Humble Hearts was born of Donna Miller’s desire to give back and she’s straight forward about what getting help in her time of need meant to her.
“I know all about recovery,” Miller said. “I’ve actually been to prison myself for methamphetamine … and if I can change anyone can change.”
The deeply rooted belief that people can change fueled her efforts to form the prison ministry and, ultimately, has led to her connection with Angola inmate Rick Sheppard, imprisoned 36 years for killing his uncle, a death he maintains was accidental.
Sheppard, who had has long communicated with Miller, will be released from prison in early February and will live with Miller and husband, Joseph, at their residence in Bayou Gauche for four years.
Commenting from Angola Prison, he has taken responsibility for what put him there.
“I feel it was fitting considering what I did to come to prison,” Sheppard said. “I’ve taken thing I can never give back and that is something I must live with.”
Miller’s own turnaround in life came in 2005, a change she recounted as difficult being addicted to meth.
“When you first do meth, you can stay up for hours and it’s fun until it becomes something you have to have to stay awake,” she said. “The problem comes when you need it to function. It’s a crazy drug. You feel like superwoman when you’re on it. The allure of it – you don’t feel like you have any problems. I’m so glad I don’t have that demon on my back anymore and I can help people with it.”
While in prison, she met a woman who also ran a ministry and Miller decided she want to help, too.
Miller’s addiction to meth and selling the drug to support the habit put her in prison collectively five years. But she said the prospect of a third arrest facing a seven-year sentence got her attention.
“For me, facing that much time if I got into trouble again was enough for me,” she said. “I was scared straight.”
By 2009, Miller founded Humble Hearts, a faith-based prison ministry, and has stayed off meth.
She visits jails where she helps with women’s recovery classes and Teen Challenges, a drug prevention program.
In her own release from prison, Miller said she experienced firsthand what support meant to her in staying off drugs and changing her life for the better.
“When they let you out, they give you $200,” she said. “But if you don’t have a place to go what are you going to do?”
Miller was helped through Paul Burke, her former pastor of Life Fellowship Community Church, and his wife, Cyndi, in Des Allemands. She started writing to him as part of her letter writing ministry, which she still does today, and started visiting him monthly with the Bayou Blue Assembly of God Church in the last four years.
In that time, Sheppard qualified for early release.
“I feel so ready to start my second chance at my freedom,” he said. “Then, there are these uncertainties. … not that I am going to make it. That I will. It’s more like what people say and ask when I encounter something I can’t do or need a minute to figure it out.”
Having been in prison nearly 35 years, Sheppard said he worries about stressing over opening his first bank account or paying his first bill.
“The reason I accepted Millers’ offer is because it provides me, not only a fresh start where people don’t know me, but it’s an environment filled with positive people, drug- and alcohol-free, and Christian people,” he said. “They would be able to help overcome some of these obstacles that I am sure to face … like managing my money, paying my first bill or doing something as simple as operating a gas pump.”
Sheppard wants to line up a job, possibly two.
“I just want to work and work for the most part,” he said.
Miller, who appreciated the family help that helped her stay off meth and resume her life, offered to support Sheppard – and he agreed.
“We’ve been blessed,” she said. “Being an ex-meth addict, I worked on restoring my credit and we qualified for a five-bedroom house. We’re using the fifth bedroom for Sheppard.”
This next step for Miller is building on her dream of one day having a full-time prison ministry.
Now 50 years old, Shepard’s been in prison since he was 15 years old.
“It’s time for him to come home,” she said. “I’m just glad he’s willing to come home with us because he considers us family. He talks to my husband because they are both electricians.”
Miller said she hopes he’s willing to give testimony others, particularly juveniles, in her ministry about how “that can lead to one stupid mistake and you’re in prison.”
Sheppard is ready to help others, too.
“Sharing my experience with kids is something I did through inmate organizations with Catholic retreats and tours,” he said. “It is my way to give back and I learned we all have a story to share whether we are a prisoner or someone who is free that can touch another person’s life. I have been blessed and I just want to show people that we should never stop helping one another regardless what we have been through. Sometimes we need these experiences to help grow.”
Like Miller, Sheppard, who said he’s been touched by “good grace and great love,” wants to also start his own ministry.