Names: LeeAnn Balletto & Heather Van Syckle
Ages: 48 & 42
Name of Orgnaization: Piecing Hearts Together
Current Location: Nashville, TN
"Once I shared the bare bones of my idea with her, it grew into so much more than I could have imagined by myself."
"We want to reach out to as many people as we can to provide a comforting light where there is darkness or pain."
I've only known LeeAnn for a few short years, and have never formally met Heather, but I find them both to be such an inspiration, and their story to be such a beautiful testament of how God can reclaim our stories and passions.
In this month's feature, LeeAnn & Heather give us some insight into how they came to start their incredibly beautiful ministry, Piecing Hearts Together.
LeeAnn & Heather remind us of how, despite the inevitable disruptions of our lives, God is a redeemer of all things. He can use every one of us. Their story is a beautiful example of how God doesn't just redeem our lives to reignite our own hearts, but to also reignite the hearts of others around us. These ladies are exactly what Common Mission Women is all about! Thanks for sharing your stories LeeAnn & Heather!
Tell us about your organization, Piecing Hearts Together, and the mission behind it.
LB: "I’ve always enjoyed art, especially drawing and painting, though I had never thought of myself as an artist until recently - thanks to Heather! During a very difficult time in my life, while I was grappling with its many broken pieces, I imagined that those pieces resembled broken glass – like sea glass. Even though they’re tattered and worn, much like I felt, I knew that all together, in the hands of my Creator, they formed my whole picture. That was several years ago. I remember thinking at the time that, at some point, I might actually assemble a picture using sea glass; and hoped that eventually I’d find myself in a position to be able to bring that experience to other women who may be in their own state of healing. I had neither the time, the resources, nor the energy to attempt the first step or even give it serious thought. Fast forward a few years, and skip several details – I reconnected with my long-lost love from 25 years prior, we married, and I relocated from the western suburbs of Chicago to Nashville, TN. This is where I met Heather. Once I shared the bare bones of my idea with her, it grew into so much more than I could have imagined by myself. Together, we labored through the tedious paperwork necessary for becoming a legitimate nonprofit and we were so proud of our progress when we received our IRS determination letter approving us as a 501c3 Public Charity in August, 2016."
HVS: "For me, it all started with a text message. Last December, LeeAnn’s husband, Glenn, mentioned to me that she was excited about an artistic idea involving sea glass. I assumed she was working on a craft project, but when I sent her a text asking about it, she replied that she wanted to use it as a symbolic art exercise for people who may feel broken and could creatively “put the broken pieces back together.” I knew immediately that I wanted to talk to her more about it. So, in January, after the contract graphic design assignment I had been working ended, we finally had a chance to get together and talk about the idea and how I could be involved. It was an instant feeling of knowing that this could be a powerful way to help others and I knew that LeeAnn and I would make good partners. We started meeting every other week or so for the next three months, brainstorming whether this was just a volunteer thing or if it could become bigger than that. After much research, we decided that we should create a nonprofit and go as big as we could go. Once we came up with the name, Piecing Hearts Together, we started going full steam ahead and haven’t stopped since."
What makes you PASSIONATE about this work?
HVS: "Lifting people’s spirits is something that I have strived to do since I was a little girl. My husband, Richard, has often called me “The Inappropriate Optimist,” because I try to find a silver lining in everything, even in really aggravating scenarios like traffic jams, ice storms, or financial woes. So being a bright spot in the life of someone who is struggling is the best part of working with Piecing Hearts Together. Walking into a room that is full of pain and struggle and walking out of the same room after an hour-long creative art workshop surrounded by laughter, smiles, and inspiration is an indescribably good feeling. Seeing how art can boost confidence and self worth in such a short matter of time keeps me going because I want to give that experience to as many people as we can."
LCB: "Being able to connect with and validate people drives me to keep going. Even before our first workshop took place, I felt that providing a creative outlet for those who might be struggling would be rewarding. I had no idea how much of an impact it would really have. I’m continually surprised by the deepness and genuineness of the gratitude that is expressed at the end of our workshops. I love that our participants get to take their work with them as a reminder of what they can accomplish and the positive feelings they have while they’re with us."
Tell us about yourselves as artists and how it lead you to doing this kind of work?
HVS: "My mom, Sherri, constantly came up with craft projects for my sister and I to do, starting at a very young age. We would make Christmas gifts for family, sew and crochet, and create cool things out of almost nothing. My mom was frequently at her sewing machine listening to Neil Diamond or John Denver, while we sat on the floor behind her working on whatever art project we had at the time. That was a very calming, creative influence that has stayed with me til this day. At any given time, I’m working on at least four or five creative projects in various stages of completion. Mostly, I make mixed media assemblages, which allows me to work with all kinds of found objects and bits and pieces, but, I still enjoy crocheting and sewing, jewelry making, and up-cycling old things, such as train cases. When my first marriage was in decline in 2009, I turned to art as a way to calm myself and focus on something positive. For the next year, during the separation and divorce, I became almost obsessive about it because it was such a release from reality and gave me such a sense of pride whenever I would complete an art piece. I am happily remarried now, and in a very good place in my life, and I turn to art for different reasons. It allows me to silence the chatter in my brain and surprise myself by allowing the art to take on a life of its own. So, it’s more of a journey of self-discovery now than an escape. Having such a positive outlet with creative expression during the tough times is what made me strongly believe that the idea LeeAnn and I were setting out to do would be helpful to others."
LCB: "Childhood art projects could keep me busy for a long time! During my high school art class I learned new techniques and grew to love drawing and painting with oils and acrylics. I thought for sure I’d spend a good portion of my life painting and drawing. Once the reality of adult life hit, art took the back burner. That was especially true during the 20 year dark span I spent entangled in an abusive marriage. Once I was out of that, life was too chaotic to dabble with art, though the desire was back. It was then that I had the image of broken pieces coming together to form something whole and beautiful - realizing that my life had so many fractured pieces, and that none of those pieces by themselves defined me. It would still be a couple of years until the roots of that idea would begin to produce a blossom."
Can you both share a bit about previous seasons in your lives that you felt prepared you for this work?
HVS: "Having worked for over 20 years in marketing, graphic design, and media production, I always felt that my time at work was spent selling a message that I was never fully behind--be it tabloid magazine covers, water heater manuals, or reality show pitches. I was going along a career path that I sort of fell into, and was never passionate about. I had been raised to think along the lines of financial security and striving for a good salary, so I kept plugging along. I believe that jobs can definitely define a person--not by salary or title, but in how the person feels about themselves in that position. I was apathetic toward my career and it affected my self worth, my attitude, and my focus.
Six years ago, my life turned completely upside down in a matter of five months. My divorce was finalized, I packed up, fixed up, and sold the house I’d owned with my ex-husband, and held my mother’s hand as she passed away. Suddenly, I was adrift and I had no idea who I was or where I wanted to go in life. I felt the need to help others, but it took some time before I felt strong enough to do so. I continued working in graphic design, but I began actively applying for jobs in the nonprofit sector. Each time I was passed over for a position, I was crushed. Nevertheless, I kept trying. I had a clear vision and desire to make a positive difference in this world, and I was determined.
When LeeAnn and I started to flesh-out the possibilities of Piecing Hearts Together, I would wake up in the middle of the night, filled with hope and optimism. I knew it would be challenging to start a non profit, and I knew I’d be making financial sacrifices, but my renewed self-worth and sense of accomplishment overshadows the feelings of doubt. I am finally doing something that I believe in, love, and am good at. And those 20 years weren’t wasted--much of what I do with Piecing Hearts Together relies heavily on my past work experience and the skills I gathered along the way."
LCB: "I spent so much time feeling that I had wasted a good chunk of my life - lost in an abusive marriage, unable to be all that I could be for myself, for my children. When I finally left, things did not instantly become ok. It took a lot of counseling, a lot of praying, and a lot of relying on other people – something that did not come easy for me. God had seen to it that I was placed in the most loving, safe, and supportive environment around at a small community church close to home – Poplar Creek Church, in Bartlett, IL. All of the love and encouragement that I had been missing for so many years was found there. My Pastor (who happens to be Katie’s husband now) took a chance and hired me as the Office Administrator when I was desperate for a job. I served on staff there for three years. Even though those years were chaotic and difficult, they also provided opportunity for incredible growth. I honestly learned the importance of living transparently in community. This was not only preached there, but practiced. I was smack in the middle of receiving help from so many friends there, and also made myself available to talk and pray with people when they felt the need to connect or share something – both heartache and joy. I loved being part of the staff so much – I actually looked forward to our staff meetings! One of the other great lessons learned from my time at Poplar Creek came during a Sunday sermon, when Pastor Ian said, “Your pain has a purpose and should not be wasted. Don’t waste it.” That season of my life definitely prepared me for the work we’re doing now with Piecing Hearts Together. I know how it feels to be alone, without my own home, afraid, ashamed, and just plain sad - like I had nothing to offer and I was just wasting space. I imagine that, at times, our workshop participants might be feeling that way, too. What we do with art in the classroom often serves as a spark of hope, brings a sense of accomplishment and pride, and people walk away with something beautiful as a reminder that they are so much more than one choice or one experience. experience. There’s a song by Jason Gray, 'Nothing is Wasted', that I listened to repeatedly as a source of encouragement. I held on to these lyrics and knew that at some point, God would use my pain for something good: 'What if every tear you cry will seed the ground, where joy will grow.'
Watch Nothing Is Wasted video here
Tell us about the demographic you serve, and what developed your hearts for serving this specific group.
LCB: "We’re currently serving at a women’s residential drug & alcohol rehabilitation center and at a homeless shelter. Initially, my goal was mainly to work with women at domestic abuse shelters because that’s what I’m familiar with, but really, what we do applies to anyone in a state of transition. We’re also working to reach people at senior centers, youth centers, health recovery facilities and camps, and drug trafficking shelters. Our passion has become less focused on a certain group type and more focused on just people in general. What we do will also serve well as a type of retreat for any group or staff that needs to connect with each other and take a break from their usual grind, so we’re looking into that, too."
HVS: "Piecing Hearts Together is ever-evolving in its outreach. As we receive feedback from participants and from the staff at facilities where we provide the workshops, we’re fine-tuning the art projects and our community focus. We want to reach out to as many people as we can to provide a comforting light where there is darkness or pain. As LeeAnn said, when we started PHT, we didn’t really see ourselves being in a classroom full of men, working on mixed media assemblages! But we’re doing just that at the homeless shelter, and it’s been so well-received. So our heart’s passion is for many, many groups."
Any significant stories from your individual experiences with this passion project that have been impactful for either of you?
LCB: "At the end of our workshops, we ask people to complete a simple three-question feedback form – How did you feel during the workshop? What part of the workshop had the most positive impact? Would you attend another workshop like this? One of my favorite responses was “made me feel put back together”. Also, there have a been a few women who’ve said they’re inspired to do something like we’re doing – to use their experiences to help someone else. That’s gratifying!"
HVS: "Some of our workshops have been very emotive experiences for participants. Particularly so in the women’s addiction recovery program, where individuals are really taking a good, hard look at their lives, their past, and their choices. One woman sat quietly crying at the table at the beginning of the workshop and, not wanting to call attention to her, I just turned up the relaxation music a little bit and watched as she slowly began building her artwork. At the end of the class, I complimented her on her finished piece--which was gorgeous--and she said with a big smile, 'I’m really proud of it. I didn’t think I was going to be able to make anything nice.'I asked her why she thought that and she said, “Well, my mama was a really accomplished artist and she was good at everything from sculpture to music to painting. She used to get mad at me when I was a kid and did art stuff because she didn’t think any of the things I made were good. So I just stopped trying. I was so nervous coming in here today because I figured I wouldn’t make anything nice, but I really like this. I’m going to keep it forever.”
That exchange was so powerful for me, because I saw what an hour of creative expression could do for someone’s self-esteem. "
Any struggles that have come with the process of starting or running this organization?
LCB: "Our biggest hurdle at the beginning was completing the IRS application to become a nonprofit. Now that we’ve been approved as a 501c3 Public Charity, we rely on donations to operate. Reaching our financial goals is difficult, but we’re encouraged by how well-received our workshops are. Heather and I often take turns worrying and wondering if we’ll be able to continue, but we’re usually able to quickly bring each other back to feeling hopeful again. We’re constantly working on new fundraising ideas so we’ll be able to maintain and eventually grow the work we’re doing."
HVS: "We knew very little about starting a nonprofit seven months ago, that’s for sure! But that’s what I love about being partners with LeeAnn. She and I both dig and dig until we find the right answers, the resources, and the methods with which we need to proceed down this path, and we’re very thorough.
Our biggest struggle is funding, for sure, and we’ve had to talk each other down from the ledge several times and take turns being the cheerleader. We’ve come so far in such a short amount of time, but that perspective can get lost when you’re cobbling together dollars for a haircut! There are many, many causes out there for people to support, so we just have to keep shouting from the rooftops as loud as we can to get people invested in and supportive of the great work we’re doing in our community."
What encouragement or advice can you give to those who are still figuring out their heart's "passion", or trying to get the courage to finally pursue their passion more FULLY?
LCB: "Keep trying! Roadblocks and detours are opportunities to navigate a different path and increase knowledge.Once you get around it, you’ll have an invaluable experience to pull from and you’ll learn things you wouldn’t have otherwise. If there’s a desire is in your heart, it’s meant for you to do, even if you don’t know how or exactly what that will look like. I had no idea where I was going with the images and hopes that I had. I didn’t try to force it before I was ready. I prayed a lot, and when the time was right, I shared with a friend and together we made Piecing Hearts Together happen. We’re not really made to operate alone – reach out, share your ideas with trusted friends, and – this one is big: let them help! Heather is responsible for coming up with our name, something I had been struggling with for a while. And it encompasses all that we do – working with pieces (literally and symbolically), helping to heal heartache, and living in community. She’s also contributed so much to the vision of Piecing Hearts Together, I’m convinced that without our collaboration, PHT would still be just an idea."
HVS: "I agree wholeheartedly with LeeAnn about asking for help and collaborating. I’ve attempted entrepreneurial ventures in the past and they never took off because I tried to do everything myself. Partnering with LeeAnn has shown me that it is imperative to have supportive people around you when you’re walking on a new path. We’ve reached out to friends and family and asked their opinions. Our husbands have both been extremely supportive, offering advice and also comfort in the difficult times. We’ve also utilized so many free and inexpensive resources, such as professional business consulting from the small business center here in Nashville.
Since we work with other nonprofits, we see first-hand how they tackle similar struggles, so I think it’s very important to seek out mentors in the same field, and not be shy about asking questions! If you see someone that is succeeding in the same thing you are striving to do, a friendly introduction email can often open doors.
Most of all, finding and pursuing your passion all comes from within. Is the idea you are mulling over something that you wake up excited about? Or is it just a way to make money? It’s important to remember that if you succeed in your pursuits, you’re more than likely going to be committed to it for a long time. So choose something you can grow with and be excited about for many years."
What do you both see for the future of PHT?
LCB: "We’ve made some great progress in a short time and we plan to keep that momentum going. I’d love to see so much growth that we’ll need to create jobs and hire people! My prayer is that God continues to use us where we’re most needed. I see us branching out into areas we haven’t even thought of yet and hope that we’re able to make a difference everywhere we go, and leave people knowing that they’re loved, valued, and not alone."
HVS: "I have so much faith that Piecing Hearts Together is going to grow and expand so much over the next 5 years that LeeAnn and I will marvel at the progress. It will be wonderful to create jobs, especially for people over 55 and under 20.
We’re on the verge of rolling out a Piecing Hearts Together program for senior citizens in memory care centers, which is very exciting! I think when we begin to show others how effective creativity can be for people who are struggling to communicate, it will have a major impact."
Thanks LeeAnn & Heather!