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  • July 11, 2014 - Reflections

    By Jean S. Horner
    The other day while walking down a corridor in a public building, I saw what appeared to be someone walking toward me. On coming closer, I found it was my own reflection in a huge mirror. For a moment it frightened me. Somehow a full-length reflection of one’s self is a startling thing. ...

Beauty for Ashes

By John W. Kennedy
Apr. 27, 2014

Gina Hanna was an Honor Star Missionette while growing up, a good kid who attended youth group, listened only to Christian music, read the Pentecostal Evangel, and loved going to church camp. Both sets of grandparents served as Assemblies of God missionaries. Gina felt called to ministry at 14.

During Gina’s childhood and youth, her father, Nathan Geesey, vowed to provide a stable home life for the family. Geesey, who had attended two dozen schools by the time he graduated from high school, didn’t want his daughter to be uprooted time after time.

Although Geesey was able to keep his family in one place, he often left for business trips. Because of all the traveling Geesey did for his telecom career, Gina felt her father put his work above family during her formative years. She started seeking male attention and became promiscuous.

During college, she began smoking pot. Her life changed forever when she sold a quarter bag of marijuana to an undercover police officer in Maryville, Mo.

Even though she only spent four months incarcerated, Hanna smoked pot the entire five years of her probation — and an additional three years after that. Only when she enrolled in a Bible-based recovery program called Oaks of Righteousness at church did she realize the spiritual stronghold that accompanied her drug dependency.

“State-run treatment programs didn’t set me free from addiction,” Hanna says. “But there is power in the Word to heal from wounded issues.”

In 2007, Gina’s desire for drugs ceased, and three months later she married Derk Hanna, who is now community care pastor at Vineyard Church in Kansas City, Mo.

In 2009, Gina founded Beauty for Ashes, a ministry designed to reduce recidivism by providing Christ-centered programs that prepare offenders for life upon release. The ministry focuses on inner healing of past wounds, discipleship through studying Scripture, life skills, and home plans that include community support.

The voluntary 18-month program includes courses that identify areas of childhood trauma, abuse, unhealthy relationships, and understanding the cycle of addiction. Church volunteers mentor participants and, once they are free, help with housing, transportation, education and employment needs.


Every couple of weeks, volunteers from the metro Kansas City area fill a passenger van and make the 31/2-hour trek to a northeast Missouri prison that houses more than 2,000 women. They worship together during the journey and join with local volunteers at the Women’s Correctional Center in Vandalia.

In 2011, Beauty for Ashes ( stepped in at the Vandalia facility when Prison Fellowship discontinued its InnerChange Freedom Initiative in Missouri. Prison Fellowship donated its biblically based curriculum to Beauty for Ashes to keep the program going at Vandalia.

The large meeting room where volunteers and inmates mingle for ministry is an oasis in the sterile prison environment. It’s the only place where crafts hang from walls. In the only Bible-based women’s re-entry program in Missouri, classes are taught all week long.

At a recent gathering, women from the ministry drama team adorned in pink Beauty for Ashes T-shirts perform a skit. As Big Daddy Weave sings “Redeemed” on a compact disc player, women hold hand-drawn signs describing the vices that formerly entrapped them: “I hated others.” “I used to be a meth cook.” “I committed adultery.”

As the song plays, women flip their cardboard labels around, showing how God has redeemed them: “I now have self-worth.” “I am drug-free.” “Jesus gave me peace.”

“Every one of you has something to bring to the program,” the bubbly Gina Hanna tells them.

Inmates and volunteers freely interact in the room. Camaraderie is evident. Worship is enthusiastic.

The personable Hanna, 39, is the chief encourager, building the faith of those in the room with frequent smiles and laughs.

Beauty for Ashes gives the women hope they need to make it, both inside the prison and back in society after being released.

The program is more than a biweekly get-together. The women live in a separate pod, and spend 20 hours a week in classes and doing homework. Curriculum includes such studies as Dave Ramsey’s Financial Peace University and Henry Blackaby’s Experiencing God.

Repeatedly during the service, onlooker prisoners from a balcony peer into the room, curious about the powerful truths being spoken.

Indeed, on the grounds outside there is a lack of hope on the faces of many inmates walking to and from various assignments. The Beauty for Ashes room is a joyful haven.


Theresa Fortner seems to have it all together. She is articulate and full of confidence, with a background as executive secretary at a St. Louis-based corporation. Fortner says she grew up in a stable, but legalistic family.

“I always believed in God,” Fortner says. “I thought as long as I was perfect, He would love me.”

Fortner married and gave birth to three children, but her life began to fall apart at age 32. As she and her husband went through a divorce, Fortner turned to alcohol. Drinking became an obsession for the next 15 years.

A four-month “shock treatment” failed to sober her up. An eight-month sentence at the women’s facility in Vandalia didn’t succeed either.

“I went through treatment after treatment,” Fortner says. “I learned all about alcoholism. I attended many Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. I could not get well.”

Although she gained a great deal of knowledge about her addiction, Fortner didn’t start learning about God’s strength and grace until she joined a suburban St. Louis church after her second release in 2007. She got involved in the children’s ministry at church and also volunteered at a pregnancy care center.

But in 2011, Fortner started taking medication she believes triggered a desire to drink. On Independence Day, after five years of sobriety, she relapsed, drinking four miniature bottles of white zinfandel wine one after the other. While intoxicated at nearly three times the legal limit, Fortner strapped Bella Houston, the 19-month-old granddaughter in her care, into her car and took off.

While exiting on an interstate ramp at a high rate of speed, Fortner lost control. The vehicle crashed into a house and a tree, ejecting Fortner through the windshield. She has no memory of the experience.

Fortner spent the next six weeks in a hospital intensive care unit, undergoing 10 surgeries. She had nine broken bones in her back. Her right leg had to be reconstructed. Her left lung collapsed when it filled with water.

Most tragically of all, the collision killed her granddaughter. Although in a child safety seat, Bella sustained a fractured skull.

“She was the love of my life,” Fortner says, stifling tears. “She was priceless.”

Fortner experienced miraculous compassion as her daughter Sharese — Bella’s mother — forgave her in the aftermath.

“It hasn’t been easy,” says the 24-year-old Sharese, who lives in St. Louis. “But I know my daughter wouldn’t want me to hate.” The family arranged to donate Bella’s organs, which saved the lives of four other babies.

“I have learned so much about God through it all,” Fortner says. “My immediate family and my church family have shown such love and mercy.” 

Now a youthful-looking 50, Fortner has completed a little more than a year of a 121/2-year prison term for second-degree murder. Fortner’s husband and her three children have filed an appeal to try to get the charge changed to involuntary manslaughter so that the sentence will be reduced.

Fortner has been married to her second husband for 18 years, and he is waiting for her. David Thomas Fortner helped raise Theresa’s three young children from her first marriage.

“He walked through my alcoholism and has faithfully stood by my side in unconditional love,” Fortner says.

Fortner, nearly three years after the tragedy, says the Lord is restoring her mind and body. She spent months in a body brace, then in a wheelchair.

“I embrace these difficulties, and I understand they build character,” Fortner says.

These days, Fortner is a leading advocate of the Beauty for Ashes ministry. She knows many more hurting women at the institution would benefit if they joined.


At the outreach, Megan Wiest, one of the Kansas City volunteers, shares her painful backstory with the incarcerated women. The petite, attractive Wiest can relate to the abuse some of the inmates have suffered.

In an animated account, Wiest, 28, recalls how she grew up in a home full of domestic violence. Wiest recounts how verbal abuse by an older male relative escalated to physical violence. Repeatedly the assailant would grab Wiest’s hair, throw her across the room, and pound her face into the floor.

“I drank all the time, made poor decisions and looked for love in ridiculous places,” Wiest tells the women.

By her first year in college Wiest felt like a mess. But before her second year started she decided to follow Jesus. And she met her future husband, Sean, at church.

“I know what it’s like to be abused,” Wiest says. “I thought life was hopeless, but God can redeem whatever has happened. Jesus was there every time I felt pain.”

Wiest, who has been married for eight years, says although she didn’t grow up in a Christian home, God placed Christian teachers, counselors, and parents of friends in her path. Although various males wounded her physically and she still battles feelings of inferiority, Wiest says she senses that Jesus consoles her.

“God has me on a journey where He brings me healing, and brings reminders that I am loved and was made in His image, despite my flaws,” says Wiest, who is expecting her second child in June. 


With the influx of cross-state volunteers assisting local volunteers, Beauty for Ashes Ministry has blossomed. 

The involvement isn’t confined to the penitentiary. The Beauty for Ashes re-entry program works with released inmates for a year — or more — with the goal of integration in a local church and local community.

Hanna’s father, Nathan Geesey, has been a partner in that process.

“The real work begins the day they step out of prison,” says Geesey, who is an Assemblies of God licensed minister and director of adult education at Northland Cathedral (AG) in Kansas City, Mo. “That’s when ladies need to find housing, work through relationship issues, try to care for their kids, find more than a minimum-wage job.”

Geesey knows from experience with his daughter. He and his wife, Carol, took care of Hanna’s 6-month-old son, Guylan, when she served her sentence.

Geesey has been involved in prison ministry since the day he drove his daughter to jail in Maryville in 1998. Although he coordinates Internet technical support for Beauty for Ashes, his day-to-day involvement also includes such practical tasks as driving ex-inmates to drug tests, job interviews, and probation hearings.

By next year, Hanna hopes that Beauty for Ashes can open a re-entry home in the Kansas City area where women could stay for six months while transitioning back into society.

One of Hanna’s primary missions is to enlist congregational support for those in Beauty for Ashes aftercare.

“Mentoring is a big part of what we do,” Hanna says. “Women need to work on goals when they are in prison and have boundaries when they come back out into the real world.”

JOHN W. KENNEDY is news editor of the Pentecostal Evangel.


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