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 | By Erin Looby Carlson

A story of resurrection

Emmaus House director brought back to life … physically and spiritually

Donna Clarke died … five times.

“My sister and my family waited for the phone call.”

Five times, EMT workers brought her back to life using Narcan, a narcotic used to treat a drug overdose in an emergency. One of those times, Donna was intubated and placed on life support for 48 hours.

“My life was so miserable,” Donna said. “I didn’t want to die, but I didn’t care if I did. It was a horrible existence.”

A cry for help

Donna was introduced to heroin at age 25. She said the drug both ruled and ruined her life.

“I didn’t touch drugs in high school and college. I went to Western Michigan University. I thought heroin was someone in an alley with a needle in their arm … homeless. You know, street life, and that wasn’t me,” she said. “But I came across it at a party and I remember the moment I did it. It was over at that point. It brought me places I never wanted to go. It showed me things I never wanted to see. It turned me into somebody I never thought I would become.”

For 25 years, Donna battled substance abuse. Heroin cost her her marriage, children, family and career as a teacher. She went to jail, prison and rehab multiple times.

At 50 years old, and back in rehab, Donna found there was something else she had lost along the way:  her faith in God. She remembers desperately crying out for help to “somebody” from the very depths of her spirit.

“I didn’t know who I was crying to, saying, ‘Please take the desire for this drug away from me,’” she recalled.

From that cry came what Donna would later recognize as an answer to her prayer. She got out of rehab and was handed a brochure for a place called Emmaus House. Living in Macomb County near Detroit, Donna had never heard of it.

“I didn’t know a soul in Saginaw. I just knew that I was lost and I was hopeless.”

Love, forgiveness and miracles

Donna arrived at Emmaus House not knowing what to expect and was overwhelmed by the love, forgiveness and support that was awaiting her.

“I had mentors, I had a team, I had a recovery coach, a sponsor. I didn’t have to worry about paying rent and utilities, and there was no time limit on how long I could stay,” she said.

And there was something else even more unexpected.

“It was never easy for me to stay clean and sober; it was a battle,” she said. “But, for some reason, getting here, I don’t know where the desire went, but it went away. For it to go away like it did was amazing. That’s where my faith came back, because I was like, ‘I didn’t do this alone.’”

Donna recognized that from the moment she cried out for help, it was God who heard and answered her prayer. Her faith continued to grow.

As a guest at Emmaus House, she participated in a Bible study and went to church on Sundays at First Presbyterian Church in Saginaw. All guests are required to participate in a 12-step program every day, a Bible study on Thursdays, church on Sundays and engage in volunteer work at least seven hours each week as a way of giving back.

“If you’re not a believer, you come to this place and you watch the miracles that happen here,” Donna said.

Donna came to Emmaus House in 2017 as a guest. Two years later, she was named executive director, the position she holds today.

"Being in the streets, in jails and prison, rehabs and in misery ... I know what these girls are going through when they get here,” Donna said. “They walk in the door and I'm like, ‘That was me.’”

As director, Donna has implemented a substance abuse behavioral modification program as well as transitional sober living.

“So, it is a program,” Donna said. “It is strict and disciplined, but most of all there is love here. Forgiveness and love.”

Walking with women— and Christ

Love has always been central to the mission of Emmaus House. It was founded in 1987 by Sister Shirley Orand and Sister Marietta Fritz, both Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, as an extension of their ministry at the Saginaw County Jail. The need for safe housing for women trying to re-establish their lives after being released from jail, prison and drug rehab was recognized after Sister Marietta offered a ride home to a woman being released from jail. The woman asked Sister Marietta to drop her off at a street corner, because she had nowhere else to go.

Women who live at Emmaus House are welcomed with love and are given the support needed to begin anew. There are five homes which serve 30 women in Saginaw. Their website shares, “We do not judge or dwell on the past. We believe that all of our women are unique, precious creations from God. Our mission is to join them in their journey, walking alongside them on the road to physical, emotional and spiritual healing, just as Christ did on the road to Emmaus.”

Donna, like the sisters who founded Emmaus House, believes the Lord is central to the healing and success stories, which is why they don’t accept any government funding.

“We are strictly run on donations and foundation grants,” Donna said. “We don’t take any government grants at all, because we want to run our program the way Sister Marietta saw it … with love, forgiveness and God.”

God is central.

“We're not doing it,” Donna said. “We're helping the ladies to accomplish things, but we’re not doing it. To watch their spiritual growth and their confidence come back is a beautiful thing to witness. For them to have a purpose, to live life a different way and most of all to be happy. That’s the key to this whole thing, because once you like who you are and you’re happy, there’s no need to put a substance in your body.”

When Donna reflects on her own transformation after coming to Emmaus House, she describes the love, gratitude and joy that fills her heart. It took a long time to get to where she is today, but she believes she is exactly where God wants her to be, and she couldn’t be more grateful.