Agape House offers healing for emotionally wounded women

GLADES COUNTY — “This is a home for women with life controlling issues,” said Debbie Tuel, as she described the reason she and her husband, Fred, had for opening Agape House 20 years ago. Their lovely two-story historic building located in Moore Haven on the banks of the Caloosahatchee River is now a life renewal and refuge for their women’s ministry.
Debbie and Fred were working at Faith Farm, a religious-based facility that helps people wean themselves from drugs and/or alcohol.

Debbie Tuel

Debbie Tuel of Agape House

“We wanted to start a womens’ ministry so in 1997 we chose the name, Agape, because it means God’s Unconditional Love,” she explained.

The Graham Family Estate donated the house. It is operated as a 501-3C (not for profit) business. Dozens of kind, enthusiastic people helped Debbie and Fred remodel the 1920s styled building.

“It was wonderful how it happened,” she said. “Folks from Clewiston, Stuart, Ft. Lauderdale, and the Dunklin Center, another facility for rehabilitation, cleaned, painted, repaired and replaced. There were individuals, groups of folks mostly from churches, colleges, families, and a few businesses. There were lots of students helping,” she said.

Fred Tuel’s unexpected death in 2000 before the project was completed saddened and scared Debbie. She wasn’t sure what to do next.

“A local pastor encouraged me to continue on my own,” she said.

Thanks to her courage and, shall we say guts, plus many kind, selfless people, in just two months after the project started, the building was ready for occupancy.

“One night a woman who needed help, knocked at our second floor entrance.” Thanks to word-of-mouth information from locals, she was their first resident.

Donations of bedding and mattresses came from the former U.S. Air Force base in Avon Park. Furniture and all sorts of donations arrived with no strings attached. Sounds fairly simple but throughout those beginning years, walls were moved, kitchen cabinets installed, gallons of paint and dozens of painters worked hard. Plumbing and electric had to be up to commercial codes. Debbie’s faith in herself, her religion and friends has taken her a long way.

The house is now attractive and comfortable with a working fireplace in the dining room.

The kitchen is easy to work in and very bright and pretty.

Operation expenses come from the United Way, grants, donations, churches and individuals. The metal roof was donated as have been vehicles for staff. Debbie proudly said the United Way workers occasionally bring a group to see the facility.

The house has a maximum occupancy of ten residents. Residents must be at least 18 years old. Most residents are 20 to 45 years of age. Individuals have to want to go into the Agape House program. It is a disciplined one-year program designed in phases. Agape’s staff members come from the Servant Leader Training classes or the SLT program on site.

Teachers of all ages and education help with the training programs. Parenting classes are available along with living skills, such as laundering, cooking, cleaning and even an art class.

“We always need volunteers for different programs,” Debbie said. “I love to get the women from jail or prison. They need so much caring and help. Those who have been on crack or meth are the hardest to help. Those terrible drugs make them crazy.”

Two of their favorite money-makers are their Saturday morning yard sales held on the verandah of the house, and the Agape Thrift Shops that are open six days a week. Their second shop is in Clewiston’s historic district on Dean Duff Avenue.  The yard sale is operated by their residents as are the thrift shops, but both shops still need volunteers since residents must attend their classes and other responsibilities.

When asked about amusing stories or incidents, she cited the time a resident was trying to weld a lamp part at the kitchen table using an acetylene igniter.

“I asked the young woman where she learned to weld and her reply was, ‘nowhere. I saw somebody welding once.’ I got there in time.”

She is proud of their recidivism rate. Eighty-five percent of the women are not in the legal system after five years of leaving the program.

She told of two former residents who are running similar ministries, and two former heroin addicts who totally straightened out. She cautioned about family members who become enablers. “Addicts love enablers.”

Debbie’s main thoughts are the need for volunteers, the need for your prayers, and of course, the need for funding to keep the home painted, all the rotted wood replaced, and all those maintenance items that come with historic buildings.

Debbie doesn’t get much time off, only one weekend each month. The residents get a free afternoon when the weekly yard sale is over and on Sunday afternoons. Financial donations are always appreciated.

Labor, building materials, good paint, and all the things that are necessary in keeping a home together are always needed. Don’t forget to give your love and appreciation.

The residents who work in the shops are kind and helpful. If you have furniture to donate, they will help unload your vehicle, and when possible will pick up donated items. Please make sure items are clean and in good repair. It is obvious that they all have plenty to do just maintaining their beautiful home and healthy, productive lifestyles.

Agape Thrift Shop daily hours are 10 to 5 p.m.; closed on Sundays.

The Saturday Morning Yard Sale, held in front of Agape House, is 8 a.m. to 12:30pm.

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