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Former West Volusia addict finds home, help and hope

Fervent prayer — Concluding their weekly Bible-study session with prayer at the Radical Restoration Ministries home in Ormond Beach are, from left, residents Megan Billings, Melanie Wilson with comforting canine Angel, and Director Rachael Cannon, volunteers Dawn Stipanovic and Vickie Strope from Family Worship Center in Port Orange, and residents Belinda Kitchens and Eugenia Mercer.

BEACON PHOTO/ERIKA WEBB

Fervent prayer — Concluding their weekly Bible-study session with prayer at the Radical Restoration Ministries home in Ormond Beach are, from left, residents Megan Billings, Melanie Wilson with comforting canine Angel, and Director Rachael Cannon, volunteers Dawn Stipanovic and Vickie Strope from Family Worship Center in Port Orange, and residents Belinda Kitchens and Eugenia Mercer.

How does a person survive human trafficking and a childhood spent bouncing between homelessness, foster care and mental institutions?

Melanie Wilson nearly didn’t.

If not for the guiding light of Radical Restoration Ministries, Wilson might have succumbed.  

By the age of 15, she had been abandoned by her drug-addicted parents. She also was an addict, and her boyfriend was a member of the gang known as The Bloods.

Wilson had been kicked out of the Orange City home she shared briefly with her aunt and uncle.

She recalls wandering the streets of DeLand, near Freedom Playground, shoeless, with only the clothes on her back, and no place to go. 

Considered “an orphan of the state,” she was placed in the care of the Florida United Methodist Children’s Home in Enterprise, where she stayed for a year. 

While at the Children’s Home, Wilson attended a church, where she met the Rev. Dr. Dawn Knighton, and learned about Knighton’s ministry, which would eventually spark Wilson’s transformation.

Radical Restoration is a Christian-based nonprofit dedicated to rescuing and rehabilitating women. Clients come from the streets, or find the ministry after release from jail. 

Pastor Dawn, as she is widely known, is a 46-time felon who spent 26 years as a drug addict — prostituting to support her habit. In the depths of despair, she found God.

That “face to face, real encounter,” described in her book Radical Restoration, The Dawn Knighton Story, led Knighton to become a charismatic public speaker, teacher, counselor, author, and founder of the rescue ministry.

Since her release from prison in 2007, Knighton has opened six homes for women, according to Radical Restoration Ministries Director Rachael Cannon. Five of them later closed, and Knighton now focuses on the original home in Ormond Beach.

Forty-five women have graduated from the program; of those, 43 continue to lead sober, successful lives, Cannon said. Two women relapsed; they both later died from drug overdoses, she added. 

Cannon also was addicted to drugs and alcohol.

“I tried AA, rehabs; nothing worked,” she said. “Here, I encountered the love of God.”

Dr. Nancy Russo, vice president of Putnam County Services Stewart-Marchman-Act Behavioral Healthcare, has worked in the recovery field for nearly 30 years. She said a spiritual approach can be effective.

“Any time you can put your belief into something outside yourself, it gives new meaning to your life,” Russo said in a phone interview.

She explained that individuals are composed of a combination of biological, psychological, social and spiritual characteristics.

“That’s what makes up the human condition, makes us who we are,” Russo said. 

As a clinician, she’s completed countless client assessments, that include the question “What are your spiritual beliefs?”

 “The saddest part, to me, is when someone says, ‘I don’t have any’ or ‘none,’” Russo said.

She added, “Research continues to show there’s an increasing focus on the importance of assessing and integrating spirituality in counseling.”

Addie Bobbitt, an educator in Volusia County for more than 40 years, has become a Radical Restoration supporter. Bobbitt continues to mourn the loss of her daughter Josie Bobbitt, who was 32 when she died in 2015 from drug-related causes.

“My main goal was to start a recovery house,” Bobbitt said, “but it was just too much in every way, shape and form.”

Stewart-Marchman-Act Behavioral Healthcare Prevention Coordinator Victoria Kress told her about Radical Restoration Ministries.

“This is the bad thing,” Bobbitt said. “People don’t know it exists. If my daughter had known it, she’d probably be alive today.”

Bobbitt is happy to help spread the word about a program that might work for other women; she knows it’s important.

“Our society is shutting its eyes to the severity of the drug culture,” she added. 

On a clear, breezy day in late December 2016, seven women gathered for Bible study at Radical Restoration’s tidy Ormond Beach bungalow, just steps from the ocean.

Among them, a bright-eyed Melanie Wilson, now 22, perched on a stool.

Previously diagnosed with dissociative identity disorder, Wilson had been prescribed psychotropic medications, which she has since discontinued. 

“I just totally cold-turkeyed that thing, all seven of them,” she said, laughing.

Wilson is a long way from barefoot on the streets of DeLand. 

In three years, she has earned her bachelor’s degree in theology, and is about to complete her master’s degree in youth counseling and ministry from Covenant Bible College.

Wilson recalled the night she reached out for help.

“I had a knife to my throat, and I cried out to God,” she said.

She contacted Knighton through Facebook.

“I kept running into Pastor Dawn,” Wilson said. “I thought they were coincidences, but really they were divine appointments.”

Knighton responded, telling Wilson to “come home.”

“She had been trying to get me into the program for a long time,” Wilson said. 

One of the program’s requirements had kept Wilson from accepting the help.

“She said ‘no men,’ and I said, ‘no thank you,’” Wilson recalled.

On Nov. 7, 2013, Wilson surrendered.

“I wanted to live, to be that good girl, do well in school,” she said.

Knighton welcomed Wilson into the Ormond Beach home, which she had opened in 2012, and gave her the book Intimacy With the Beloved, which turned Wilson’s fear into faith. 

“I was just gonna stay there a few weeks, but God had other plans, and I’m still here four years later,” Wilson said. “It was me and this book and Jesus … that’s when I really started to surrender.”

After living in crack houses and being sexually abused starting at the age of 4, Wilson lacked the ability to trust any person or any dogma.

At the Children’s Home, she said, she obtained some “head knowledge” about God, but she felt rushed and isolated, she said.

Through Radical Restoration Ministries, Wilson gained “heart knowledge.”

“Before, I was living in fear,” she said. “Here, I started to believe I’m safe and protected. I always believed I had to protect myself.”

“I’m sweet now, but I had a lot of anger,” she added.

She has finally forgiven her father, who died from a drug overdose.

And she’s traveled to Maryland to help her mother.

Wilson said she came to understand that her parents “only knew what they knew.”

“Pastor Dawn talked about generational curses,” Wilson said.

Further conversation with God helped her forgive her parents.

“God came into my broken places and started healing them,” she said. “My mom wasn’t there for me, but one time I felt God speak to me, saying, ‘I didn’t just die on the cross for you; I died on the cross for them.’”

Women who contact Radical Restoration Ministries are interviewed to determine whether they are ready for the program. If not, they may be referred to other programs, director Cannon explained.

“It’s an intense program. You’re gonna surrender everything — your cellphone, cigarettes, everything that keeps you bound to your addiction,” she said. 

For the first three to six months, residents do not pay for the ministry’s services. 

Donations from other ministries, along with churches, organizations and individuals, help cover the costs.

“That foundational stage is the most critical part of recovery,” Cannon said. 

Eventually, the women get jobs and pay $500 monthly to stay in the home.

Currently, Wilson and Cannon share the residence with three other women.

Belinda Kitchens, 28, said she was a “full-fledged needle junkie by the age of 13.” Two of her siblings died from drug overdoses.

A 30-time felon, Kitchens has served three prison sentences. Now she is completing college. 

She and Wilson travel as missionaries and plan to continue working together to help others, possibly through an equine therapy program.

Kitchens ministered to her mother, father and sister; all are now clean from hard drugs, she said. 

Eugenia Mercer sat quietly, tucked into the corner of a love seat in the Radical Restoration bungalow.

Six months ago, the grandmotherly Mercer, easily mistaken for a church volunteer, completed a 27-year prison sentence.

Megan Billings, 23, just entered the discipleship program. Her eyes simultaneously reveal unhealed wounds and hope. 

The women laugh, cry, work and worship together.

They do not vie for position.

“We are each other’s sandpaper, and we smooth out each other’s rough edges,” Cannon said.

“It’s the cocoon,” Kitchens said.

Safe within, they are able to change.

- Erika Webb, erika@beacononlinenews.com

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