By Crystal Hamon | Photos courtesy of Mercy Ministries
“A needle and a spoon consumed my life, followed by the torment of how my next fix would come. When I arrived at Mercy Ministries, I knew it was my last hope,” said Amy, a Mercy Ministries graduate. Amy is just one of countless girls all over the world to experience a transformation from Mercy Ministries. “I was scared and broken, but when I walked through the doors, I could actually feel the tangible love and peace of God. Little did I know that my life would be changed forever.”
Meeting founder of Mercy Ministries Nancy Alcorn, a petite, blonde dynamo, is an experience to remember. She is engaging, warm and energetic, and she has a great fashion sense. Her obsession with sports is rivaled only by her love of helping girls in need. A can-do spirit and sheer determination, along with an unwavering faith, guide her daily. Watching her work and seeing what she accomplishes in the course of a day will astound you—she seems to defy gravity. It’s easy to see how she became a role model for so many young women.
In 1988, Nancy was returning from a hectic conference in Las Vegas. Exhausted, she was eyeing the one remaining empty seat on her plane, which happened to be right next to her. Just before the boarding door closed, a man stepped onto the plane and took the seat. “At first, I closed my eyes and pretended to be asleep,” Nancy recalled. “I was just so tired. I didn’t want to talk to anyone. I just wanted to sleep.” But the man nudged her, asking how much money she had lost in Vegas. Finally, she sat up and explained that she hadn’t been to Vegas to gamble. Surprised by her answer, he inquired what she did for a living. She told him that she had just opened a home for girls in crisis called Mercy Ministries. Nancy handed him a brochure and didn’t think anymore of it.
Three weeks later, Nancy received a call from the man on the plane. He had been haunted by their conversation and asked about projects that she was working on. She explained that she was currently in the process of building a new wing to the Mercy home in Monroe, Louisiana, to take in and care for pregnant girls. Upon hearing this, the man started to cry and explained that 40 years ago he was born to a teenage girl as a result of her violent rape. He knew that if there hadn’t been good people around to give his birth mother good advice and the help she needed, then he wouldn’t be alive. His adoptive mother had died the year before he met Nancy, and he was looking for a worthwhile cause to which he could contribute a portion of his inheritance, in her memory. When asked how much money she needed to complete the project, Nancy said, “$150,000.” He replied, “You’ve got it.” It was then that Nancy realized provisions would somehow always be made to fulfill her dream.
It was a dream woven from eight years of experiences working for the state of Tennessee, first, at a correctional facility for juvenile delinquent girls, and then investigating child abuse cases. During that time, Nancy became frustrated by what she considered to be a failing system. “I experienced firsthand all of the government programs that sounded good and looked good on paper, but the reality was that lives were not being changed,” she said. “These broken programs offered no tangible results for girls who were facing serious personal issues. Some kids died from drug overdoses, some were killed in gang fights, some ended up in prison and some committed suicide because they felt that they had no hope.”
“We want to make the homes really nice because when we tell the girls they are valuable and precious, we need to back that up with the facilities and care that we provide for them.”
– Nancy Alcorn
In January 1983, tired of watching girls return to their destructive environments, Nancy decided that there had to be a better way. Ready to make a difference, she founded Mercy Ministries. Mercy treats girls ages 13-28 who are in crisis with a variety of life-controlling issues, including eating disorders; self-harm; sexual, emotional and physical abuse; drug addiction; depression and unplanned pregnancy. Its mission is to provide residential facilities not only to treat the symptoms but also to heal the whole person: physically, emotionally and spiritually. Each facility, or home, has individualized programs, biblically based counseling, nutrition education, fitness instruction and educational opportunities. Transitional care is provided to prepare each girl for success in today’s society, including extensive life skills training as well as assistance with housing, transportation and educational or job placement.
The average stay at a Mercy home is six months, but this varies depending on the difficulty of the problems and how quickly the girl heals. The only prerequisite for admission is the desire to be there and a willingness to change. “Parents can’t just send their daughters here; the girls must want to come,” Nancy explained. “The girls are told up front that this is a faith-based organization, but they do not have to be Christians to be admitted.” An extensive application and medical examination are also required because, even though Mercy is not government funded, it is licensed by the government and adheres to those standards. Pregnant girls are given priority since there is a limited window of time to provide them the help they need. For birth mothers who choose adoption, Mercy provides in-house adoption services; and for those who choose parenthood, they offer childcare, budgeting and other life skills classes. Nancy said, “I’ve always believed that instead of fighting whether abortion is right or wrong, we should find a practical way for the girl who is in that situation to have a true choice.”
Everything about Mercy Ministries has an air of quality and excellence, from the capable staff to the polished facilities. Most counselors hold at least a master’s degree in counseling, psychology or a related field. Many hear about Mercy’s work and expect to find an institutional facility, run-down and underfunded. Instead, they are surprised to find a beautiful, sophisticated, cozy and homelike environment. “We want to make the homes really nice because when we tell the girls they are valuable and precious, we need to back that up with the facilities and care that we provide for them,” Nancy said.
“I sat on my bed bleeding onto the sheets after cutting my arms and legs. I had come to the conclusion that there was no hope for me anymore. Extremely depressed, I struggled with general anxiety disorder and had become an insomniac.” As a freshman in high school, Aly was given several medical diagnoses for mental/behavioral disorders and prescribed numerous medications. “What was really wrong, was that I was dead on the inside. I was bitter, angry, hurt and afraid. I was promiscuous, passed around and used.” Beyond the medical labels, Aly was labeling herself. “I would binge drink and abuse painkillers. I was a cutter, a burner and a self-mutilator. I was out of control and incapable of digging myself out of the pit.” She goes on to describe how, when showering, she would literally try to scrub all the “dirt” off. “I could never seem to get clean—scrubbing my skin and scalp until they were raw.” Eventually, Aly had a psychiatric breakdown and overdosed on drugs. While at the psychiatric ward, she read Echoes of Mercy, a book chronicling Nancy’s journey in establishing Mercy Ministries. At that moment, Aly made a decision—a decision to live. “As soon as I arrived at Mercy Ministries, I knew I was right where I needed to be. I don’t know quite how to describe it, but I could actually feel the love in the home.” During her time at Mercy, she transformed into a new person. “I was becoming whole for the first time in my life, and as I became whole, there was less room for all the bitterness and fear in my life.” Even her physical scars began to fade as her heart healed—some miraculously disappeared.
So many other facilities charge exorbitant amounts of money, only to offer less effective treatment. “It’s a big business,” Nancy stated. She hears story after story about girls, whose parents have drained their savings and retirement funds, at facilities charging up to $2,000 per day only to be shown the door with no results when the money dries up. “One day, after living through my fifth suicide attempt—a massive overdose of pills, alcohol and extensive self-harm—I came to Mercy Ministries,” related Giovanna, a Peruvian Mercy graduate. She describes how different her experience with Mercy was from other treatment facilities. “I think it was the unconditional love that kept me there… it blew me away. I had been in so many treatment centers that were all about the money. Girls were being kicked out because their insurance didn’t cover their treatments anymore. Mercy Ministries was free of charge! That’s when I realized that they did care about me.”
But, of course, money is necessary to continue to provide high-quality homes, care and attention. When Nancy established the ministry, she did so with three foundational principles: (1) take the girls in free of charge, so they never think Mercy is profiting from their pain; (2) never take money with strings attached, including government funds; and (3) give at least 10% of all the donations that the ministry receives to other deserving charities.
Private donations from individuals and corporations provide the primary support for Mercy Ministries. Nancy said, “Although Mercy has never built up a savings account or had extra money, we have never had bills go unpaid.” Another way funds are raised is through public speaking events. One of Mercy’s strongest global partners is the Australian-based Gloria Jean’s Coffees. In June 2008, Nancy was invited to speak at their international convention in Dubai, UAE, to help raise awareness. Other donations are generated through fund-raising events, such as the annual celebrity softball game hosted by Jeff Fisher, head coach of the Tennessee Titans and longtime friend of Mercy Ministries. Fisher describes his involvement with Mercy, saying, “This experience has been both an honor and a privilege, as I have seen firsthand the lives of young women forever changed through the Mercy program.” He also donates $10,000 to the ministry every time the Titans win a game. Still other contributions come from churches, ministries, charities and non-profit organizations. Last year, when Joel Osteen was approached by American Greetings to write greeting cards, he agreed with the stipulation that Mercy Ministries receive all the proceeds and that this fact would be printed on the back of the cards along with Mercy’s web address.
The first Mercy home to open was in Monroe, Louisiana. Since then, they have opened homes in Nashville and St. Louis, with the first West Coast home scheduled to open in Sacramento the first of next year. In addition, there are five international locations, including Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Peru and the United Kingdom. “It’s amazing how the same problems exist in every nation, despite cultural differences and national boundaries,” Nancy continued. “So we figure, if this model works here in America, why not use it as a template to help the many young women around the world who need it.” Future homes presently being planned in the United States include Charlotte, North Carolina; Houston, Texas and, most recently, Santa Rosa Beach, Florida.
Michele began cutting herself with sharp objects at age 4 and starving herself at age 13. By then, she was already on several medications for depression. Her father, a serious alcoholic who physically, emotionally and sexually abused her, died when she was 18, sending her into what she describes as “the darkest place I have ever known.” She stopped eating, going to school and even talking. She saw a dozen different psychiatrists and twice as many therapists with 15 hospital admissions. She was being kept alive by a combination of feeding tubes, locked doors, a restriction from sharp objects and a 24-hour watch by hospital staff. She remembered, “Nothing was helping. I became more and more desperate to escape it.” When she first came to Mercy, she doubted their ability to help her because no one had been able to help before. But when she walked through the door, she was overwhelmed. “I found myself in a gorgeous home full of unconditional love and surrounded by people who spoke life into me! I walked out feeling empowered, restored and renewed, with a pure joy that overflowed from me.” Michele has since earned a bachelor’s degree from Middle Tennessee State University and is presently pursuing her Ph.D. in psychology at Vanderbilt University on full scholarship with an academic focus on children and adolescent mental health. Michele, who society once saw as a throwaway, has become an educated person with the vision and skill to establish and run a transitional care facility for young people who are suffering as she once did.
The new Mercy home in Florida will be located on the Emerald Coast, nestled just below the Choctawhatchee Bay on Highway 331 near South Walton County’s new municipal district. This home promises to be of the same high caliber that is the spirit of all of the other Mercy homes. It started about two years ago, when Nancy was working with local realtor Jim Ryan, who was helping her find some personal property in Walton County. “I began to feel a tug on my heart to open a home here,” she said. “There is nothing like a Mercy home in the state of Florida that I am aware of.” She asked Jim to investigate a possible location for the new project. Florida State University women’s basketball coach and longtime supporter of Mercy Ministries Sue Semrau stated, “I couldn't be more excited about Mercy coming into the state of Florida. As a coach, I've seen hurting girls who need love and counsel from professionals. Having referred some of my players to Mercy, I have witnessed how truly effective it is. God has gifted the staff at Mercy with the ability to provide the atmosphere and tools for young women to work out the change God has for them."
Nancy’s fascination with the Emerald Coast began years ago, when making annual trips with friends from college to stay at Mainsail in Miramar Beach. They would frequent Bud & Alley’s, a popular beachfront restaurant in Seaside. “I just fell in love with this area,” Nancy said. “It has always been a dream of mine to buy a place in this area.” Recently, that dream was fulfilled when she became a homeowner in Seagrove. “Because of the great love that I have for Walton County, I think I am more excited about having a Mercy home in this area than any other home we have ever opened. The warmth of the people and the beauty of the surroundings make it a perfect setting for young people who are working through difficult issues.” She added that the impending opening of the new Mercy home has been very well received by leaders in the area. “I had the opportunity to meet with Dawn Moliterno, president of the Walton County Chamber of Commerce, and my time with her was so helpful and informative. I was taken by both her professionalism and her warmth. I also had the wonderful privilege of meeting the mayor of Rosemary Beach, Lee Sage, along with a number of their current residents. I can’t imagine ever being with a group of more wonderful people. This only confirms my excitement about being a part of Walton County as we plan for our future home in this area.”
Nancy’s ties to the area were strengthened by her relationship with local pastors and internationally known speakers Tom and Jane Hamon. Their initial meeting dates back to a Louisiana conference in 1988. In 2001, Nancy invited the Hamons to speak to the girls in the Nashville home. Since then, she has made a point of bringing the Hamons into various Mercy homes at least twice a year. “Bringing in Pastors Tom and Jane is so strategic for us,” she said. “They have been a huge encouragement to me, my staff and all the girls at Mercy.” Pastor Jane, who travels the world to work with many ministries, stated, “Of all the places I go, the time I spend at Mercy is by far the most rewarding. Nancy is so gifted, compassionate and yet down to earth. She has done an amazing job of expanding her vision all over the world. Seeing so many girls’ lives changed is truly inspirational.”
In April 2008, Mercy Ministries International celebrated its 25th anniversary during a weekend full of events in Nashville. On Thursday night, over 800 people attended a gala dinner held under a large tent in the middle of LP Field hosted by Kevin Mawae of the Tennessee Titans and Shelley Breen of the music group Point of Grace. Supermodel Niki Taylor also made an appearance with her husband, NASCAR driver Burney Lamar, to celebrate the milestone. “Being in the world of modeling, where everything is about appearance, I know all too well how the world places an emphasis on what we see on the outside,” Taylor said. “Girls often resort to self-destructive patterns. I personally support the work of Mercy Ministries because I have personally witnessed the changed lives.” The next night, a Celebrate Mercy Concert was hosted by 2004 Miss America, Ericka Dunlap. Two hundred former graduates came to celebrate the weekend.
At any given moment, roughly 700 girls are on Mercy’s waiting list in the United States alone; some have died while waiting to be admitted. At Mercy’s 25th anniversary celebration, Kyle and Victoria McCarter shared the story of their daughter, Amber, who died of a drug overdose while on the waiting list. “That’s why we’re working so hard to get new homes built and new monthly partners on board – so we can help more girls,” Nancy stated. “The most challenging part of what I do is knowing that girls are dying while waiting to be helped.” Debbie Harvie, a graduate of the United Kingdom home, recognizes the difference between Mercy and other treatment facilities, saying, “I really felt that I didn’t need rehab; I didn’t need someplace that would just treat the symptoms of a broken heart. I needed somewhere that could help me interpret the aching of my heart.” Nancy feels that the government specializes in changing behavior, but God specializes in changing hearts. She finds a profound difference between other institutions that instill the victim mentality into their patients, telling them that their disorders and addictions are permanent conditions with which they will have to cope, and Mercy’s message of faith that says they can have a new life if they choose it. Nancy strongly believes in spiritual healing, stating, “Jesus Christ is really who He says He is, and He can make a difference.”
In February 2008, an independent market research firm conducted a survey of 400 anonymous former Mercy residents and found that 93 percent of graduates from Mercy said that their lives were transformed and their hope restored because of their experiences at Mercy Ministries. That’s in great contrast to Nancy’s previous work with government programs, where the projected success rate was only 3 percent. She added, “Not a day goes by that I don’t get a letter or an email from a girl who has been through the program saying, ‘Thanks for saving my life.’” One of her greatest joys is that “quite a few of the girls have gone on and received degrees in counseling and different areas and have come back to work for us as staff members in our homes around the world.”
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Nancy has several publications, including Echoes of Mercy and a series of issue-related books. If you know of a girl who needs help, would like to make a donation to this very worthy cause or are interested in the developments of the Florida home, please contact Mercy Ministries using the following information. Nancy has offered to send a complimentary copy of Echoes of Mercy to anyone who contacts Mercy and mentions this article in VIE in an effort to continue the dialogue with this community.
Mercy Ministries of America Corporate Office P.O. Box 111060 Nashville, TN 37222-1060 USA
Tel: (615) 831-6987 General Fax: (615) 315-9749 Admissions Fax: (615) 831-9953
Mercyministries.com E-mail: email@example.com
Or contact Selah Hirsch for information on the Florida location.
Selah Hirsch Director of Community Relations P.O. Box 1282 Fenton, MO 63026-1882 firstname.lastname@example.org
Tel: (636) 326-2015 Fax: (636) 326-2082