Beginning Experience Helps Mend Broken Hearts After Divorce

by Susan Olp

After Juanita Hooper went through a divorce in 1992, she found a way to begin again.

Hooper attended a weekend retreat in 1993 sponsored by Beginning Experience, a nondenominational ministry that helps widowed, separated and divorced people come to grips with their loss.


“It was one of the most powerful experiences I’d ever had,” said Hooper, now the group’s president and program coordinator.

The weekend, which starts on Friday night and goes until Sunday afternoon, allows people to deal with the natural grief process that they may get stuck in. It helps people “emerge from the darkness of grief into the light of a new beginning and move into the future with renewed hope,” she said.

Beginning Experience brings people full circle. Those who take part in retreats are invited back to serve as facilitators at future events.

“When you do a weekend, you come back and help, so it’s that giving and receiving that happens,” Hooper said.

As she helped facilitate, and then coordinated, the weekends, Hooper, a vocational career counselor, said it was amazing to see the transformation that happened.

“People came in heavy laden and deep in grief,” she said. “And they walked out with 100 pounds off their backs.”

Beginning Experience was the brainchild of a Catholic nun, Sister Josephine Stewart, a family counselor at the Catholic Renew Center in Fort Worth, Texas, and Ann Marie “Joe” Lamia, a divorced friend. The pair attended a Catholic Marriage Encounter weekend, intending to develop a program for engaged couples, according to a history of the organization.

Instead, the weekend caused Lamia to deal with unresolved issues from her own divorce. From there, Stewart and others involved in grief resolution, counseling and spiritual renewal used what Lamia wrote to create the Beginning Experience weekend.

Though it came out of the Catholic Church, Hooper said, it is nondenominational in its approach. A retreat includes a combination of large-group talks, small- group interaction and times of individual reflection.

In addition to the weekend, Beginning Experience offers a series of programs, including how to cope with life alone, relationships with others, growth through loss, and rebuilding.

The Beginning Experience chapter in Billings began in the late 1980s and continued until 2006, “when it kind of went by the wayside,” Hooper said. Over time, as she saw a rising number of grieving divorcees stuck in anger or depressions, she knew the need for it still existed.

So she decided to reestablish Beginning Experience in Billings and central Montana. The initial retreat, set for Nov. 7-9, will take place at Abba’s Haven, 40 miles west of Billings near Lavina, and transportation will be provided.

The cost is $175 per person, but monetary arrangements can be made. The national director of Beginning Experience will be at the retreat, and facilitators from the North Dakota group will help run the weekend.

Once the Montana chapter is up and running, the other programs will be available. But for now, Hooper said, the focus is on getting people to the retreats to help them heal from the pain they suffer in divorce, separation or death.

Otherwise, they tend jump into other relationships and the devastation gets repeated again and again.

“We always used to make a joke that our ‘people pickers’ are broke right now, so don’t pick anybody,” she said.

Instead, the retreat lets people rediscover who they area and helps them with the hard work of forgiveness. It’s the start of a journey, Hooper said, a new beginning in their lives.

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