A publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Kentucky by Heart: Community volunteer Nichols sees role as giving hope to those down on their luck

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By Steve Flairty
NKyTribune columnist

I would have to see a whole lot more out of her before I’d ever believe this Versailles woman is a “sassy momma,” as she claims she is. The Heather Nichols I see around town is more like, if not Mother Theresa, maybe her first or second cousin. At least, they figuratively have the same bloodlines.

It is at the Journey Provisions store, sitting on the property of Journey Church on Hope Lane in Versailles, that Heather and her supportive volunteer staff offer a world of help and hope for those who are in short or long-time physical need. She is the catalyst, leading by example.

“My role is to love everybody to the fullest of my ability and to serve them as Jesus would,” said Heather.

Since this past January, when the outreach officially opened after expanding from a simple clothing bank at the church, Journey Provisions has become an important community effort for Journey Church, though the money received from its highly affordable merchandise is used to expand what the store does, and is held in a revolving account of its own, separate from regular church uses.

Heather Nichols with mother, Karen Williams (left) (Photo Provided)

Additionally, an appreciable amount of community donations to JP are passed along free to those who have vouchers from community service organizations.

Here’s a sampling of donations, often carried out with young people as a top priority:

-20 beds, 15 dressers, and 10 cribs
-over 200 voucher families served with free clothes
-diapers, wipes, and formula valued in the thousands of dollars
-17 single mothers provided with baby items such as strollers, clothes, baby blankets and toiletries
-nearly 100 prom dresses and 6 suits for local students in need

There’s much more going on, too.

“A diaper drive was started for the Driskell quints (born recently to a Versailles couple) that has now spread throughout the community after we challenged others to help,” noted Heather. “There were 50 plus pairs of shoes given to a family having a fundraiser to get a service dog to help their son who has autism. Three families that lost their home due to fire, (along with) 12 recently homeless families were provided with household goods, furniture and clothes.”

Her eyes and ears are always open. The stories that come her way have plots and many subplots, and she has astute comprehension of the working dynamics.

Heather’s mission to help those down on their luck is genuine. She talks about how being without bare necessities “can happen to anybody,” and how many “are just a paycheck or two away” from the same. The problems from that can have a ripple effect, too, as she has learned from working with the homeless and their not uncommon addiction problems. “A lot of times they don’t have enough money (to be treated) for mental illness,” she said, “so they tend to self-medicate.”

No doubt, the model for Heather’s concern and proactive stance for downtrodden people comes directly from her parents. While growing up in Florida, she saw the two (in younger years, ‘very much ‘hippies,’ she asserted) doing what she called “extreme ministry” on the streets, with her father taking the lead in bringing struggling people into their home for support.

“Mom got used to that,” she said with a grin, adding that “they currently have a homeless family they found living under a bridge.”

And though her father currently is suffering from health issues and has curtailed much of his mission work, her mother, a trained nurse, is still actively involved in a community program called House of Hope.

“On Monday,” said Heather, “they serve more than 800 people hot food and give groceries , clothing, and have computers where they are helped to sign up for veterans’ disability benefits. Her role is to go up and down the lines with a clipboard and big orange vest and she asks for prayer requests and asks ‘How can we help you?’ and ‘What do you need?’”

That’s not unlike what Heather does in Versailles these days. Take for example what Jessyca Roberts shared:

“I am a disabled mom who has gotten very sick,” said Jessyca. “I can get up some days and mostly not many others. Heather sent me a wonderful chicken and dumplings dinner. I have also gone to the provision store to find household and clothing items for my daughters. She is truly special and tries to give so much of herself.

“It was extremely hard for me to ask for help. I have a huge independent streak and probably too much pride. I was going to school when lupus decided that wasn’t going to be my path and is killing the blood supply to my legs, kidneys, and other organs. I had lost my best friend and only person I really talked to so her help made me feel like someone actually cared about me again.”

Jenni O’Nan praised Heather for being effective in service despite a nagging health condition she faces.

“She is a plethora of information that pertains to just about any and all charity work in this town. (Even) through the pain of trigeminal neuralgia, she gets her self-imposed work done on the daily. She is always on time, is a great listener, can keep confidence like no other, and is teaching me to pray. She is firm, yet kind, beautiful, yet humble.

“Truly one of a kind, and she will literally not eat so that someone else can. She works so very hard for no more than a thank you from a desperate single parent, or an unemployed young man. My wish for her is to take a ‘Heather’ day on occasion. Not a ‘sick’ day, but a ‘me’ day. After working 16 hours, she gets up after five hours maybe, and goes at it again.” Then, with a lightness of voice, she continued: “I’m nearly a 50-year-old woman…I want to be her when I grow up.”

A friend for 33 years, Rebecca Keppler recalled Heather’s helping nature as a child. “When we were in Girl Scout Camp, she’d invite younger campers who were scared to come to our cabin to sleep so they felt safer,” she said.

And there’s more.

“God granted her the patience of Job,” noted Kathy Pennington. “She was a single mom and her struggles were plentiful and her circumstances as tough as they get. No matter what came her way she held her head high, persevered through every struggle, triumphed through the war zone chose her children and other children above herself.”

As of three years ago, she gained a vital partner in carrying out a daily mission of compassion, which extends past her Journey Provisions endeavor. Heather, 40, married Shannon Nichols, ten years younger but with a heart in tune, both with her and her desire to minister to the vulnerable.

“He jumped into the ‘crazy’ all by himself. He married me knowing I had Chris and Noah (her children from an earlier marriage). Exactly one year later, we got the other three (from a brother unable to raise his children).” Ages are as follow: Chris, 22; Noah, 15; Nicholas, 15; Mikey, 14; and the only girl, Kiersten, 12.

Along with their other duties, the couple now work passionately with youth groups at Journey Church.

“Shannon is kind of the ‘Pied Piper’ of middle school boys,” said Heather. “I’ve always sought a man who actively puts children first…not himself, not his hobbies, but his children first. How often do you meet a man who has the exact calling as you do?”

As for the Provisions store mission, something she attends to in some fashion nearly every day, she, along with Journey’s senior minister, Randy Nation, have hopes that it can be expanded significantly. “We don’t want to burn Heather out,” said Randy, “but we’d like to have a presence downtown. It’s amazing how much goes out of the store every week.”

Steve Flairty grew up feeling good about Kentucky. He recalls childhood day trips (and sometimes overnight ones) orchestrated by his father, with the take-off points being in Campbell County. The people and places he encountered then help define his passion about the state now. After teaching 28 years, Steve spends much of his time today writing and reading about the state, and still enjoys doing those one dayers (and sometimes overnighters). “Kentucky by Heart” shares part and parcel of his joy. A little history, much contemporary life, intriguing places, personal experiences, special people, book reviews, quotes, and even a little humor will, hopefully, help readers connect with their own “inner Kentucky.”

Heather’s eyes gleam when she talks about growing the ministry to greater heights.

“We need something four to five times what we have now,” she said, “and have about six washers and six dryers to wash clothes we get in that sometimes have to be thrown away because they’re dirty. I’d love to have office space to talk to people who have questions. There’s no limit what we can do.”

First Christian Church, Versailles, minister Marcus Lynn called her work to see a simple clothing bank transformed “nothing less than startling.” He is sold on the outreach and Heather’s shepherding of it.

“Now when people call me for community service time, I send them her way and she finds them opportunities.”

And as for Heather’s self-proclaimed sassy momma role, it has to do with being a firm but loving person, both as a parent and in her role as a community needs facilitator. Randy Nation tabs the quality as her having a “gift of discernment,” or the ability to ask the right questions of people asking for help to ascertain their true need.

Heather sees it in general terms.

“I trust the public like I trust my kids, which basically means: ‘I love you to death. I’ll do anything for you. I do not have time to play games with you. Do not mess with me.’”

And that may be true, but as Randy emphasizes, she’s mostly just “a real giver.”

And who would know more how true that is than her oldest son, Chris?

“She’s too humble to let on how hard and how much she works for Journey Provisions,” he said. “She’s one of those people that will usually refer to her work as a product of ‘we’ and not ‘I,’ even though it’s her working up to 80 hours a week, sometimes with little to no help.”

Then Chris bragged on her being a wonderful mother and the type of person who awakens early to bake hundreds of cupcakes for a friend’s son who is graduating—this when she has a full work day ahead. Then he summed it up with this comment: “She’s an amazing person, and has been my hero for a long time.”

And many others would whole-heartedly agree.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

steve-flairty

Steve Flairty is a teacher, public speaker and an author of six books: a biography of Kentucky Afield host Tim Farmer and five in the Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes series, including a kids’ version. Steve’s “Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes #4,” was released in 2015. Steve is a senior correspondent for Kentucky Monthly, a weekly NKyTribune columnist and a member of the Kentucky Humanities Council Speakers Bureau. Contact him at sflairty2001@yahoo.com or visit his Facebook page, “Kentucky in Common: Word Sketches in Tribute.” (Steve’s photo by Connie McDonald)

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