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The Butterfly Effect: My Journey to Freedom by Karen Urbanek

butterfly effect, journey to freedom, strong women

In physics the term butterfly effect refers to how a simple flap of a butterfly wing in America could cause a hurricane in South Africa.

In my world, I call it influence. 

Enjoy the true story of how my life was influenced, changed for the better, by hand-ups, and why I do what I do today.


There were new bath towels, plates, silverware, pots and pans, beds and bedding for all five children, food for the pantry, a watch for Eric, toys for Julia, and even a kitchen strainer! I didn’t have a strainer…… 

I remember the week before Christmas in 1999 like it was yesterday.  My five children and I were recipients of a Christmas giving tree.

Ours were the only names on that tree, and we never even knew it.

I had been working at Mirror Image Dance Academy and had recently decorated the giving tree with names and gift ideas for people from local families in need.  Unbeknownst to me, after I left that night, the owners, Pam and Lisa, removed the tags from the tree, and replaced them with ideas for me, and my children. Apparently the families I was given were not real…..sneaky sneaky.

During that December, my five children and I were moving into an old, cold, Catholic rectory built in the early 1900’s that had been vacant for a long time.  We moved in with one twin bed, toys, a couple dressers, $40, hope and vision. It was the beginning of a new chapter.

But for years prior to that day, I had no vision, and at times I lost all hope.

I hadn’t been sharing the truth. No one fully knew what was happening in my family.

But that was about to change.

It was a spring day in May 1999, and it was to be the last day of me living in the cycle of abuse. 

As I sat there dripping from two liters of liquid being poured over my head, I knew it was the last time I was to ever hear ....“you know nothing about nothing.”

It was the last time I would have anything thrown at me. It was the last time he would make me kiss him. It was the last time he would ever swing his fist at me. And it was the very last time my children would ever see me take it.

I stood in the shower determined to leave. A feeling that my life was preserved for something far greater swept over me and I cried.

And I believed it 

In that very moment, standing in the shower, I was being cleansed.

My heart, mind and body had an incredible shift.

Actually, my entire universe shifted.

For the next several months I was busy. I studied how to open a child care center, sorted and packed, and stayed focused on my future goals. I cleaned houses and saved all the money I could.

The trajectory moment came a few months later when I shared with a close friend from church, Don, what was happening. He was shocked and concerned.  I needed a place to stay, he played with real-estate, and told me he had purchased the perfect place. 

Then, just before Christmas, a few friends and I loaded up my five children (2–10 years old), a truckload of toys, one twin bed, a freezer, a chair, some dressers of clothing and moved into our new home.

The money I had been saving was given to a bill collector a week earlier, so we started or journey with $40 to our name!

For some reason though, money didn’t scare me. I had a vision, I was determined, and I was free.  My mind was open, my heart was racing, my children were happy, we were excited, and I knew God and all of the power in the universe had my back!

When Don and I first walked through the historic Catholic Church which had been closed for well over a decade, I had a vision: The Gardens Wedding Center. There were only a few plants on the property, but I could see it.

When we walked through the brick school building next to the church, I imagined: A Children’s Garden Child Care Center, with gardens and play areas for the kids.

I had vision. 

20 years ago, I had a decision to make. Do I stay and continue to live in the cycle of drama? Or do I leave and chance the unknown. 

The answer came as I was handed what I refer to as: a hands-up.  

The hands were of my friend Don, and his sweet wife Carole.  They gave me the nickname, ZuZu. They let the children and I move onto the property practically rent free until we were settled.

Soon after, there were hands everywhere. 

A few days before Christmas the children and I were urged by a co-worker to go out for dinner and enjoy the local Christmas pageant. He handed me money, and as exhausted and emotional as we all were, we went.

When we pulled in the driveway later that night, we saw lights from a Christmas tree in our family room window. With great excitement the kids and I ran up to our new home. 

When we walked in, we were speechless. The girls and I began to cry.  Our home was filled with bags of clothing, household items, beds in each room, blankets, kitchen items, food, furniture, and a huge decorated Christmas tree with presents for everyone. 

Lisa and Pam, the twins who owned Mirror Image Dance Academy, had orchestrated a miracle. One that gave me the courage and foundation to believe in myself and in the future, and one made a forever impression on our children.

It took us until two in the morning to open all the gifts others had given our family. Each gift was opened one by one and relished! It was EVERYTHING we would need!

There were many hands for weeks that collected the donated couches, the beds and furniture, decorate the beautiful Christmas tree, purchase, wrap and bring all those gifts, set everything up and make all the beds while we were out that night.

Many hands that belonged to people we will never know.

During the following months, people came to help paint the beautiful property, wrap asbestos pipes, provide building maintenance, and load up dumpsters of rummage sale items covered in mold found in the basement of the church. They helped me tear down paneling, replace ceiling tiles, and clean.

Hands belonging to people I both knew, and didn’t, changed our family’s lives forever. 

There were countless moments of joy, as there were challenging times. I worked. My children worked. With so little food, and with too much German pride to ask for help, I had never been so hungry in my life. The pipes froze as I didn’t have money for propane to heat the home. The kids slept with me in the bed those nights to stay warm.  Despite everything, we were never angry, it was all an adventure.

With no refrigerator for months, we kept our food in a cooler on the porch and kept it from freezing. Eventually I brought home an old fridge, but it did not work. A repair man came and said it would be $84.93 (or so) to fix it. I collected every penny I had to my name and handed him just shy of $82.00.  He looked puzzled but accepted it, and after he left my son opened the fridge door and stared into the coolness, now filled with light, smiling.

We had nothing to put in it quite yet, but it was glowing! Setting aside my pride, I headed to country services and asked for help so there would be something in the fridge before the kids came home the next day. 

By June of 2000 our childcare center was buzzing with children’s laughter, and our Wedding Center had Its first of over 800 weddings in September.

Our family increased by four when my very best friend from college, Roger, who had been helping on weekends knelt on his knee in the garden and proposed, bringing his three children to live in our slice of heaven. Later, we welcomed two more children into the family.

Soon after, we opened a second child care center. No, not because we had so many kids, but because we LOVED children!  In the years following we opened a wedding boutique, a floral business, two organic GMO-free grocery stores, two organic cafés, and two holistic healing centers in two states. We ran a non-profit for children hosting Tasting Safaris for thousands of people in the Midwest.

Tables had turned.

My belief that I was worth more, was true. 

Had I not believed in myself, had I not magnified this belief in my thoughts, words, and actions, and had I not stayed focused and determined never to quit, the universe would not have shifted that day in 1999, and I would have remained bound.

Sometimes I meet others who live as I did before my shift, thinking life may not change, and believing there is no way out.

Sometimes they simply need a shoulder to cry on, words of love and comfort, time spent cleaning their home, buying clothes, a referral for those who can help, things to laugh about, or to be on a giving tree.

But what they need most is to believe.

Our beliefs, our visions, our goals, and our dreams ARE possible, but we must first shift to a place of belief. We MUST believe and act as if those dreams are our future.

Then, the Universe, God, the Lord, the Spirit, and any other force on earth and above will conspire to make it happen.

It’s how it works.

Believe to achieve.

And just what became of our family?

Well, Don and Carole sold us the property in Allenton, for what we are sure was far less than market value. Our businesses boomed, and we’ve been able to give hand-ups to countless individuals. 

Roger and I continue to stand in awe of our children. They are very well educated and have been able to bless the lives of countless thousands across the globe through their travel, business, service, their families, their faith, their work and their belief. 

They truly believe they can change the world, and they are.

In 2014 after visiting Fiji and Samoa, I had a new vision, and we closed everything to focus on building our holistic online educational platform.  I am now the president of Holistic Health Educators. Working with Medical Doctors, Naturopathic Doctors, and professionals from every holistic practice worldwide has been nothing short of amazing and inspiring!

The next four years is filled with excitement as members of the board travel and host disease prevention summits and help build community holistic health outreach programs in many countries.

Those countless hands 20 years ago this Christmas, could never have predicted what would come of their gifts, their sacrifices, their trust and their belief in my little family.

I, Roger, nor our children would be who or where we are today without the hands of those who reached up and out to help.

This Christmas season I wanted to personally thank you, the one reading this story, for everything you have done for your own neighbors, friends, families, employees, communities, the people in need, and the people you just randomly feel inspired to help.

Your hand-ups are changing the world.

We truly do not know when we throw a pebble into the water how far those ripples can go. In physics it is called the butterfly effect, but in life it’s called...


Please, take the tags off the giving trees at Christmas time, and better yet, look every day for ways to give others a hands-up, to influence their world for the better. 

It will change their life, and it can change the world. 


There’s a p.s. to this story.

In the spring of 2013, I asked my ex-husband to please drop by the office. After friendly conversation, I shared with him the drama cycle. For someone to be in drama there needs to be a victim, a villain, and/or a hero in their life. Understanding the drama cycle, and how to shift out of it, had helped me heal, and I was hoping it would help him as well.

I forgave him, thanked him for our amazing children, and then this feeling swelled inside of me and I told him I loved him. 

With eyes now wet, he softly said, “thank you” and quickly turned to leave.

I watched him walk out to his car. 

I remember it clear as day because one of our staff members watched as I spoke those words and hugged him. She looked at me after he left and made a kind comment, of which I cannot remember, because all I could think was…….

I believed, and now I was truly set free.

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