Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Jeanette Merchant ~ Former Staff

My name is Jeanette Merchant and I was a full-time staff lady at Hephzibah House from August of 1994 until January first of 1995.

The girls would remember me as Miss White. I stayed only five months even though I was "committed" to work there for two years. I could not stay because I could not condone the abuses I saw there. Three months ago, I found this website and started reading the testimonies and I cried. Fourteen years had passed and all these memories came rushing back. I think I cried for a couple of days. Anyway, I will attempt to describe in detail, what I saw and how the girls and staff were treated.

In June of 1994, I went to Hephzibah House for a two week trial run to see if I wanted to work there. Everyone put on a front and I was treated like "family." So I decided to become staff and returned in August. At that time, we had eighteen girls and three full-time staff ladies, including myself. For the first two weeks, I had no day off and I became exhausted. I believe this was to wear me down physically. Then I was given one day off a week, which I spent in a spare room at Don and Wenda’s house.

As a full-time staff lady, I had to support myself financially. Hephzibah House did not pay us staff ladies a salary. I had to ask my home church, family or friends for support like a missionary.
This did not bother me, until now, after I learned how much Ron brings in every year, tax free. Also, I have done research and found out Hephzibah House Inc., Ronald and Patricia Williams have 1.5 million in real estate holdings according to the Koskuisko County 2007 Tax Assessments.

The first night I was there I was told to sleep in the bunk beside a girl who had arrived that day. The new girl was seventeen and a half years old and she had gotten "spanked" earlier that day. I was told by another staff lady that they held her down, forced her on her stomach, put a chair over her head and feet and "spanked" her with a "rod."

Life at Hephzibah House is very controlled. At night there are alarms set on the doors and windows so no one can escape. One staff lady slept in the hallway, which I believe is a fire hazard. If I or one of the girls had to go to the bathroom, we had to wake up a staff lady, because just walking down the hall would set off a beeper.. There was also a ten foot privacy fence surrounding the perimeter of the back yard, with locked gates.

The food was awful. When I first arrived I was put on half portions, then I graduated to full portions. For breakfast we ate grits. For lunch we ate tomato and cheese sandwiches. Without freedom to choose, we ate salads twice a day for a month. Some of the girls were doubling over with gas pains, it was too much fiber. The tomatoes were rotten. We would cut out the rotten holes and eat the rest. The salads were pre-packaged, slimy and expired. We would pick out the not so slimy lettuce and eat that. There were times while we were eating soggy salads outside, the Williams were above us on the deck grilling steaks and hamburgers, while we hungered.

We never ate fresh fruit. We also rarely ate turkey, beef, and chicken. The only meat was a fish mackerel loaf made from canned fish. Sometimes we ate soup made from unlabeled cans thrown in the pot. Yuck! If myself or one of the girls could not finish a meal, it was served to us at the next meal. One time I ate peas for breakfast. We had to drink milk that was made from powdered milk . This was so disgusting and was served with breakfast. One day, we were at breakfast, and a new girl said she was lactose intolerant. The other staff lady called her a liar and told her to drink the milk. As soon as she did, she projectile vomited. They made her clean up her own vomit. When the food truck came, the Williams got first pick and we got the leftovers.

I was told by Ron not to bring my car, that I could use theirs anytime. This was a lie to trap me there, I was never allowed to use their car . This was all about control. If I had my car, I would be free to leave whenever I wanted and that was what they were afraid of.

We had to drink so much water that it was hard not to have to go to the bathroom all the time. Some girls would accidentally wet their pants, so the Williams would make that poor girl wear a diaper. Can you imagine being sixteen and wearing depends? How humiliating.

All mail went through the Williams. I would see the girls’ letters censored with black markers, crossing out some of what their parents said. Also, the letters the girls wrote were read by the Williams before they were mailed out. The girls could not even tell their parents how they were being treated, because their letters were censored with a black marker as well.

Even my mail was monitored. One time, I got a call to go up to the Williams because Ron wanted to talk to me. I remember being scared. They had held a piece of my mail for two weeks. It was from a guy friend of mine. We had worked at the same Christian Camp one summer when I was in college and kept in touch. Ron said "I strongly recommend that you cease mailing him because it could lead to marriage. I told Ron that he wanted to sponsor me at ten dollars a month. He said praise the LORD, but he strongly suggested I not write to him anymore, but I could take his money. I ended up just sending him his money back. I did not feel right taking it. I was 21 years old, what right did they have telling me who I could correspond with?

The staff ladies and the girls were basically used as free labor. We had to clean the Williams houses, the church , school , cars, weed the garden, and rake the lawn. One time the girls and I had to clean Ron’s car and it was a pigsty. There were candy wrappers all over the place. I thought this was strange because Ron taught that sugar was "white death." The cleaning took about four hours. Later on, we were all lined up, to go outside. I could tell something was wrong. I was told in front of everybody that the car did not pass inspection. Nothing we did was ever good enough.

There was no love, joy or encouragement at Hephzibah House. Fear, humiliation, and constant fault finding were the tools used to "modify behavior." Many of the girls could not even talk to each other. Once the parents dropped off their daughter, they were not allowed to contact her for three months. After that, it was a ten minute phone call once a month, while a staff lady listened in on.

The girls were required to post their bowel movements on a public chart. They were only given three minutes to have a shower. I was required to set a timer. In my opinion the girls were not even treated like humans. I can remember we had to make all 18 girls line up whenever we went to school or church. Then they would count off out loud from one to eighteen like a bunch of toddlers.

I remember Patti Williams had a very bad temper. The only emotion we received from her is anger. One day she came down to the dorm and screamed in front of all us that she had just been to the Kagin’s house and their house was filthy. She said they lived liked "pigs." Maybe their house was messy because they are busy cleaning up after the Williams. Is this how you treat someone who has worked for you for many years?

Another episode happened on a Saturday and we were in and out doing work all day, and a some flies had gotten in. Naomi came down to the dorm to get something from the kitchen. She noticed the flies and killed them for me. Then she ran upstairs and told mommy that we had flies in the dorm. Patti got on the intercom, screamed at us, and told us to not let flies in. Why couldn’t Naomi just kill the flies for us and be a servant of Christ instead of running up to mommy and tattling like a child? One of the Williams sons came in one day and asked, "How are all you morons doing?" Sadly, some of their children reflected their parents’ view of us as well.

Ron taught in church that single women were subject to the authority of their pastor. So basically he said the staff ladies had to do everything he said. If I disagreed and I said so, I was told I by another staff lady that I wasn’t being "teachable," or I believe I wasn’t willing to be brainwashed. I was constantly told by the other staff ladies that the Williams were my authority, and God speaks through your authority. I believe these teachings are indicators of a cult.

After about four months, I went to Ron and told him I was leaving. He told me I committed to two years and I was breaking a vow to God, comparable to marriage. I was basically stuck there with no way out. They did not offer me a ride home or to a bus station. He did not contact my parents and have them pick me up.

About two weeks later on my day off, I was at Don and Wenda’s talking to my mom and telling her to come and pick me up. I was on the phone for two hours. I guess, Ron was trying to get a hold of Don and couldn’t because I was on the phone. Ever hear of call waiting? I think someone heard me talking to my mom and told Ron everything. After that, my "phone privilege" was taken away, and I was only allowed to talk in the staff room in the main dorm with no privacy. That way they would know when I was on the phone and could listen in.

Finally, my parents came for a visit on a Sunday. I was told by Ron I was not allowed to go out to eat with my parents after church because this would be patronizing a local business on the Sabbath, and working on Sunday was an abomination to God. So another staff lady prepared steak, which is the first time I had steak there, and brought it to me and my parents in a five gallon bucket. If you could have seen the look on my mom’s face.

I spent that night in a hotel with my parents and we discussed me leaving Hephzibah House. I decided in the morning to leave so I called and told Ron. He wanted to meet with me and my parents one more time at the School Street location. He pointed his finger at me and basically screamed that I was breaking a vow to God and I was responsible for those girls. He basically said that if I left, God would punish me. Well, I did not sign on to being slave labor, eating rotten food, and being screamed at by Patti.

I went back to the dorm and packed and left that night. One other staff lady and one of the Williams’ sons watched as I packed my things like I was scum or a criminal. What was I going to steal, a pair of ugly polyester culottes? I was in such a hurry, I forgot to pack my shoes.

I was so physically and mentally exhausted by the time I got home. I weighed 120 when I went there, and about 105 pounds when I left. The first thing I wanted to eat when I got home was pizza. It took me four months just to regain my strength back. I believe I was malnourished and anemic when I returned home.

I almost gave up on God and Christianity after I left this place of horror. So I got alone with God and the Bible and studied for myself. I believe Hephzibah House does more harm to Christianity than good. They teach a warped view of God. God is not up in Heaven waiting to pound me on the head every time I sin. He just wants my heart and a relationship with me.

God did not punish me for leaving. In fact, I met my future husband two months after I got home. He is a wonderful Christian, good husband and father. I am now a home schooling mother of three, and I would never ever send any one of my daughters to Hephzibah House.