Finding hope

Changes strengthen Hope Harbor as it continues its mission to help teens and their parents

Though the atmosphere was fairly quiet on Wednesday morning, there has been a flurry of activity happening at Hope Harbor – formerly called House of Hope – in Marshall.

The Christian ministry that serves as a refuge for teen girls in need – founded by Claudia Stenson and her friends, Karen Wiener and Carla Reynolds, more than 10 years ago – has undergone many changes in the past six to eight months. In addition to the name change, Hope Harbor changed directorship, developed two new initiatives and is looking to expand with two new locations.

“Our foundational Scripture is Hebrews 6:19,” new Director Cindy McKittrick said. “It says: ‘We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure.'”

Despite the changes, the nonprofit organization’s purpose remains constant, however, said McKittrick, who took over her new role in January.

“Our vision and mission of what we do at Hope Harbor has not changed, as we renew minds, restore relationships, and further the kingdom of God as we equip teens, empower parents, and serve those in need by anchoring them to the hope of God’s promises,” she said.

Hope Harbor has provided counseling, education, life skills training, parenting classes and spiritual growth opportunities to more than 65 teen girls and families.

“I like it,” said Gabby, one of the current residents at Hope Harbor. “It’s nice and homey. You get to know the other residents on a really personal basis, in a good way. And you get to know the staff, too. The residents become like your sisters and the staff becomes like your older sister or your mom.”

Hope Harbor is licensed to serve six adolescent girls at one time. Though it depends on the individual, the average length of stay is about a year.

“The girls go through phases in the program,” McKittrick said. “They come in on orientation phase, and that can be 2-3 weeks. It’s really, ‘are you following the rules and submitting to authority?’ During that time, they don’t have any parent contact.”

Then there are Phases 1-3.

“Those phases can be anywhere from two to four months,” McKittrick said. “In Phase 1, they have a visit with their parents on Fridays, for a couple of hours. One of the real unique things with our program is our parental aspect because they’re very involved.”

McKittrick said that parents are required to be at Hope Harbor every Friday afternoon.

“Every Friday, they have parenting class with Ms. Kim (Sanow), our counselor,” McKittrick said. “No matter where they live, it’s a requirement of the program. That’s why we only take girls from within a 2-3 hour radius, because of the commitment. Then every other Friday, the parents also have counseling, too.”

When a girl moves into Phase 2, she will go home every other weekend. In Phase 3, a resident goes home every weekend.

“We need to transition them back, see if both parent and daughter are applying what they are learning in classes and counseling. Kim teaches classes like boundaries, love and logic and different personalities.”

Home Phase is the final step and it involves going home for a month.

“We stay in contact with them while they are at home and Ms. Kim still does counseling over Face Time or whatever,” McKittrick said. “After about a month, we release them from the program. If something happens during that month, where they slip back, they might come back here for a little bit more time.”

A lot of the girls are angry at their parents when they first come to Hope Harbor, McKittrick said. The real issues they’re facing typically vary, but can include bullying or being bullied, depression, self harm, eating disorders, anxiety problems, sexual abuse and exploitation, promiscuity including online, legal trouble and other self-destructive behaviors.

“We do have an interview with the girls and the parents before they come here,” McKittrick said. “Almost all the girls – there have been a few exceptions – know they’re coming. They agree to come, though they might not be happy about it. But we’re not a lock-down facility. If they want to run, then they’ll run and we’ll call the cops. Usually, the girls are pretty willing to follow the rules.”

Hope Harbor does not accept girls who are pregnant or chemically dependent. A person would need to go through a 30-day treatment or detox before being eligible. They’re also upfront with parents that it’s a Christ-centered, Biblically-based program.

“You have to be upfront because we are so grounded in that,” McKittrick said. “The curriculum is Christ-centered, so you might have a passage that you read for English, like recognizing verbs. And we really encourage the girls to get into the word. It really doesn’t matter where people are at in their faith walk because they’re excited about that.”

The longer a girl is at Hope Harbor, the more that is expected of them.

“It’s a process,” McKittrick said. “It really depends on where they’re at in their faith walk when they come in. It’s baby steps when we start.”

In each of the phases, the girls have certain requirements.

“They have Scripture to memorize,” McKittrick said. “They get scores every day on their spiritual development, their life skills, their personal care. We meet and have what we call resident review each week. Some of the staff meets and talks about how the week was.”



The large home is spacious and inviting, with everything needed to create a family-friendly environment. While the kitchen is large, the living room is enormous – perfect for hosting group events. Along with multiple offices, there are also three bedrooms – with two girls in each one.

Education time is scheduled from 8:15- a.m. to around 3 p.m. each day. The girls are taught by Pam (Johnson). Each has their own desk in the quaint classroom.

“Some of the girls are in counseling right now and some are practicing for a speech, so we’re kind of scattered all over at the moment,” Johnson said.

Johnson explained that the books they use are called Paces.

“If there’s an area they’re struggling in, we can specifically assign that area for them,” she said. “It allows us that flexibility of helping the girls right where they’re at.”

Since the girls are often at varying grades and level, it’s more like a homeschool environment with more individualized learning.

“It’s a real family atmosphere,” Johnson said. “Of course, there are things that they have to cover. But they also set goals in the morning. At the end of the day, they mark off if they’ve gotten them done or not. It teaches them responsibility.”

When asked if life at Hope Harbor was also easy, Gabby answered: “No. But one thing I like is that if you have crap going on, they tell you to go deal with it.”

That doesn’t mean the girls are on their own. In fact, they’ve learned they have a lot of tools and supporters to help them along the way.

“The first thing they tell us to do is to go to your Bible and pray,” Gabby said. “We’re not on our own. The staff will help you. We also have our counselor, Ms. Kim, or Ms. Cindy and Ms. Mel (Melissa Bruns, program manager).”

As part of their school, the girls also get a life skill credit.

“We teach them responsibility, manners, cooking and cleaning,” McKittrick said.

At 10:45 a.m., Sarah, a seven-month resident, is putting the final touches on the casserole prepared by the overnight staff. A staff member also takes care of the menus and grocery shopping.

“The girls take turns with lunch prep,” McKittrick said. “She’s going to stick that in the oven and then go back to school.”

The girls aren’t allowed to use cell phones or have Internet access while they are in the program.

“We really strip them down of that stuff to just get rid of all the distractions,” McKittrick said. “It allows us to start figuring out what’s going on.”

Toward the end of Phase 3, the girls will usually be allowed to open up their Facebook account again while at home.

“They have to add some of us staff as friends,” McKittrick said. “Ms. Melissa works with the girls on that. They get their phones back kind of toward the end of Phase 3, too. We see how they handle that, how they’re going to do.”

McKittrick acknowledged that there are a lot more challenges and distractions nowadays.

“One of the big issues right now is the social media and the things they’re getting sucked into,” she said. “The challenges that kids face now are totally different than what you and I faced.”

When it comes to dealing with self-worth, the girls are advised to view their worth from God’s eyes.

“We tell them not to worry about any of that outside stuff,” McKittrick said. “Their worth comes from God. How does he feel about you?”

Field trips, hikes and other activities are also part of the schedule.

“They stay busy,” McKittrick said. “After school, the staff takes them to the Y. They get a physical education credit. At least 4-5 times a week, they’re out doing something. In the summer, we’re able to take them down to Camden and go hiking and some of those things. We do have bikes for the girls, too.”

The residents also read, color, take care of the flower garden in the large yard, play Wii and learn to knit or play guitar or piano. They attend church, chapel and Bible study weekly as well as do volunteer work.

“They serve at Esther’s Kitchen and go to Boulder Estates and do the lady’s nails there,” she said. “They go there and spend time with them. They also help with Stuff the Bus, with Lenten luncheons and much more.”


For more than three years, a lot of discussion was centered around the possibility of expansion. With anything, the timing has to be right. Recently, everything seemed to come together and signal that it was time to truly explore that option.

“Claudia started this house 10 years ago with a couple of other people and she’s been volunteering her time as the director all these years,” McKittrick said. “Now with me being here in the director role, it’s really freed Claudia up to go and expand. She wanted to do some other things – still stay very involved in the ministry – but come in and do more tutoring and just spend time with the girls and not have all the administrative responsibilities.”

McKittrick was a good choice for the position, having served as the organization’s finance manager, board of directors member and teacher for three years.

“I had a well-rounded experience, so it seemed to be a pretty good fit,” she said.

One of Stenson’s many titles now includes expansion coordinator.

“We’ve been praying about it and felt like God was leading us (board of directors) in that direction,” McKittrick said. “We’d get calls from a lot of people, so we felt like we needed to expand. But about that time, we’d have two beds open up and get no calls for awhile. Once we got some money in – that we really felt was to be used for an expansion – we restricted that for future expansions.”

Calls regarding a possible boys home have trickled in over the years. One came from a family in Sioux Falls, S.D. Their son ended up being served by House of Hope in Michigan.

“We get a lot of calls for something like this,” McKittrick said. “We can service Sioux Falls girls here because that’s within the accepted radius. To have a home for boys in Sioux falls is what we’re looking at.”

Winona is expected to be the location of the second expansion, a refuge for girls. Both McKittrick and Stenson felt a connection to the area.

“(My children) Hayden and Morgan both went to Winona to college, so I’d had Winona on my brain for awhile,” McKittrick said. “It’s a beautiful city with so much to do. You think about the girls going out and doing activities. You have the lake there and all the trails for hiking.”

Stenson’s husband, Mark, had also hinted that southeast Minnesota might be a good location because their daughter and grandchildren currently lived in Rochester.

“Mark has been such a great supporter all these years, and he also does a lot of consulting, so I met with him to pick his brain,” McKittrick said. “Throughout that conversation, he said, ‘Cindy, you’ve got a really good resource (Claudia) and you’re probably going to have her for about five more years, so if you’re thinking of expanding, this would probably be a good time.”

Having attended the church in Winona several times, McKittrick decided to contact the pastor there.

“I told him who I was, what we did and asked if there was a need there and could we talk about expansion?” McKittrick said. “He said he had three letters for me: ‘YES.’ We don’t pray for girls to have problems, but we know the girls are out there.”

There are now groups in both locations that they’re working with. When given the option to work together or start their own ministry, people in both locations opted to work with Hope Harbor in Marshall.

“They said, ‘You’ve been through this and you know what needs to be done,” McKittrick said. “So why reinvent the wheel? We want to be a Hope Harbor in a different location.”

While they’re still looking for a five-acre property outside of Sioux Falls, the Winona church likely has a house that will work well.

“Winona has a house right off-site of their church,” McKittrick said. “So we’re looking to work with them on being able to use that house for Hope Harbor in Winona. We’re putting together advisory boards in both locations. We didn’t really plan to do two expansions at one time, but God’s plan is sometimes different than ours. It’s just how it’s come about.”


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