d venture a guess that few who’ve entered here ever expected to reclaim their lives. The majority came because they had limited choices.
They’d hit rock bottom, they were ordered by the court or referred by a crisis center or church.
Karin came because there was no bed at the rehabilitation center where she’d been referred.
In the years since Val Cater founded the nonprofit she calls the Women of Gilgal, nearly 600 age 18 and over experiencing homelessness due to drug and alcohol addiction have called this place home.
If you happened to spend any time in Sunday school, you might remember that Gilgal is on the eastern border of Jericho, where the Israelites encamped immediately after crossing the Jordan River. There, they erected 12 stones as a memorial to the miraculous parting of the river where they crossed on dry land.
Joshua, the story goes, called the place Gilgal because God said: “Today I have rolled away the shame of your slavery in Egypt.”
Cater told me she didn’t come looking for this. It came for her.
After graduating in 1981 from the University of Alabama, she thought she’d live her life teaching mathematics. After all, up until then, she’d spent her life around the kitchen table solving math problems with her parents, who were both educators.
“Math came easy to me, then I met a boy during my freshman year who thought I was cute and smart,” Cater recalled with a twinkle in her eyes. “He was a senior at the time and began working at IBM when he graduated.”
Tommie Cater would soon convince her to apply for a position with the technology company.
“I interviewed on Tuesday and started working on Wednesday as a co-op student,” she said.
Cater remained with IBM 13 years before starting her own technology company, selling backup and storage systems.
She was focused on that and raising two children when her husband in 2004 announced she “should do something for women.”
Cater’s answer was no, but a few weeks later, he was at it again. Do something for women.
This time she prayed, asking God to send flashing neon lights if this was part of his plan for her.
“Things just started to happen,” she said.
Cater was in a Bible study called “Believing God.” In one chapter titled “Getting to Gilgal,” she said the lesson centered around breaking the cycle of defeat. Women of Gilgal settled in her gut.
Meanwhile, her husband had already purchased property; when a friend with whom she shared her vision of helping homeless women overcome addiction introduced her to someone at United Way, the neon lights went off.
It was “exactly” something in which United Way wanted to invest. The nonprofit gave Cater a startup grant, and the neon lights began to flash.
Two years later in 2006, Cater opened the Women of Gilgal in a cul-de-sac just off Metropolitan Parkway in southwest Atlanta’s Sylvan Hills community.
“If you’d told me I’d be doing social services, I would not have believed it,” said Cater, a longtime member of First Baptist Church Atlanta. “Aside from my love relationship with Jesus, the only thing I knew about helping women find solutions to the issues they faced in life was a lay counselor at church.”
Gilgal is essentially two residential recovery homes, where women spend a year — six months at each — reclaiming their lives.
How are they able to do that?
“From my standpoint, through an authentic relationship with Jesus Christ,” Cater said. “If they are able to do that, I know that he is able to change their lives because when they walked in the door, he already knew their past and he already had provisions for their future.”
During the first six months of the program, called the healing stage, the women receive individual assessments and case management plans. They attend daily classes and participate in group and individual counseling, Bible study, and personal reflection. If they need it, they can get connected to comprehensive medical and mental health services.
“I want them to focus on what’s spiritually, emotionally and physically possible,” Cater said. “I need them to own their stuff because as long as they blame someone else, they can keep doing what they’ve been doing.”
Women who successfully complete the first phase move to a second residential home and enter Gilgal’s Homeward Bound program, ready to begin the search for a career and ultimately independent living.
When we talked early this month, Karin R., 25, was days away from entering this phase.
But up until last August, she was convinced she’d be a drunk for the rest of her life.
“I wanted to stop but I couldn’t,” she said.
Then through an inexplicable mix of circumstances, she arrived at Gilgal with “no desire to believe in Jesus. I didn’t even know he was a real person. I just wanted to get sober.”
Weeks later, she was sitting with Gilgal’s program director blaming everyone for what was wrong.
“She grabbed my hands and for two hours shared what God had done in her life,” Karin said. “He showed himself to me and I’ve been sober seven months, the longest since I was 12 years old.”
On Nov. 4, she was baptized at First Baptist. Karin R. had crossed her Jordan, and the shame of living as an alcoholic had rolled away.
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