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“I did everything wrong when it came to self-care and protecting my heart.”

GoodHeart Collaborative Founder and CEO Kristen Harness, shares how not taking the signs of burnout seriously while starting and working in a nonprofit, almost destroyed her physically, mentally, and emotionally.

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My trauma began at birth. Before the age of 5, I witnessed domestic violence between my Mom and Dad. When I was 5 years old, my Dad left us. The lack of a father in my life, caused me to live my teen years with very low esteem, hatred for myself, and a deep hurt and brokenness that manifested as extreme anger.

This sadness led to self-soothing with drugs, alcohol, and looking for love in all the wrong places. At a young age, I was diagnosed with depression and put on anti-depressants. Unfortunately, there are people who will take advantage of a youth’s vulnerability. I was sexually assaulted at age 14/15 and raped at age 17.

I ended up hitting rock bottom around the age of 18, and really wanted to “better myself”.

Around the age of 18/19, my mom invited me to church. I hesitated but deep inside, I wanted a pure love so badly. After attending off and on for maybe a year, I was asked out by the pastor’s son who was also the worship leader. I couldn’t believe it. How could someone so godly, want me? The beginning was exciting and full of gifts and attention. That changed, and things turned upside down relatively quickly. It wasn’t long before the relationship turned abusive and exploitative. After years of depression, PTSD, and self-destructing, I was able to emotionally break free and begin my journey of healing.

As I began healing, I became incredibly compassionate towards other young girls who had experienced any type of sexual violence. I wanted them to know that there was hope for their own healing and that their past experiences didn’t have to define or stop them from pursuing their own dreams and goals.

I became very interested in learning more about human trafficking, specifically sex trafficking of children, after a mission trip to Pattaya, Thailand in 2004. It was my first encounter with sex trafficking and it changed my worldview forever. The thought of someone else profiting off of sexually abusing a child, was the most horrendous thing to me. I decided I was going to do something about it. I went back to Colorado, and began learning more about human trafficking. I learned that my state of Colorado had a major problem with child sex trafficking and a great lack of resources for these survivors, specifically safe housing. So, I decided to do what some had tried before and failed at, and what many thought couldn’t be done; I was going to open the first safe home for girls recovered out of sex trafficking in Denver. When I put my mind to something, especially something that will help others, I am stubborn about it! Not opening was not an option, there were too many girls that needed this type of home.

I worked at it day and night, all hours, every day, for years, until I couldn’t get out of bed anymore. It took 3 years of literal blood, sweat, and tears, but we opened and grew, and expanded, and met so many brave survivors. It was the hardest thing ever, and yet the most rewarding in every way. People warned me that I would burn out at the rate I was going, but I didn’t believe them. “Not me. I’m fine and this is too important.” Well, the “I’m fine” ended around June of 2019, after my 4th episode of extreme burnout, fibromyalgia diagnosis, chronic fatigue syndrome, adrenal fatigue, insomnia, the list goes on.

Nonprofit work is challenging by itself, but this was a whole new level because it was residential for minors, extreme trauma, unrelenting fundraising and donor expectations, and navigating systems of oppression and bureaucracy. Even though it was beautiful, it wasn’t pretty.

One afternoon in June 2019, I started googling what I was experiencing and I found the results to be fascinating. Many people working in nonprofits and other helping professions, especially women, were experiencing very similar symptoms to me; exhaustion, sickness, isolation, depression, and more, sometimes even ending their lives. I spent months researching this and after hearing and reading so many stories, I decided once again, that I needed to do something about this. These women, myself included, had dedicated and committed their lives, careers, and education to helping others during their greatest times of need, putting themselves in danger, and sacrificing their own wellbeing and safety for others. Why were we not getting the support we needed? Far too often, women like myself, put others’ needs before our own. It’s noble but not sustainable. I had to leave the nonprofit I adored because I needed to heal and I had a new mission on my heart to help support these other women working themselves sick.

I created GoodHeart Collaborative because I did a really bad job at protecting myself while working in this nonprofit. I made all of the mistakes and reaped the consequences.  I believe it doesn’t have to be this way though. The work will always be difficult and full of challenges, but the key is to build up your resilience and wellness toolkit, so that you can continue to work in these environments while staying healthy and mentally well. I’ve developed a social wellness and self-care app exclusively for women who work in helping professions. I’ve teamed up with the most amazing experts in these fields to create a safe digital community accessible to these women to find encouragement, support from like-minded women, connections IRL and in-app, and bite-sized video and audio resources and content on a variety of topics that are unique to the challenges of working in helping fields. This app is set to launch the week of April 8th! It’s time to recognize and support the women who are working at making our world a safer, healthier, and more equitable place to live.

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