“I felt like you never loved me,” Karla Heeter confessed to her mother. Her chest was tight, and she fought back tears and nearly choked on the words as they came out. Karla was in her early 50s at the time, but in that moment the wounds of her childhood were real and raw. She’d been raised in a family that never expressed love for one another. There were many times she felt lost, alone and unworthy of love. As she talked with her mom that day—adult to adult—and bared her soul, she hoped for a miracle. She didn’t get one. “You were always so obnoxious and overbearing,” her mother said. “No one wants to be around that.”
After hearing those painful words, Karla began to search for answers. She discovered Brené Brown’s work and spent time learning about shame and vulnerability. She reflected on the path her life had taken and focused on the good that had come from her upbringing. She had developed a deep and loving bond with her childhood best friend—a horse named Julimar. That led her to the Western riding community as an adult, and she even started barrel racing at age 40. She also found what she needed at the local church growing up, which she often attended on her own. She went on to pursue a life of service as an adult—in her career as a civil servant, a hospital executive, and through mission work in Guatemala where she and her husband sponsor several families.
It also influenced Karla’s entrepreneurial journey. After beating cancer, grieving the loss of a close friend and the tragic deaths of two colleagues, she and Dr. Corey Martin co-founded the Bounce Back Project, an organization dedicated to making communities healthier and happier through resilience education. They hosted several successful group excursions through the organization, which inspired them to launch their second venture together, Bounce Travels. Karla began speaking to large groups about the importance of resilience.
Karla wanted to do more. Specifically, she wanted to inspire others to get to know God the way she did. Her faith in God gave her the strength to persevere. She thought about how her Bible and the hope she’d found within it had been with her through the years. She enjoyed designing jewelry as a hobby and envisioned using her jewelry making skills to embellish Bibles. She wanted to create leather-bound statement pieces so beautiful their owners would display them prominently on their coffee tables, where they would spark conversations about faith.
As she shared her vision with others, her friends in the horse community were especially receptive. So, Karla began creating Bibles embellished with cowhides and conchos. In 2017, she launched Grace Gear, a company offering extraordinary tools of faith, primarily for those who live and love a Western lifestyle. In addition to handcrafted and custom Bibles, she creates leather Bible covers and journals. She also offers devotionals and bookmarks and sells all of her products online and at select Western events and venues.
Through Grace Gear, Karla is achieving her personal mission to share the unconditional love she found through her relationship with God. Her Bibles are starting conversations just as she hoped. A woman at a horse show held a Bible to her chest and thanked Karla for being there. Young Western riders announced they were saving their money for Bibles, so they could organize barn Bible studies with their friends. Karla loves hearing stories about how others are serving God in amazing ways.
Karla is also using her business to give back. Grace Gear donates a portion of its profits to support families in Guatemala, as well as Chloe’s Courage Fund, a nonprofit organization supporting families with kids experiencing cancer.
Through her faith and a lot of self-reflection, Karla came to realize that purpose is often just on the other side of her pain. After years of suffering, she was finally able to forgive her mother because she knew in her heart that she did the best she could.
Photo: Grace Gear
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