By Jim Killam | Illustration by Nathan McDonald
This summer, as Kari Heckler debated whether to apply for the position of First Free Kids Director, she asked God to give her a sign.
“That’s not me,” she says of the request. “I’m very factual about stuff.”
She drove her son, Spencer, to his summer job at Summit Ministries near Colorado Springs, and then spent a few extra days in the mountains by herself. Each day, she drove by a church with its name carved into a huge stone slab: First Evangelical Free Church.
“I looked at that and I thought, well, that’s a sign.”
During those days in the mountains, Kari set a goal of ascending the Manitou Incline, which climbs 2,000 feet in about a mile. The trail used to be part of the Pike’s Peak Cog Railway until the track bed was washed out by a 1990 rockslide. Since then it has served as a fitness challenge for hikers and runners.
A year ago, Kari could hardly walk due to problems in both Achilles tendons. A year before that, she went blind for a month when her optic nerve swelled. This year, she left a youth ministry position at another Rockford church, thinking it was time to step away from church work — what she calls “The Machine.”
Now in Colorado’s thin air, somehow she was hiking up the Incline’s nearly 3,000 steps, passing much younger hikers who were doubled over and vomiting. When she reached her target point along the trail, she looked out on the incredible beauty below and felt very small. It was one of those God moments.
“I felt like I had my strength and my joy in the Lord back,” she says. “I felt like I let go with my fists of some things that I needed to put behind me. Health issues, spiritual things, just to know that God can help us get up those mountains. I couldn’t have done it myself. I know I couldn’t have.
“And the Lord just spoke to me so clearly: ‘You’ve got to let it go. You’ll be fine. I’m not done with you yet. You need to get back into the Machine and go.’ And there was just this strength that came: spiritually, emotionally, physically.”
When Kari got home, she sent her resume to First Free and things moved quickly from there. She started as Kids Director on Sept. 3. Even before she knew she got the job, she thought about two particular pieces of décor for her office: a photo showing the steps of the Manitou Incline, and another showing “First Evangelical Free Church” carved into that stone.
“If I ever have a rough day and feel overwhelmed, I can look at that picture and remember that God brought me here.”
Getting to know Kari Heckler
Married to Chris for 33 years. They met at Sterling High School. Six kids: Skyler, 31; Shaylee, 27; Sedric, 23; Shane, 21; Spencer, 21; and Sierra, 17.
Four of the kids are adopted. Kari had a rocky childhood, and her own experience steered her and Chris toward adoption, foster care and ministry with at-risk kids.
Kari and Chris both came to Christ right after they got married.
- YWCA, Sterling – Children of Domestic Violence program
- Metro Christian Center, Rockford – director of nursery, then youth pastor
- Managed Bible Book Center in Rockford
- New City (now called Gracepoint) Gospel Fellowship outside New York City – preschool ministry, children’s church
- Rock Church, Rockford – youth ministry director
(The Kids director oversees programs for preschool through grade 5)
“The main thing is kids need to know the Lord as their savior. That is why we do this. The way to get to that with this age group is to be very biblically driven and teach them doctrine, so they can stand on the Word of God.”
“Whether it’s with teenagers or children, I’m more relational. I’m going to try to get to know them. Sit down and play with Legos with them at the beginning. I don’t stand back and watch.”
“In every ministry I’ve worked in, I’ve been more like an aunt than a teacher or a pastor. Like I’m an extended part of their family. And I’d like to see the whole church feel that way to them. When they come to First Free, they feel like they’re home.”
“I have a very strong conviction with our fourth and fifth graders to remember that they are more like high schoolers used to be, in terms of how much they are exposed to. Sexuality and sexual identity – kids are being indoctrinated. Also issues like self-esteem and self-harm. We need to address those topics with them younger. I hate that, but I also know it’s one reason I’ve been called to children’s ministry. We cannot put our heads in the sand. Kids today live in a totally different world than we did.”
“I’m excited that First Free is going to be having a parenting seminar. I wish drop-and-run parents could be a thing of the past. They can be part of this, too. I hope to see the parents committed to their kids having a Christian education here.”
Provide mentoring opportunities for leaders to have consistent relationships with the kids, especially through small groups as the kids get older.
“One thing I love about Summerama is that kids help in ministry and serving. Because that’s where they’re going to learn. If you tell them to prepare a lesson, that’s where they’re going to learn.”
Kari Heckler’s Favorites
Food: Brownies with a lot of frosting; pizza
Movie: Star Wars (the original)
Jim Killam is a journalist, author, teacher and terminal Cubs fan. He and his wife, Lauren, live in Rockford and work internationally with Wycliffe Bible Translators.