Women & Work

Work Done Well: Julie Pitts

Julie Pitts

Founder of Willing Hearts Inc.

Connect with Julie & Willing Hearts

Julie is a native of South Carolina now living in the mountains of Southeastern, Kentucky. After working 27 years in the adult prison system she went on a mission trip and quickly felt the Holy Spirit leading her to pack up her life and her sweet dog and move to Kentucky. Over the course of her time in Kentucky she has started her own business called Willing Hearts Inc., that helps people live and build sustainable lives through the work of stained glass, clay, and ceramics. In her spare time (what little she has) she enjoys attending Christian concerts, hanging out with friends over a good meal and playing with her puppy Penelope.

Julie, thank you so much for joining us today on Women and Work, Work Done Well. If you would, please share with us a little bit about your personal story and how you decided to start a business in the community in which you live.

I was born in Sumter, South Carolina, and lived the majority of my life in Columbia, the state capital. I attended Lander University, and graduated with a Bachelor of Science Degree in Psychology in 1985. I worked as a Youth Counselor for approximately 2 years at Wil Lou Gray Opportunity School, until I was hired by the SC Department of Corrections in 1987. I served in various positions with the DOC including being a Social Worker in a men’s maximum-security psychiatric hospital, Staff Development and Training Specialist, Unit Manager at a maximum-security female prison, Deputy Warden at a male, medium-maximum security prison, and finally as a Director of Crime Prevention/Public Awareness Programs. I retired from the Department of Corrections after serving almost 27 years in the adult prison system.

In 2011, I came to Southeastern Kentucky, on a mission trip with a group from Riverland Hills Baptist Church located in Columbia, South Carolina. The entire week our group was serving the area, I could feel the Holy Spirit leading me to something deeper basically telling me to call this place home. Having just recently retired from my career, and on a spiritual journey to develop and strengthen my intimate relationship with Jesus Christ for some time, I was totally unprepared for this type of spiritual experience and such a drastic upheaval in my life. However, with a heart for total obedience and the biggest “leap of faith” I had ever done in my life, within six months, I packed up everything and my sweet little dog and relocated to the rural mountains of Southeastern Kentucky to serve as a full-time missionary. It was a huge life-changing transition, but one I definitely don’t regret. After serving approximately 2 1/2 years at the local food pantry, the Holy Spirit stirred my heart again, giving me a very clear vision for this non-profit, ministry and business called Willing Hearts Inc. Again, I was totally unprepared for where God was leading me in this experience, but with complete obedience, I followed. Willing Hearts, Inc. opened in June 2015, and have continued to serve the community since.

Willing Hearts, Inc. is a non-profit, charitable, 501(c)3 organization, consisting of three major components:

1)  A Working Studio – Established to teach hands-on, skill-based techniques for creating stained glass art, other forms of art glass, ceramics, and clay. As a non-profit organization, all classes are offered at minimal cost for the general public, with fees being utilized to pay for tools, supplies, training materials and operating costs.

2) Willing Hearts Empowerment Program (WHEP) – Works primarily with unemployed, low-income, disabled, and retired individuals, and serves to teach these individuals the necessary skills associated with creating stained glass artwork/articles, in various forms (as stated above). In addition to learning these skills, the mission with the WHEP participants also includes introducing, exposing, discussing and teaching participants important information necessary to, “put the pieces of their life together” in order to become more spiritually, emotionally and financially harmonious. All individuals wishing to participate in the Willing Hearts Empowerment Program must complete an application process and comply with all requirements of the program. All classes are offered at zero cost for the WHEP participants. At the completion of their training, as a participant in the Empowerment Program, these individuals can then make other projects, at zero cost to them, to be sold in our retail area.

3) A Retail Space – This contains completed art glass projects for sale to the general public, which have been created by participants in the Willing Hearts Empowerment Program. All proceeds from these sales are placed in a Benevolence Fund to assist the students participating in the Empowerment Program with the essentials they need for daily living – food, rent, utility bills, car repairs, medical bills, etc.

How do you keep yourself encouraged that the work you’re doing is valuable and worthwhile when the world tempts women to believe otherwise? Are there any Scriptures God has given you to keep you present in the work to which He has called you?

Staying encouraged, highly motivated, and free from feeling completely overwhelmed is truly the most difficult part of my job. It is so easy to allow the work, and all of the administrative aspects to consume all of my time so it’s very important to me to do three things everyday to combat those feelings.

First, start my day with Him, My Father, in His word, with prayer, and follow that up with worship, no matter what else is happening. Every day, all day, worship music is playing in our work/studio space.

Second, I strive to have at least one personal, meaningful, conversation with someone that comes into Willing Hearts. Inevitably, at some point during the conversation, the person will steer the discussion to something that is disrupting their life, whether it is something spiritual, physical, or emotional, and when that happens, I like to sit still and listen intently to whatever they need to say. I think so many people feel alone, that no one cares about them, and/or that no one listens to them. In doing these things, I can feel “grounded” in Him, and then try to share that with the person in front of me.

Last, but certainly not least, I have to put my heart and soul into my artistic work. Working with stained glass through good times and not such good times for so many years, has always provided stability for my spirit. I need the connection to this art to refill my “spiritual cup” so I can pour out, and into others. I must do these three things:

  • Stay connected to Him
  • Stay connected to the people I am here to serve
  • Stay connected to my God-Given talent, and love for Art to take care of my spirit

Since Day 1, my spiritual verse has been Psalms 9:1 (NIV) “I will give thanks to you, Lord, with all my heart; I will tell of all your wonderful deeds.”  This is what I do and why I exist. Love God and love His people.

How do you build up leaders within your organization who can help you in the work that you are doing?

Willing Hearts does not have any paid employees, but there are two volunteers that have recently come alongside me to help build the ministry and the business component of Willing Hearts. Both of these young women love the Lord, both are very skilled and talented artists, and both are very motivated to work hard to build upon the work God has started at Willing Hearts. Fortunately for me, I don’t have to do too much to build them up. However, some of the things I think are important, and have done to guide them into leadership roles is to give them an “open door” to present ideas, implement changes, voice concerns, take charge of projects, and actively participate in the decisions that impact the ministry. In other words, give them the opportunity to grow in all critical aspects related to the ministry, from their artistic skills to their own spiritual growth. We also all attend a local women’s bible study together and that I believe, has grown us together as a team.

What are some of the joys and challenges you have experienced in starting a non-profit and how have you seen God at work through it all?

The joys are abundant, and unfortunately, so are the challenges  as it is in all aspects of life. No one can truly survive always living on the “mountaintops” and never experiencing the “valleys” and vice versa. We need to experience both, to appreciate both, to really grow into the best that God has created us to be. You ask, “how have I seen God at work through it all?.” Well, I am still here, after 10 years of living in this community, giving up everything that was familiar and comfortable in South Carolina, and relocating here to serve God. Further, Willing Hearts, Inc. is still here after so many people advised me that this concept would never work, and that “it was a crazy idea.” We are still here, doors open, serving this community for seven years, (our anniversary is this month) and growing in scope, even during a global pandemic. God has carried us through and provided for every need! It hasn’t been easy, and there were certainly times that I was concerned but God has always made a way far beyond my wildest expectations, hopes, or dreams! 

How would you encourage women who want to make a difference in their own communities but don’t know where to start?

I would encourage anyone that feels called to serve to stay focused on God, first and foremost! People will distract you in every way possible, with their words and their actions, but stay focused on God. Trust Him and Him alone! We all have different talents and God-given gifts, blessings from God, not for our own enjoyment, but so we can be a blessing and do our part to further God’s Kingdom. Tap into those talents, and use those for Him, and their intended purpose. In doing this with and for God, you will definitely be equipped to make a difference in your own community, and beyond. When you are obedient to God using your talents, glorifying Him, and blessing others, then doors will open and God will lead you down the path that He has planned for you and your life. Start exactly where He tells you to start, like it or not!

Can you share with us a story or two of lives that you have seen totally transformed through their partnership with your business?

Through the Willing Hearts Empowerment Program, so many lives have been touched, in so many different ways and to various degrees. Some people have learned a new skill, and experienced an art medium that most would never have the opportunity to experience due to the cost of glass, ceramics and clay. Others fall in love with glasswork, being creative, and they want to continue doing glasswork every chance they have in order to earn those items essential for daily living. Then there are the special people that really “get it.” They are so empowered and encouraged by the beauty they can create, and they are amazed when other people admire their artwork and purchase pieces that they have made. Many of these people also begin to feel their life has meaning and a purpose again as financial burdens lessen, and they can begin to see the light of hope at the end of the tunnel. In addition to those feelings, these special people are able to make the connections that can transform their lives completely; spiritually, emotionally, mentally, and financially. Just like the individual pieces of glass that are brought together to form a beautiful piece of artwork, through God, the broken pieces of their life can be brought together to create a beautiful life worth living, a life to be proud of, and a life that glorifies Our Father. It is the life God always had planned for them, before their free will and choices, shattered parts of their life, and altered the course of that life so drastically. Several of the students at Willing Hearts come to mind when thinking about “lives that have been transformed” after being involved in the Willing Hearts Empowerment Program.

We want to thank you for sharing your story with us today! Where can women follow Willing Hearts on social media and reach out if they have more questions?

Please follow Willing Hearts, Inc., Willing Hearts Clay Art Studio, and Mimi Glass on Facebook  and Instagram

**A side note about Julie that she will not share about herself because of her humility is that just this year she was granted one of the Outstanding Mainstreet Partner awards by the Lieutenant Governor of Kentucky for her efforts in fostering the economy of a rural community as well as creating jobs for those in need through her business Willing Hearts Inc. Her good work has been noticed not only locally but by those in the state government.

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