‘Doing away with the old and making it new’

Members of Healing House transform old t-shirts into books of poetry

Elizabeth Orosco
Northeast News


Healing House, a faith-based recovery support service, has been a beacon of hope in the Northeast community for nearly 20 years. 


This week, a group of Healing House members participated in a project that reflects the heartbeat of the organization: getting rid of the old and transforming into something new. 


Participants engaged in a four-week poetry class, learned various types of poems, and wrote down glimpses from their lives. 


They then brought in t-shirts from their past that hold significant meaning— old prison shirts, shirts belonging to a former abusive partner, and shirts that were worn during significant moments— reminders of their past life.


The shirts were cut, shredded, beat, pulped, turned into paper, and made into books to hold their poetry. 


The shredded shirts became the canvas on which their new lives were written. 


Ann Parr, the workshop leader, said the goal of the project was to give the students a new avenue that will help them let go. 


“My goal would be catharsis with the writing of the poems and getting in touch with what part of their story they want to share… to help them get in touch with where they are and where they want to go,” she said.


Parr led the workshop, teaching different forms of poetry and guiding the students through the process of putting their thoughts onto paper. 


She said the project is particularly important because it helped each person identify their feelings, express them through words, and find a new way to heal from their former life. 


“It’s another method of synthesizing why they’re here and being able to express it in a new way through this poetry we’ve done,” she said. 


The participants learned haiku, free verse, acrostic, and diamante poems.  
In a Thursday afternoon class, students stood up and shared their work, which included topics of drugs, violence, regret, darkness, hope, change, forgiveness, and God. 


“I really enjoy when we do poetry,” said Crystal, a Healing House participant. “That’s my favorite thing. It helps me get my feelings out. I’m going to bring in some old shirts that have stuff to do with my old life, with being an addict, and I’m going to use those to shred up. I’m going to write my poetry, which is about coming into my new life, on that shirt. So I’m doing away with the old and making it new.”


Crystal, who has been at Healing House for a week, said she came to the program after she saw significant change in her brother, who has been involved in the program for over a year.


She said the transformation she has seen in herself in such a short time is encouraging. 


“It’s the best place I’ve ever been,” she said. “I’ve grown so much in just the week that I’ve been here. I feel the change in myself. I’m excited to grow with this family.” 


Robert, also a participant in the project, said he was hesitant about the workshop at first, but caught on quickly.


“I really didn’t think I could write poetry because I don’t know anything about it,” he said, “but when I did it, I picked it up really quickly and I’m kind of decent at it. It’s a transformation of something old into something new.”


Recently released from prison, Robert said his life changed while he was there as he attended meetings and remained clean for over two years.


“It changed my life and the way I looked at things,” he said. “If you believe in God, the old you will slip away and you’ll be a brand new person. I don’t want anything of my past to catch up to my future.”


His poetry, he said, is about his life, his struggles, and what he has learned. 


“They’re just about life… the different aspects, things I went through, some of the struggles with my life, meth use, and some of the things I endured while doing it.” 


When asked what he would say to others who might be hesitant to come to Healing House, he said there is little to lose and a lot to gain. 


“Try it. If you don’t like it, misery is easily refunded, I promise you.” 


LeeAnn, a project participant, said seeing her sister’s nine-month journey at Healing House inspired her to join the program as well. 


“I’ve only been here for eight days and I got employment today. I love it. I feel like I’m moving right along.” 


The poetry class, she said, has helped her tap into a part of herself she didn’t know was there. 


“I don’t think I’m really that creative and I’ve written some good stuff. [Ann] has made it easy and fun. It makes you feel like you can do it,” she said.


The shirts she decided to bring belonged to her ex-husband and daughters, which carried a lot of weight and personal memories. 


“I want to let some of it go and heal from it a little bit by giving it away and washing it away,” she said.


Cecilia Smith, a staff member at Healing House, said the organization is more than just a treatment center and she wants to help change that perspective. 


“This is about family, love, acceptance, becoming more, and not settling. Everybody has a mission, a calling, something to do.”


Smith, who teaches classes from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., said the organization offers holistic, wrap-around services that address the whole person. 


“One of the things I love is that we offer a life plan. I give them the skeleton and they fill in the meat and muscle. It becomes theirs,” she said. “We have life skills, budgeting, how to handle your finances, legal aid, employment specialists, relapse prevention, yoga, acrylic paint pours, writing, journaling, we go to the art gallery, the symphony, and the zoo.” 


The poetry project, she said, was a great fit into the vision and mission of Healing House.


“Ann’s project is helping them find who they were and who they are going to become. Old things have passed away and behold, all things are new. You don’t have to be defined or encapsulated by your past. Your dreams can become your future,” she said.


After the poetry class, the participants brought in bags of old shirts to be repurposed, with the help of Jenny Davis, an elementary art teacher from Salina, KS. 


Davis, who heard about the project through Parr, said she was thrilled to be able to be a part of the project and help with the paper production. 


While previously fighting stage-three breast cancer, Davis said she has had her own experience with art therapy, turning to painting as a way to help during her recovery. 


After finishing chemotherapy and radiation, a friend invited her to participate in the Peace Paper Project, shredding items and turning them into paper. 


Davis chose to bring items from her treatment to shred. 


“I was absolutely hooked after that. The entire process, cutting it up with scissors, this is a physical activity,” she said. “Destroying something that has meaning, putting it in the beater and pulping it. It becomes completely unrecognizable. Then, it’s turned into paper. That transformation, I absolutely loved it. It’s so powerful.”


Davis guided the students through the process, showing them how to cut their shirts, mingle them together by the handful, put them in the beater, submerge them in water, draw the fabric out with the mold and deckle, and create molds that dry into paper. 


After the molds dried, the students learned how to bind their books with the Japanese Stab-Binding method, creating books for their poetry. 


“I love hearing their stories of survival and healing,” said Davis. “I hope this is another step in their healing and recovery. Maybe this will be a remembrance that they are being transformed as well.”


When asked what she would say to people who are hesitant to come to Healing House, Smith said she wants people to know they have nothing to lose. 


“Anybody can come here. Anybody is welcome and encouraged to come. I would love to see the community come in and take advantage of why we’re here: for them. If you try it and don’t like it, what have you lost? But you have everything to gain. You’ll find community, you’ll find family, love, and encouragement where you thought there wasn’t any.” 


For more information on Healing House, visit www.healinghousekc.org or call (816) 920-7181. 

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