A place to heal: After losing a son, Roanoke couple opens a retreat center to help others who grieve
by Eddie Burkhalter
Jan 12, 2013 | 3432 views |  0 comments | 8 8 recommendations | email to a friend | print
A 50-foot-tall cross was installed last month at the entrance to Will’s Way, a faith-based retreat center midway between Wedowee and Roanoke. Photo: Eddie Burkhalter/The Anniston Star
A 50-foot-tall cross was installed last month at the entrance to Will’s Way, a faith-based retreat center midway between Wedowee and Roanoke. Photo: Eddie Burkhalter/The Anniston Star
On July 16, 2007, Sandy and Re Holliday’s son got into his car to take leftovers to a family in need who lived close by. Moments later, 16-year-old Will was killed in a crash.

In their grief, the Hollidays found a way to help others who, like they once found themselves, may be at a crossroads, unable to decide how to move forward.

Midway between Wedowee and Roanoke, a 50-foot-tall cross stands alongside U.S. 278 at the entrance of Will’s Way, a faith-based, non-profit retreat center that the Hollidays founded in 2007.

Will’s Way offers retreats all year – weeklong getaways in the summer and weekend retreats during winter months. Everything is free, and is open to anyone, but the organization specializes in helping those who have suffered a loss or experienced a tragedy.

The cross is a new addition. Made from airframe aluminum by American Steeples and Baptisteries in Wedowee, it was completed in late December. It has already drawn visitors.

“They stop all times of the day and night to pray,” said Sandy Holliday, a municipal judge in Roanoke. “And that’s what we’d hoped for.”

The cross was paid for with a $50,000 donation from the estate of Cordelle Redmond, who had placed in her will the desire to have the money be used to build a giant cross somewhere between Wedowee and Roanoke. Volunteers and other donations helped finish the project.

Behind the cross, a sculpted angel walks two children on a path into heaven, a symbol of God’s love for children who have died young, Holliday said.

“When you go through that, for the first 90 days you’re just in a fog,” Holliday said of losing a loved one. “You don’t know what to think, or whether you want to move forward or not.”

But instead of holding in the pain, Holliday described how he and his wife reached out to “try to find some relief.”

That’s what they hoped to do when they began Will’s Way that same year, to help other parents who have suffered a loss like theirs find some kind of relief from the pain.

Since then, the organization has grown into one that helps all sorts of people, from children who have been abused or neglected, or who have lost their parents, to people who simply cannot afford to take their children on a summer vacation.

In recent months, the couple has seen mostly children who have suffered terribly through abuse. Holliday said they now make up about 70 percent of the visitors to Will’s Way.

“We’ve had children come here from Chicago, and all over the United States,” Holliday said.

The retreats give those children a chance to play – there are nature walks and stargazing, fishing trips, arts and crafts, singings and animals – and to speak with trained volunteers and licensed counselors. Church groups come often as well.

“It’s open to all. You don’t have to be hurting to go through a camp,” said Re Holliday. “Those who are not hurting can help children who are hurting. They can help them have fun.”

It’s all run through donations and fundraisers, and no one gets paid for the work they do at Will’s Way, Holliday said.

Working with the organization has helped Re move forward in life, though she says some days are better than others.

Sometimes, Re said, it can be hard to work with adults who want to help, but who may have never experienced a loss like hers.

“After you’ve lost a child you don’t look at things the same, so when you work with somebody and they’re focused on worldly things, I do find myself thinking ‘Why am I doing this?’ And then when I look at the kids and see that they have hope …, ” Re said, choking back tears.

“It’s a blessing we get to work and help others,” Holliday said. “When a family loses a child, some of them close it all in. I guess they act like they’re OK, but you know they’re not. They just kind of implode. We try to keep people from doing that.”

People come to them in all different stages of grief, Holliday said, and they have to be ready to speak about it in their own time.

“You really feel sorry for the families that haven’t gone through it but are about to,” Holliday said. The dedication ceremony for the giant cross was held one week after the school shooting in Newtown, Conn., which killed 20 children and six adults.

“We wish we could go to those families, or bring them here,” Holliday said. ‘That’s what we’re here for. Who knows? We’ve got some friends up there.”

Retreats for those who have already been to Will’s Way are held each year so that people can plant something, or bring something in remembrance of a loved one.

“So they always have a place to come,” Re said. “The fear that a mom has is that people will forget their child. We just let them know that we always remember. That they’re always on our minds.”

Will’s Way

• 11270 US Highway 431, Roanoke, 256-357-4035.

• Those wishing to attend a retreat, make a donation or volunteer should contact Will’s Way through the website, willsway.org. Some, but not all, types of volunteer work will require background checks and training.
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