Blind to the eyes of locals, Dawn spent years navigating Lynchburg streets looking for quick fixes to accumulating life struggles. Appearing to most as a normal, lower-income local, only a fraction of the population shares the kind of trauma she endured.

She was living on the third floor of her apartment in the Virginian building. A section 8 housing development at the time – just months before it was shut down – Dawn often woke up in her tidy living space not knowing what happened the night before.

“Tidiness is something that has never wavered with her,” Lighthouse cofounder Martha Brown said. “It was the one thing she kept control over.”

She would eventually leave because she felt unsafe and knew she would end up using again, but the apartment itself never looked the part. Full with a living room, kitchen, and eating area, her pad had 3 large windows that overlooked church street and the Allied Arts Building – the building she threatened to cast herself off of.

“In all the places I have ever lived, I do not care if I was in an active addiction or not, I have always been very clean, very organized. I have a knack for interior decorating and rearranging furniture,” Dawn said. “My apartment was just adorable. Just adorable.”

In contrast, it was Dawn’s mental space that needed attention.

Her family separated at an early age and her mother, who she stayed with, never allowed her much of a childhood. The remedy for life’s problems, she was taught, was to push them down and mask them. Alcohol was the intoxicant of choice, and as an adult, going a day without it just did not seem feasible.

Disabled, unemployed, and sustained by a $14/month EBT card, Dawn struggled to keep her pantry stocked. And the booze supply – it was never full but she never let it stay empty.

“I would wake up in complete panic mode. Where was I going to get beer? Where was I going to get money?” Dawn explained in a lengthy interview about her life.

Her neighbors often supplied. It was not free, but sexual favors served as a good bargaining tool. And if alcohol was unavailable, she used crack cocaine or whatever else she could get her hands on to strip herself from her hard reality.

Hunger would periodically catch up to her and force her to find some help. Thankfully, Robert at her AA meeting told her that the Lighthouse Community Center down the street had a free food pantry. That day in July 2013, broke and hungry, she walked into the Lighthouse and asked for food.

Life has a way of dramatically changing us within a moment’s notice, and we often do not see it until well after it happened.

Like a roadside motel, clientele seldom varies greater than that of The Lighthouse’s. A homeless veteran may come in one day, never to be seen there again, only to be followed in by a business owner who’s grabbing a meal after their workout at the YMCA next door.

“There is just something about this place. It changes people’s lives as soon as they walk in here,” Dawn said.

Dawn quickly got involved with the Lighthouse while still battling the insanity of her life. Cycles of mental illness would abduct her from the safe haven and people at the Lighthouse, and thrust her into self-medication through drugs and alcohol that would last for days or even weeks.

The Dawn today that for so long-lived that tumultuous life now appears unrecognizable. The people – who Dawn now considers her family – she met at the Lighthouse witnessed just how much Dawn’s life changed in those few short years.

“I just love the fact that she trusted the Lighthouse as a safe haven,” Brown said.

Few people have dealt more closely with Dawn than Martha Brown. According to Brown, Dawn had endured considerable trauma and mental illnesses that lasted decades, and because of that, she needed a trauma-informed care approach. Fortunately, Lighthouse was one of the few organizations that offered it.

“Lighthouse is a trauma-informed organization. The leadership staff took the initiative to go to Richmond to pursue training and make certain that, if the Lighthouse was going to serve people with mental illness, in crisis, addiction or homelessness, our compassion was never compromised and overshadowed by [cynicism],” Brown said.

“It is easy to be dismissive of people’s behavior because we just want to say ‘what the heck is wrong with you’ instead of asking the question: ‘what happened to you?’”

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Dawn attests to having four mental illnesses that likely contributed to her trauma: post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety, bipolar, and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Likewise, these conditions required advocates at the Lighthouse to care for her differently than others.

Dawn’s trauma-filled life began with an absent father and an alcoholic mother. She never had a childhood, nor was she allowed a normal adulthood. She never experienced a blissful, oblivious stage of life, for her environment had been hostile and unstable as long as she can remember.

“My mother said she took me away from Michigan when I was six weeks old because I would not stop crying and my dad threw me against a wall. That’s what she told me,” Dawn said.

The earliest thing she can remember is her uncle – from whom she gets her name – molesting her right around the time she went to kindergarten. Unfortunately, her mom was no consoler. Talking through life’s problems was not something her mother allowed her to have.

Not thinking her life was okay, but also not knowing any different, the place she called home never stayed the same for long. Her mom would be gone for long periods of time forcing child services to inject her into the foster care system.

According to Dawn, she lived in 13 foster homes from age five to 14.

“We would go into foster care until [mom] could get herself straight again, and then we would go back to her. Then she would get drunk – she would leave us in places. She left us in a motel in Florida once for three days. It was just back and forth.”

“When I am out of these foster homes, I am with mom and she is an alcoholic. Men are beating on her and she is promiscuous, and there is men – that was my entire childhood.”

At 15, the same age of her first rape, her and her mother began drinking together. It did not take long before they were using other things together.

“We were like gas and fire. We used together. In New York, we turned tricks together – just not good stuff, just really not good stuff.”

At 17, Dawn got pregnant with her first child.

“I did not know where momma was, and I did not know how to take care of no baby. But I had this little baby and I kept her for nine months.”

“I knew as a child that I would never ever, ever, drag them through what my mother had drug me through, so I took her over to social services and I signed the papers and gave her up for adoption.”

At 19, her mother had gone missing so she went up to New York to find her. While there, a man known to others as Ralphie coaxed her into a brothel.

Dawn was naive to Ralphie’s coercion and didn’t even realize she was being groomed as another pawn in the sex trade. Most people cannot fully fathom what it must be like as a participant in the sex industry, but for Dawn it made sense. Getting paid to have sex was never something she knew she could do, so it actually brought with it some excitement. “I’ve been having sex since I was 12, but I had no idea men would pay,” Dawn said. “I was astonished!”

For Dawn, prostitution provided psychological advantages, too. She was busy, people wanted her around and she always had food to eat (and booze to drink). She had gotten her first taste of the simple pleasures that most of us enjoy every day.

“Somebody wanted me.”

People do not always ‘choose’ to do bad things. Traumatic events can distort what we think is true, magnifying certain needs which we end up giving priority to. Most of us cannot conceive of being in a place where prostitution seems attractive, but for Dawn, that is exactly how it made her feel.

“I remember walking the streets one of the first times in Brooklyn, and I can remember exactly what I had on. I remember feeling desirable and beautiful and that I was wanted. My entire life I felt ugly and unlovable and unwanted and just all of that stuff.”

Ralphie was no kingpin; sometimes he got locked up. During one of those times, another pimp, Mickie, picked her up and sold her in New Jersey.

The second gang rape occurred while working there. A group of men approached her car and placed a sawed-off shotgun to her head, according to Dawn. They intended to take the car, but when the car did not start, they took her instead.

“They had my purse, and I remember before I got out of the car, I said please, just give me the bottle of Hennessy out of my purse. It was like daylight by now and I just wanted that bottle of Hennessy.”

The emotions that ensued are the kind that reinforced her desperation to exit reality. While sober, she felt everything, but when drunk, she felt nothing. She survived being sold on the streets, but for decades following her time she remained an alcoholic and drug addict with spiraling mental illness.

Even without her mom, her substance dependency and impoverished lifestyle kept her on the move. Throughout the years she lived in Florida, Maryland, New York, Michigan, North Carolina, New Jersey, West Virginia and eventually back to Lynchburg.

As Dawn describes, Lynchburg has always been a place of darkness for her, magnifying her lusts for drugs and alcohol. The city has provided her with a hostile home, unhealthy relationships, multiple rapes and the place where she was used to taking whatever she could get her hands on to cover up the hurt.

2 Corinthians 4:8 (ESV), “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair”.

After finding the Lighthouse, she would eventually move out of Lynchburg to the quiet town she enjoys today. Walking into the Lighthouse that day in 2013 was not the moment her life turned around. It was only a comparatively large step in a positive direction. According to Dawn, it was God, and only God, that restored her into the person she is today. The Lighthouse was only his tool.

“I was coming here for food. I was coming here for fellowship.

I was searching for a relationship with God.”

“I was in and out. I would use and then I would get sober and I would come back. Then I would use, and I would go to jail, I would go to the psych ward, and I would come back. At one point Martha said they would have to plan my funeral because they did not think I was going to make it through.”

Having the patience for people to choose when to change their lives is one of the key components of being a trauma-informed ministry worker. According to Martha’s belief, God is the one that changes people’s lives; her only job is to love them throughout the process.

Aiding in the healing from someone’s trauma is exhausting work. People relapse, they push you away and they abuse you. Dawn drank until she blacked out plenty of times after she walked into the Lighthouse.

Philippians 4:13 (ESV), “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.”

“Patience, grace and abundant mercy,” Brown suggests are required for people like Dawn.

“When I drank, everybody knows,” Dawn said.

A drink was never just a drink. She would drink to blackout and disappear for days, sometimes ending up in jail or the psych ward.

By the graces of God, according to Dawn’s belief, she lived to see the day her life took a real change.

Martha found a safe house and recovery center for survivors of sex trafficking. Within 12 hours, Dawn was relocated states away, where she would live on-site and disconnected from her former life. It was here that Dawn gathered the strength and the tools to set a steady course for restoration.

This place allowed Dawn to rest, rehabilitate, and heal all her hurts. None of that would have been possible without people who showed her unconditional love– that she could be loved simply as she was.

“She had to feel [God’s love] through people who were willing to love her at a measure that which she did not think was loveable,” Brown said. “Because nobody else could love her unless there were conditions attached to it.”

Revelation 21:5 (ESV), “And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”

Today, Dawn lives in a quiet town in Ohio where she works three days a week at a Habitat for Humanity retail store. She attends three AA meetings a week and is part of a homegroup. She keeps a tidy apartment full of plants and a cuddly cat named Daisy.

“I tell other women, if your childhood was stolen, it is okay to live yours – I’m living my childhood now. If you walk into my apartment, it looks like a little girl lives there. I have a life-sized barbie, a big horse, and I have cabbage patch dolls, and I have coloring books and crayons and all of this stuff because my childhood was taken from me, but now I am learning how to live it.”

Matthew 24:13 (ESV), “But the one who endures to the end will be saved.”

People who meet Dawn today meet a woman who greets them with a fluffy headband, a woman who smiles often, a woman who will tell you Jesus is her husband, and a woman who is unashamed to tell you about the life she once lived.

According to Dawn, her daughter and two sons went on to live normal, successful lives. Dawn is now a grandmother and maintains a healthy, distant relationship with her daughter. A few days after the hours-long interview at the Lighthouse, her daughter took a trip to visit with her.

She considers herself a mother by blood and not by role. She finds joy that her children have successful lives because she expects they would have grown up just as her, had she tried to mother them herself.

Isaiah 40:29 (ESV), “He gives power to the faint, and to him who has no might he increases strength.”

Now reconnected with her brother with his own set of mental illnesses, she also lives close enough to him that she can help care for him when he needs it.

One of the closest people in Dawn’s life, Martha Brown, often receives gifts in the mail from her. They see each other as great friends and inseparable sisters in Christ.

While Brown was involved throughout Dawn’s transformation, she takes no credit. All the required love, skill, and stamina was funded by God.

“When the Lord put it on my heart to love Dawn, he also made sure I could never unlove her,” Brown said. “So, no matter what she did to try to sabotage that and to break that and want me to unlove her, the Lord would not allow it.”

“She had to truly see that agape love in action before she could really believe that she was worthy of God’s love.”