Horses help vets see ‘your yesterday is not your tomorrow’

As a combat medic in Iraq and Afghanistan, Donnie Gist saw the horrors of war firsthand. Back in the States after deployment, Gist’s two sisters died a day apart.

vets DSC_0054 (1024x681)The trauma was almost too much to bear.

“I was very depressed and had no way to channel my emotions,” Gist says, “but I had heard you could work through issues by learning to care for big animals.” A rodeo cowboy helped him discover a healing love for horses.

Next, Donnie helped veterans in MUST supportive housing to overcome issues that prevent them from living successfully. On an outing to the Calvin Center, an equestrian therapy center in Hampton, Donnie saw new light in the eyes of several veterans as they overcame fears and made friends with the horses.

“They were clearly nervous,” Gist says. “At the end, they were smiling and dismounted like cowboys, without any help. The look on their faces said a million words.”

Something clicked

vets DSC_0042 (1024x681)Omar Edwards grew up in New York City, so his exposure to horses had been limited.

“The Bronx is not a horse place,” says the Army veteran, who served nine months in Jalalabad, Afghanistan. “I remember seeing a police horse in Central Park one time. Other than that, I saw some Animal Planet documentaries.”

When Edwards met his Calvin Center horse for the day, Atticus, something immediately clicked.

“We bonded, in a way,” Edwards says. The horse was playful with him and kept tugging at his shirt. When Edwards climbed anxiously into the saddle, Atticus seemed to know exactly what he wanted him to do.

‘Grateful every morning’

vets DSC_0177 (1024x681)Art McDaniel, on the other hand, grew up in rural Banks County, Georgia, where he had his own horse on the family farm. But it had been four decades since he had ridden.

McDaniel, a former Marine who struggles with PTSD, felt nervous about being around large animals again.

“At first I wondered how I would react around them,” he says. “But then I remembered what it was like growing up, and my confidence came back.”

The experience on horseback helped McDaniel realize in a new way just how much progress he has made through MUST’s veterans programs.

“I was pretty broken when I got here. There’s been a lot of repair work done on me,” he says. Every now and then, I still turtle up and withdraw into my shell.

“Now I know I’m in a safe place and I have good people around me,” McDaniel adds. “I have other vets who check in on me, and I just keep moving forward. I wake up grateful every morning.”

Looking forward

Edwards, whose warehouse unit was attacked three times in Afghanistan, lives with OCD and finds it difficult to relate to others.

“My first two weeks at MUST, I was always inside. I never came out to talk,” he recalls. “Then I decided to give it a chance. I mean, what was the worst that could happen? We would exchange stories, and I would learn something.

“As I have grown, these guys have come to be more of a family,” he adds. “They all have put their lives on the line, and I have learned a lot from them. Life has steps, and we aren’t in a race to the top. You have to take time with each one.”

Through MUST’s veterans services, donors and corporate sponsors help traumatized veterans understand that “your yesterday is not your tomorrow,” Gist says. “The support of partners like The Home Depot Foundation lets veterans know somebody appreciates them. It helps veterans learn that they can grow and change.”

How you can help
Adopt a veteran for Christmas: Contact [email protected]
Serve MUST’s veterans in other ways: Email [email protected]
Corporate sponsorship of veterans program: Contact Don Crampton, [email protected]
The Calvin Center’s equestrian Therapy program:

Mark Kelly writes for MUST Ministries.

Canton translator loves giving others ‘a light of hope’

When Miguel Santiesteban moved to the US four years ago from Barranquilla, Colombia, he learned firsthand what it was like to be immersed in a culture that speaks a different language. But his godmother started bringing him to MUST when she came to volunteer. Now Miguel is giving back by translating for Spanish-speaking MUST clients!

Miguel Santiestaban 170926Serving at MUST helped Miguel learn English, and when he turned 18, he started volunteering himself. A student at Kennesaw State University, Miguel works the front desk at MUST’s Cherokee Program Center on Fridays during the school year. He answers questions for Spanish-speaking visitors and helps them fill out necessary forms.

Miguel says he loves helping others and knows how much of a difference it makes.

Spanish-speaking clients can open up much more about their needs when interacting with someone who speaks their language. It allows them to feel better about receiving help when they can be specific and elaborate beyond the few English words they know.

“You can be the bridge to help them understand the process and give them a light of hope,” Miguel says.

Miguel also helped pack lunches for the Summer Lunch program at North Metro Church in Marietta. This past summer, he interned at FOX 5 Atlanta, the television media sponsor for Summer Lunch.

You can make a huge difference in someone’s life by volunteering. To learn about the many places and ways to serve others at MUST, visit

Emily Varnum is a Kennesaw State University student and former MUST Ministries intern.


Marty Wilkes: Finding a way back

Marty Wilkes spent most of his career as a pastor and owner of a successful freight logistics company operating 82 trucks. He lived in South Georgia, raised three children and later followed them to Cobb County when they attended Kennesaw State University.

Marty Wilkes (768x1024)His life sounds ideal until he begins to share the rest of his story. After three neck fusions paired with a continuing battle with neuropathy, the beleaguered 61-yr.-old began showing signs of mood swings and an altered personality because of his medication. Last Memorial Day, he was out on the street with no home, no family and no hope. His only companion was deep depression.

After losing his apartment, his former landlord suggested he go to MUST Ministries’ Elizabeth Inn and get help. He did, and a shift began to happen.

“Every person at MUST is absolutely fantastic,” he said, remembering his 42-day stay at the shelter. “The volunteer who greeted me made me feel great about being at Elizabeth Inn, and I spent a lot of time talking with my caseworker.”

Marty came to MUST with employment, working in Guest Services at the Infinity Club for the Atlanta Braves. “Working for the Braves is a dream come true and I’ve never missed a game,” he said. “MUST allowed me to work the night schedule and sleep in the mornings so I could continue my job.”

He said when he first realized he was homeless, he looked in the mirror “and saw an old man”. He felt little hope, but “MUST gives you all of the assets and tools you need. They provide a bed, meals and volunteers even wash your clothes for you. To be honest, I kind of hated to leave when my time was up,” he smiled.

Marty explained that many people he met at the shelter were in similar situations. MUST clients just need some help getting stabilized. “MUST couldn’t have done a better job of working with so many people. They took everyone’s situation into account,” he said.

Today, Marty is renting a room from a coworker. Just a few weeks away from his stay at the shelter, he is making decisions about next steps. He appreciates his open invitation to continue using the computer lab, employment services and even hot lunches should he need more support. “MUST is doing everything they can to move people in a healthy direction. I feel like there is hope again.”

A creative director gave up … but MUST didn’t

Jasmina Jovic thought she had gone from fashion to failure.

Jasmina Jovic cropWith a master’s degree in textiles, an impressive career and success managing fashion design, she never dreamed she would be jobless, depressed and barely hanging on. But she was.

While attending a support group, someone suggested she try MUST Ministries for employment services. After two and a half years of being out of work, she had little hope anyone could help, but she reluctantly showed up at MUST where she met Nate Marsh and Jeff Edwards. That meeting changed everything.

The MUST Employment Services team helped Jasmina land a job that feeds her creativity and connected her with other women who have struggled financially.The Yugoslavia native has lived in the States for 30 years with an illustrious career, but today, she says she is finally “home”.

Working in the Glory Haus Repurposed on Purpose workshop, she is thrilled to be part of a group that makes creative items for celebrities, companies and other organizations. She is in a nurturing and caring environment and she laughs easily now, knowing she is moving forward.

“MUST helped me put together my resume and cover letter, rehearsed job interview skills and helped me land in this wonderful place,” she said. “I have come so far. I had little hope. Now I am enjoying work every day, eating meals here with my co-workers and creating products people love to buy. This is wonderful.”

A few of Jasmina’s accomplishments:
– Initiated, designed, directed and launched Wamsutta’s first “bed-in-a-bag”
– Prepared and launched Springmaid brand as Wal-Mart’s first national brand for soft home department
– Forecasted home fashion furniture trends

Volunteer’s hobby brightens lives of homeless children

Between homeschool and vacation Bible school, Kathy Puder and her daughters, Jacalyn (23) and Sidney (13), have lots of experience with craft projects – and an abundance of supplies.

Kathy Puder EI crafts 170728 (1024x768)The Puder family knows the joy of using what they have to brighten the lives of struggling children.

Their pastor spoke to his church about the overwhelming challenges facing families in crisis who have found shelter at MUST’s Elizabeth Inn. The thought of those children stirred Kathy’s heart.

“We had a lot of craft supplies, and my daughters and I had been talking about ways to use them outside of our home,” Kathy said.

On Friday evenings once a month, Kathy and her daughters join another MUST volunteer, Jennifer Vece, in welcoming about a dozen children whose mothers are attending a workshop at the Elizabeth Inn. They hand out supplies and show the kids how to turn popsicle sticks and rubber bands into catapults. Soon the boys are shouting in delight as they launch fluff balls across the room.

“When a little girl climbs up on your lap and gives you a hug, it renews your spirit,” Kathy says. “I want my girls to know the blessing of reaching out like this.” Most families have hobbies and pastimes that could be shared to make a difference in the lives of their neighbors in need, Kathy adds.

“If you have the ability to do something, share it with others,” she says. “When you see the need, you can just step up to meet it.”

To discover ways you can help, visit

We’re all better when kids aren’t hungry

A hungry child can’t learn – and if kids don’t learn, the entire community suffers.

Volunteer Pam Graham helped develop the school food pantry program.

Volunteer Pam Graham helped develop the school food pantry program.

But if you feed the child, the cycle of poverty can be broken.

Such a simple idea, but Pam Graham’s heart lit up when the founder of MUST Ministries’ Save It Forward first shared it with her. Newly retired after 26 years with Delta Airlines and recently widowed, Pam poured herself into the challenge of getting Save It Forward up and running.

“We knew the need was enormous,” explains Pam, a longtime Atlanta resident and grandmother of seven. “One in four Georgia children don’t get enough to eat, and nearly half of all children in the state live in low-income households.” She also knew they had a great idea: Collect grocery coupons and send volunteers out shopping. Gather the donated food into a warehouse and then distribute it to schools, where students and their families can receive it discreetly.

Not only do better-fed students learn more in school, but also “coupon shopping provides children with the same snacks all of their classmates are eating,” Pam says. “If you have no snacks and you’re getting them out of a basket the teacher has in the classroom, it creates a stigma. There’s a whole lot going on, more than just the food.”

The Save It Forward idea caught fire with families, organizations, churches, businesses – and schools. Soon Pam found herself inundated with clipping coupons, compiling grocery lists, shopping, sorting donations and distributing to an ever-growing number of school food pantries.

“As the program expanded, I couldn’t do all of that, so I backed off from front-line things and started working at the warehouse more,” Pam explains. When Save It Forward merged with MUST in 2015, a new horizon of opportunity opened up.

Pam particularly appreciates the MUST volunteers who have come alongside to help. “It’s a very labor-intensive program. We do a lot of laborious chores with the packing and distributions to the schools where the food is picked up. It requires a lot of volunteers to do the work,” she says. “It was really nice to see they have the same heart for the program that we had when it all began. It’s very touching to think that other people can see the benefit of it and have the same drive to make sure it continues.”

Save It Forward distributed 246,830 pounds of food and toiletries through 24 schools in 2016. To learn how you can help, please visit



‘To have someone who actually cares …’

Ayesha Barker blog 170628Ayesha Barker and her family moved to Atlanta in search of a better life. A relative took them in while they looked for jobs, but the relative suddenly had to move – and Ayesha’s family found themselves sleeping in their car.

Providence led them to MUST Ministries, where they found emergency shelter at the Elizabeth Inn. MUST’s Employment Services staff helped Ayesha’s fiancé find a factory job, and the family was able to get an apartment of their own. Before long, Ayesha also found a job.

Now she looks or every opportunity to give back. Her co-workers in a Home Depot call center collect food and pack bags for MUST’s Summer Lunch program, which provides a nutritious lunch every weekday during summer school break for more than 6,000 children – including Ayesha’s own son. She also has launched a youth program in her neighborhood to teach life skills to girls ages 10-18 because she knows how much difference it makes to know someone cares about you.

“Behind closed doors, there’s a lot of things you struggle with,” she says. “To have someone who actually cares what goes on, that’s really important.”

You can make a life-changing difference for families like Ayesha’s by making a donation or volunteering your time.

Tanya Hurt: ‘I’m not going to give up the fight’

Tanya HurtAfter the deaths of three family members, Tanya Hurt was trapped in the throes of depression.

She felt the Lord leading her to leave her hometown of Cincinnati and seek change. With no idea where they might end up, she and her husband loaded the youngest four of their eight children into their car, packed everything they could fit into a U-Haul and began driving south.

“I got on my hands and knees and asked the Lord to guide me,” she said. “I didn’t know where I was going.”

Hurt’s long journey down I-75 ended in Atlanta, but she didn’t find the change she had been hoping for. Instead she found was more pain: Her family was now homeless.

The Hurt family bounced from hotel to hotel, but eventually their money ran out. With no support system and no resources, they were out of options. The family’s only hope of having a roof over their heads was to find a family shelter.

Their search for refuge brought them to the Elizabeth Inn at MUST Ministries, the only local shelter that might be able to house a family as large as hers.

When she arrived, though, intake was closed for the day. She was too late. It seemed her hopes were dashed.

When Tanya came back early the next day to try again, she learned a family had just left the program and space was available for her and all her children. Had she come earlier or later than she did, there likely would not have room.

Hurt remained at the Elizabeth Inn for several weeks, slowly regaining stability while receiving the mental and emotional support she sorely needed. She learned that a better life was not only within her reach, but she held it in her hands.

“The staff showed me that I’m not supposed to depend on anybody to get where I need to be,” she said. “I must put more effort into myself to get myself out of my current situation.”

Hurt said she has a multitude of people at MUST to thank for how far she’s come, and that even today, she thinks of MUST as a friend she was able to go to when she had no one else.

“When I go to MUST, my face is recognized and I know I’m not alone,” she said.

Today, the Hurt family is back on its feet, regaining self-sufficiency. Her husband is employed at a local bakery, her children are in the process of becoming enrolled in school and the family has a place to call home.

Although her life is still a struggle at times, Hurt knows it’s worth it.

“I’m not going to give up the fight.”

‘Making a way for us when we see no way’

Schnyeder Destine

Schnyeder Destine, a former MUST client who now is CEO of Bexiam, talks about the difference MUST supporters made in  his life:

“MUST invested love and hope into me and my family, and because of that we are able to give back to others who need hope. But it was a journey to get here and MUST was part of my story. MUST gave us food, furniture, toys and hope. They treated us with dignity and compassion.

“When you give to MUST Ministries, you are helping thousands of children – just like I was – have a future. You’re allowing us to grow up and make our dreams come true. You are giving us a hand up, not a hand out. You are making a way for us when we see no way.”

Many of your neighbors see no way out of their difficulties. When you give them help through MUST, you also are giving them hope!

From homeless to home – cozy decorating tips on a shoestring budget

Imagine you and your spouse and children have no place to live. You have bounced around between friends, family and even slept in your car. Your spouse is disabled and you are doing all you can to simply feed your children and live another day.

Then MUST Ministries hears of your plight and offers you a place to live. It’s a beautiful two-bedroom apartment, fully furnished with a walk-in closet, washer and dryer, fireplace and even a little patio near a playground.

Thanks to a Housing and Urban Development grant, MUST is opening 10 apartments this spring to house three families and 14 individuals. The challenge was how to make these sterile, empty apartments feel like home. That’s when Rachel Castillo, MUST VP of Programs, teamed up with Marcie Millholland, a designer and youth minister, to change everything.

Marcie Millholland

Marcie Millholland

“We started at the MUST Donation Center and found artwork, mirrors and bedding. We found lamps at the MUST Marketplace thrift store and started searching for furniture. The grant covered some furniture and some was given to MUST.”

Marcie took donated sheets and made them into bright, white curtains with teal stamps. She covered pillows and spray-painted picture and mirror frames for the mantle. Candles added ambiance and plants, fruit and other accents made the apartment smell inviting.

“Being creative with what you find is the key to decorating on a budget, but it’s so satisfying to design with a frugal spending budget. When you see the finished work, it’s amazing what you can do from thrift store finds!”

She spray painted an old metal typewriter table, perfect for outdoor living, to add a pop of color on the patio. She used a bowl of oranges for the dining room table, adding the color with fruit to create an inviting place to dine.

A throw pillow at the desk chair and a wall of artwork in the living room all gave the environment a welcoming feel. Marcie’s Bachelor of Visual Art degree from Georgia State University and experience as a designer certainly helped her find unique ways to upgrade the space.

This project was a ministry of love, she said. “If I can use my gifts and talents to help others, I want to do that.” She’s already planning to help others in the MUST housing program to make their environments more comfortable and inviting. “It adds a sense of dignity,” she said.

Can you imagine walking into a fully designed apartment after not having a place to call home in more than a year? “This place will quickly become home and be a life-changing second chance.”