Ashley Allen, MSW, LMSW, completed her Master’s in Social Work at Monmouth University where she was also selected to coordinate and present the School of Social Work’s Annual Clinical Lecture Series. Her lecture series focused on children born and/or raised in cultic groups with a special focus on issues of human rights. She has presented on cults, with a particular focus on second-generation adults (SGAs) at various mental-health agencies, universities, and at the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) annual conference in New Jersey. Ms. Allen gained a breadth of experience volunteering at the Cult Clinic of JBFCS in NYC for three years and has gone on to work as a therapist with former cult members in community mental health. Ashley is currently serving on ICSA’s NY Educational Outreach Committee, on the Board of Directors for reFOCUS, and as an Adjunct Instructor at Middle Tennessee State University.
Donna Backstrom is retired from a large Midwest utility, where she worked in its energy efficiency department. Donna managed the energy efficiency website and was responsible for online content, brochures and other collateral. She has been an activist working against cults since 2004 when her sister asked her to help with her daughter, who moved to Chicago to join a group of sisters. The sisters are part of a cult, The Love Holy Trinity Blessed Mission. Family members haven’t been allowed to see or talk to Donna’s niece for almost 13 years. The only family members allowed to see her are Donna’s sister and brother-in-law, both of whom are in high positions of authority within the cult. This cult claims to be associated with the Catholic Church, but has never been recognized by the church. This type of spiritual abuse is unacceptable to Donna. She has done considerable research on the topic and is passionate about helping others in this situation. She believes in working against the infrastructure of this and any cult.
Since 2004, Donna has been an activist investigating and sharing awareness of this cult. She has been a member of ICSA since 2006 and has attended several of its annual conferences. She had her private investigators license in Iowa for several years during which time she honed her investigative skills. She appeared at several Chicago court hearings regarding property owned by LHTBM. She presented a film called God Willing in Dubuque, Iowa, several years ago. She also held a meeting for local families impacted by LHTBM. In addition, Donna has spoken at Loras College in Dubuque on two occasions helping college freshmen realize cults really DO exist, even in small-town America!
Donna also is hosting an Awareness of High-Control Groups educational seminar April 7, 2018, in Dubuque. The keynote speaker is Aaron Smith-Levin, a former Scientologist whose story was featured in the Emmy award-winning TV show, Leah Remini: Scientology & The Aftermath. Additional information can be found at www.facebook.com/anti.LHTBM and www.donnaback.org.
Gina Harding, MBA: After suffering spiritual abuse at the hands of a well-known high control/cult group, Gina Harding chose not to be a victim but rather to search for answers that led to healing. In stark opposition to what she’d been taught, she believed a formal education was step number one. She earned an MBA from Franklin University in Columbus, Ohio. Almost by accident, Gina discovered her next step in the healing process. She began to seek out individuals who’d been subjected to the same kind of high control tactics and abuse that she had. She quickly realized that she could come along side and support others in their quest for healing. Gina currently runs a social enterprise focused on working with people who have been forced out, or have voluntarily left a high control or cult group, and as a result have experienced spiritual, mental, financial and even physical challenges due to shunning or excommunication. In collaboration with Vineyard Church of Columbus, Gina facilitates a nonjudgmental, Christ-centered support group called Redefining Christ, for people who have been given a false witness as to who Jesus Christ is, but desire to know him and have a close personal relationship with him. Within the framework of the relationship, a referral system exists for issues requiring clinical counseling, financial counseling and even includes a “Road-to-Home-Ownership” program. Since 2014, numerous people have received the help they need to better deal with the aftermath of escaping a high control group. Gina has spoken at various Christian churches about her unique approach to assisting people who are escaping the often lethal grip of a high control or cult group. She is also in the process of publishing her support group curriculum for national syndication, and welcomes program inquiries and support. In her spare time, Gina enjoys tennis, singing, reading, writing, and spending time with her husband and 5 children.
Anna Holmquist is a cult survivor, songwriter and performer from Chicago, IL.
Donna Lark is an oil painter, a professional organizer and in the not so distant past a jewelry designer. She has a BA in Fine Arts and Communications as well as a degree in Film Production. Her daughter has been under the extreme undue influence of a couple, a woman psychic and her husband for 9 years. Donna has formed an An International Member-Run Family Help Group called Dear Demeter.
Dawn Racine, M.S.Ed., graduated from Northern Illinois University with a dual major in Special and Elementary education. Her first teaching position was instructing students with Learning Disabilities, and then she went on to teach 5th grade, 4th grade, and gifted students. Currently retired after 30 years of teaching, Dawn is taking continuing education classes at Roosevelt University. Doing dog therapy with her black Labrador, Stone, has become an additional enriching experience. On Saturday she plays the piano for her church’s evening services. Her daughter, age 37, has been involved in a religious doomsday cult for 8 years. Dawn has been involved in the Dear Demeter support group for 2 years and is now a co-administrator. At the Santa Fe ICSA conference last November she presented “A Model for an International Member-Run Family Help Group” with Donna Lark.
Gregory Sammons, MEd, PC, resides in Albany, Ohio with his wife Angelina. Greg began working at Wellspring Retreat and Resource Center in March of 2001. He has filled nearly every role at the small residential agency over the past ten years. After his beginnings as the Clinical Residence Manager, Greg was inspired to go back to graduate school to complete his Master in Counseling Education. Greg’s degree covers the area of Clinical and Rehab Counseling. His areas of competence include Abusive Group/Relationship Counseling, Mental Health Counseling, Personal and Social Counseling, Addictions Counseling, and Diagnosis and Treatment. Greg has presented various topics at highly regarded conferences including those sponsored by the American Counseling Association, Ohio Counseling Association, and Ohio Rehabilitation Association. Greg currently provides all clinical counseling and assessment at Wellspring Retreat and Resource Center in Albany, Ohio. In addition to providing clinical services at Wellspring Gregory serves as the Director of Wellspring Retreat and Resource Center.
Danya Shakfeh, Esq. is an attorney and litigator. During her late teens and 20s, Danya was heavily involved in various Islamic organizations as both a student and volunteer until she started to witness spiritual abuse. She has since been working with those affected by spiritual abuse for almost two years. Through her practice as an attorney, Danya is skillful in collecting evidence and testimony, sifting through evidence to determine the veracity of claims, and conflict resolution. She currently helps run and contributes to In Shaykh’s Clothing, a resource website on spiritual abuse for the Muslim community. Danya has her law practice in Illinois where she she resides with her husband and three children.
In 2011, the burgeoning technology of social media allowed a new level of connections to be made among those who had left ATI and IBLP. Several private online groups were formed for survivors of Gothard’s teachings, encompassing thousands of ex-students. Some two dozen former ATI students, including Matthew, formed Recovering Grace in 2011 after realizing that they were the tip of the iceberg; they strongly desired to help individuals and families who were beginning the exit process. Recovering Grace began as a blog and quickly grew into a supporting community devoted to helping people whose lives have been damaged by Gothard’s teachings and practices. Members of Recovering Grace carefully researched and reported stories of abuse experienced under the umbrella of ATI and other Gothard programs. Blog posts on Recovering Grace have been used as sources by the Chicago Sun Times, Christian Post, and Christianity Today.
Spiritual abuse as a subject is almost non-existent in most seminaries and graduate counseling programs; thus, few pastors and counselors have specific training in how it should be dealt with. In the private online groups hosted by Recovering Grace, it is common for people to ask for help in finding counselors and pastors who “get it” — who understand and are equipped to help with the unique challenges faced by those who are abandoning the culture in which they were raised. Matthew believes that one way counselors can be better equipped is by understanding how to apply the competence they already have in cross-cultural communication to working with people who have left a spiritually abusive system.