SSM Health-supported retreat turns shelter residents' stories to song

June 2024
Cicil Franklin works on one of the raised beds at Dyer Farm during the Hope in the Gate music therapy retreat. The retreat at the farm in Janesville, Wisconsin, was for men who stay at GIFTS Men's Shelter.



A music therapy retreat this spring was the latest offshoot of an art therapy program that was established in part with seed money from SSM Health at a shelter for men in Wisconsin.

SSM Health said in a media release that it provided a $5,000 grant to GIFTS Men's Shelter of Janesville to start the arts program in 2022. In May, the St. Louis-based system was one of several sponsors of the music therapy retreat called Hope in the Gate. At the culmination of the retreat, professional musicians helped the men turn stories about their lives into songs.

For Chris Holmes, interacting with the animals was one of the highlights of the retreat. Holmes said he also appreciated a chance to get to know others who are staying at GIFTS Men's Shelter.


Fourteen men being served by the shelter attended the retreat at Dyer Farm in Janesville.

The three-day retreat offered the men counseling, support, and Bible-based education about building connections with others and Christ, the release said. The men also were given a taste of farm life, by doing chores that included livestock tending, planting and property maintenance.

Cicil Franklin was one of the temporary GIFTS residents who went to the retreat. He said mental health challenges and learning differences had made succeeding in school, and sometimes daily life, almost impossible. 

At the shelter, Franklin gets counseling and specialty medical care and other services. At the retreat he said he found comfort in one-on-one activities, such as planting seeds and learning how they will grow. He praised the compassion of the camp counselors.

In addition to music and group therapy, the 14 men who took part in the retreat got lessons on farm life.



"I need to force myself to do things that I'm not comfortable doing," he said. "It has meant a lot to me when they said I'm a good hard worker, and that someone would be lucky to have me someday." 

The arts program that SSM Health helped GIFTS start was designed as hands-on therapy for residents awaiting mental health or substance abuse treatment. The program began with basic visual arts such as painting. It has since expanded — with $25,000 in support from SSM Health — to photography and other mediums.

Cindy Morgan, a professional singer and songwriter, performs songs written in collaboration with the men at the Hope in the Gate retreat.


The retreat was another expansion, adding music to the mix. Three professional musicians helped the men use music as therapy by working with them to tell their stories in song. Those songs were performed at an invitation-only concert on the last day of the retreat.

Brandan Thomas spent time with the men at the retreat. Thomas is director of leadership, learning and programs for Citygate Network, a faith-based crisis mission organization of which GIFTS is part. GIFTS is an acronym for God Is Faithful Temporary Shelter.

Thomas said in Citygate's work with people experiencing homeless and hopelessness, the nonprofit reminds them that they matter.

"Our overall message with Hope in the Gate is that maybe all the things these men have been through is the rocket fuel they need to get through the rest of their lives and help other people," Thomas said. "Up until this point they haven't understood the opportunities in front of them because they've spent so much of their lives trying to survive each day."


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