My name is MiChelle Miron. Please accept this as my official statement. I was at Hephzibah House from 1990 to 1993.
After much trepidation, I have decided to share my experience. I was born and raised in a strict fundamental Baptist home. I was your average sheltered 15yr old. I had never drank, smoked, run away or any of the other "sins". My home was conflicted because we knew we could get away with things with my dad that my mom would not allow. Please don’t get me wrong. I love my family and believe they did the best they could for us.
I was preparing to go to camp and the weekend before my mom suggested we go visit Shipshewana in Indiana. I had heard of the place and was excited that we could go for a mother/daughter visit. My parents had me sleep in their room on the floor and then we got up early the next morning. I was told my dad had gone to work. My mom and I loaded into the van and stopped to get gas. I was very surprised when we drove to the church and my dad and the pastor walked around the building and got into the van. I was then told that I was being taken to Hephzibah.
We knew about the ministry because my parent’s church supported them. However, it was a standing joke that if you didn’t behave you would be sent there. All of the girls knew it was not a good place to be sent. We had heard the stories from girls that had been there. It was a long drive and I remember just resigning to the fact I had no way out.
When we arrived, my suitcase was gone through and may items such as curling iron, hairspray, etc. were sent back home with my parents. I was then taken into the bathroom and stripped down to my underwear, told to get into the shower and hand out my panties and bra. Then I was told to wash all the hairspray and makeup off. When I was finished I was handed a blue jumper and red shirt made of polyester. I was told I could only wear slippers. I later found out this was to prevent new girls from running away because they couldn’t get very far.
I was not allowed to say goodbye to my mom and dad but was escorted downstairs into the basement and the door was locked behind me. I will tell you that I had never felt so lonely or lost than that moment. I was scared, isolated and crying. I was taken to the main room and seated at a table. I was given a copy of the rules and told to read them. I was also told that I needed to be quiet and stop crying. I softly wept for several days missing my family. I knew that I would have to immediately conform in order to stay out of trouble.
I always felt "branded". We were the worst of sinners. We had no privacy whatsoever. We were monitored in the bathroom and given assigned stalls. We had to mark what they called a BM chart. You had to indicate whether we had a bowel movement that day and mark it with an S for soft, M for medium, H for hard or D for diarrhea. If we forgot to mark the chart, we would be given demerits. I do not remember how many demerits you got before you had to write sentences but the least amount was 500 sentences. You would not be allowed to speak to anyone and you had to wear the uniform to church to indicate that you had been bad. Demerits were handed out freely and offenses were made up at the drop of a hat.
Meals were very scary. We were allowed to pick whether we wanted half portions (dieters) or full portions. For me the food was never enough.
I learned to stay out of trouble very quickly so I was allowed to be on the "garden crew". These were the only girls allowed outside of the fence. The house that we lived in was surrounded by a very tall wood fence. The doors and windows had alarms. It wasn’t to keep people from getting in but from us getting out.
The garden girls did intensive, back-breaking work from sun-up to sundown in the summer. We would lift five gallon buckets of honey over our heads in confined spaces, pick corn and carry large tubs of it back to the trucks through a field in the hot summer sun, rip out old fence rows covered in poison ivy, etc.
I was always hungry and resorted to stealing food from the "blessing room". The blessing room was a room upstairs in the Williams family living area. There were shelves lined with cooking supplies, food and juices. We were not allowed to eat any of that; it was reserved for them only. I was ashamed to be stealing but I was very hungry. We were fed from the supplies they could get from a food bank. Most of it was unmarked cans that would be opened and tossed into a large pot and then served as soup. I know that some of those cans we opened smelled and looked just like Alpo dog food. We were fed things like millet, barley malt and others I had never heard of. We were made to take vitamins daily and would have reactions to having too much in our system.
Because I was one of the "trusted" girls, I was allowed to talk to almost everyone. I was not allowed to speak to one of my childhood friends that was there until she graduated. We could only talk about approved subjects. We could not talk about friends, past students, or even our brothers. We were not allowed to have pens and paper unless in school or during approved letter writing time. Everything in our lives was monitored. Our letters were read before going out and read before we got them from our parents, phone calls and visits were strictly monitored.
You were denied meals for failing to pass a duty inspection. I was not spanked while I was there but I heard many girls crying and yelling and they would come back downstairs sobbing. It was one of our worst fears to be called upstairs. We knew what was happening. We had assigned bathroom breaks and if you had to go before that you would get demerits. This went for in the middle of the night too. The staff were very uncaring, crabby and vindictive.
Maybe these things don’t seem so bad to you but we lived in fear. You trusted no one and the best way to stay unnoticed was to keep your mouth shut and head down. I had severe menstrual cramps growing up. I would be doubled over in pain, throwing up. I had the same thing while I was there and was denied any pain killers. I was expected to perform my duties even though I could not even stand up without doubling over in pain. I could not eat and would not have wanted to eat if I could have.
I was forced to drink a protein shake because I was "sick". The protein shakes were similar to what they give to body-builders except ours were not mixed properly. They were mixed with cold water and that left them clumpy and hard to choke down. I would often just throw them back up. I would lay there and ask God to please kill me.
I have had glasses since I was a kid. While I was there, my frames broke. I do not recall the exact circumstances. I was not allowed to have an eye exam to get them fixed. They were taken somewhere and the lenses put into some old frames. The frames were not the right shape for the lenses so everything was distorted. They gave me headaches and I was told there was nothing they could do. I resorted to not wearing them at all which left me almost blind. I failed a sweeping duty because I missed a piece of popcorn behind a large door. I could barely see the hand in front of my face and the staff knew that but it was not given any consideration. I was then made to drink a protein shake for dinner.
During my stay, a past students family had tried to get the State of Indiana to investigate reports of abuse. I and another student were hand-picked to speak to this agent. We were taken to his office and he questioned us in front of the staff lady. I was terrified to tell him anything because I knew the trouble we would be in. He asked the staff lady to leave but she left a tape recorder behind. We knew that she would hear us anyway so we said that things were all okay. He asked us to write on a piece of paper anything we might want to say but I was petrified and knew that not only would the Williams family be very angry but so would my family and church. I couldn’t take the chance of being all alone with no way to support myself.
Shortly after that meeting all of the girls were sent home to their families. I don’t know the time frame but probably a month or so, the school was reopened and I was sent back to finish my schooling. The staff ladies are not trained to teach so there was no one to explain algebra to me. They figured that I was not getting it so I was given a different subject in order to graduate.
I sum all this up by saying, God was sorely misrepresented to us. We were always afraid of judgment and humiliated. Our sin was thrown into our faces daily and we were not to forget that we were the forsaken. I learned to hide my emotions, to be untrusting and unforgiving. I have nightmares that I am trapped there as an adult and trying to explain that I don’t belong there. I have unfounded fears that my husband will abandon me.
I beg you to reconsider if you are thinking of sending your daughter there.