Friendship is often referred to as the backbone of life. Unlike family, you can choose your friends. At Hand UP for Women friendship is at the forefront of the ministry.

Before Karla Johnson applied to be a program participant, she met Alisha Vasquez through Knox Recovery Court. The two befriended one another and Alisha shared she was a participant in the Hand UP for Women program.

“She completely changed her life, and I wanted what she had,” Johnson said, “I wanted to be able to live again and have a group of women show me how to do that.”

Karla recalls Alisha always got good reports from Hand UP for Women and chose to follow in her footsteps.

A Murky Past

At 19 years old Karla started using opioids and it progressed to heroin quickly. By 21 she considered herself a “full-blown addict.” For 10 years she battled addiction.

Her mom wanted her to get clean, but staying sober on her own was tough. Add in a drug dealer boyfriend and stints in Knox County Jail, and Karla was failing. But, her attorney fought for her to go to Knox Recovery Court instead of prison when she reached the last straw.

Once released, she applied to Hand UP for Women and began intensive outpatient treatment. Hand UP for Women accepted her and she began classes in February 2023.

“It’s been a breath of fresh air. I have gained a lot of friends, which I never really had,” Johnson said.

A month into the program she discovered she was pregnant. “It’s been a roller coaster since I am going to be a single mom. They [the staff and volunteers] have helped, given advice and donated clothes. I’ve learned a lot about myself and been able to open up and share my story with other people.”

The 30-year-old feels the non-profit has been a family to her.

Meeting a Mentor

One of her biggest supporters who feels like a second mom is LaVon Stinson.

Participants, like Karla, are provided supportive mentors for their year-long journey through Hand UP for Women.

Karla and LaVon feel the pairing has been a perfect match.

“I love Ms. LaVon. She’s like a mom to me,” Johnson explained “She and I have built a close relationship.”

LaVon has come to class to check in on Karla. They also meet three times a month, often at a restaurant. The two talk on the phone and text regularly as well. LaVon has also noticed that Karla is enjoying her classes and fully engaging with the lessons. She has a strong connection with other participants.

A Guiding Light

LaVon has been working with Hand UP for Women for 22 years.

“She is very uplifting and a Godly woman. I trust her and I can talk to her about anything. She always has the best advice to give me whenever I’m struggling with things,” Johnson said.

“It’s a very easy relationship with Karla,” Stinson said, “She made her decision. Christ is at the center of her life.”

LaVon says Karla is like a daughter to her. She has biological adult children who are older than Karla, but she talks to Karla like one of her daughters.

“When we talk it’s from a biblical aspect perspective,” Stinson said.

Building a Bright Future

Having nearly a dozen mentees over the years, LaVon sees Karla as someone who is committed to her faith and building a new future for herself and her soon-to-be baby boy.

“She’s just so sweet and I will initiate contact [after she graduates] because I want to see how she progresses,” Stinson explained.

I feel great inside to have someone who believes in me,” Johnson said.

Karla is working toward becoming a Certified Peer Recovery Specialist (CPRS), which is someone who works with people who have substance abuse disorders.

“I know that even once I graduate, she and I will continue to be in contact with each other and meet with each other,” Johnson shared.

“For her future, I would like to see that she remains strong. Karla will be beginning parenthood, but if she remains spiritually grounded and relies on her support system—her mom, me, Eva, the whole ministry–we can be a sounding board for her,” Stinson said.

“I want to follow in her footsteps and mentor other women and I know she’ll be able to help me be a good mentor when it’s my time,” Johnson said.

Stinson shared, “I can’t wait to watch her baby grow up and see Karla achieve all the goals she set for herself. I will celebrate the wins with her and help when there are problems or concerns.”

The pair envision a lifelong friendship.

Karla will graduate in the spring of 2024 and is expecting a baby boy later this year. To learn more about how you can become a mentor for Hand UP for Women click the link here.