At just 15, Dawn Rassett knew she didn't matter. A childhood marred by sexual abuse left her with crippling self-doubt and a distorted body image. She made herself throw up regularly, trying to regain a sense of control over her body.
After decades of trying to escape the pain she felt inside, and exhausted from having her first child, Dawn gave herself over to a meth addiction in 1996. She was 27 years old.
She spent the next decade stuck in a destructive cycle of addiction, criminal activity, incarceration, and relapse. Her use of meth destroyed her marriage and drove her apart from her daughter. Her mother stopped speaking to her.
After experiencing a brief victory over her addiction, she relapsed in 2014, and within six months received an eight-year prison sentence for identity theft. Dawn stepped into Minnesota Correctional Facility–Shakopee for women in March 2015. "It was horrible," she remembers.
PURSUING A NEW PATH
Dawn knew something had to change. Though she didn't spend much time in church growing up—she described her family as "CEOs: those who attend church on Christmas and Easter only"—she began to read the Bible and find a spiritual foundation for her life.
That's when a friend of hers in the correctional facility joined the Prison Fellowship Academy®, a program that teaches men and women to lead lives of purpose and productivity inside and outside of prison.
After learning more about the Academy, Dawn knew it was the right path for her to take. Determined to make the most of her incarceration, Dawn gave up her TV—a condition of joining the program—and decided to sign up for the Academy. The 12-month program was life-changing.
At just 15, Dawn Rassett knew she didn't matter.
A childhood marred by sexual abuse left her
with crippling self-doubt and a distorted body image.
'FINISH THE RACE, WIN THE PRIZE'
During the program, Dawn and the other participants were paired with women on the outside who agreed to be prayer partners. Dawn's prayer partner told her the Lord kept bringing Philippians 3:14 to mind when she thought of Dawn: "I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus" (NIV). She kept reminding Dawn to "Finish the race; win the prize."
So, Dawn kept racing, pouring herself into the Academy. She loved so much about it—the knowledgeable facilitators, the incisive curriculum, the classmates who became like sisters, and the caring volunteers.
"I was in awe of the volunteers," she says. "They were just exceptional. Their hearts were in sharing the love of God." One volunteer was a victim of identity theft. Dawn says listening to the volunteer's story was a "healing experience" that helped her understand the full impact of her negative choices, and strengthened her resolve never to make the same choices.
A NEW IDENTITY IN CHRIST
What Dawn most treasures about the Academy, she says, is how it revealed "that I matter." Through the Academy, Dawn shed the destructive thinking that led to her distorted body image and developed a sense of herself as valuable and worthy of respect and care.
"[The Academy] exposed who I am in Christ, that I'm beautifully and wonderfully made, like Psalm 139 says," Dawn recalls. Now when she begins to have negative thoughts about her body, she fights against the destructive thinking with the truth that she is a precious and treasured daughter of the living God.
Equipped with a new way of seeing herself and the world, Dawn looked forward to her release, though it was mixed with anxiety over reintegrating into society.
One volunteer was a victim of identity theft.
Dawn says listening to the volunteer's story
was a 'healing experience' that helped her understand
the full impact of her negative choices.
EYES ON THE PRIZE
Dawn was released on March 27, 2017. Anxious over not being able to secure housing, she was thrilled when she discovered an open room at a clean-and-sober house just one week before her release. She found work at a Christian-owned business through a job placement program she worked with while incarcerated.
After finding a place to live and starting her new job, Dawn reconnected with her daughter, and they are still in contact today. She's now "super close" with her mother, she says, and she's still in touch with some of her friends from the Academy.
She got involved with a local church and Celebrate Recovery, a Christ-centered 12-step program that is part of the Academy curriculum, like Prison Fellowship® volunteers and staff encouraged her to do. Lately, she has discovered why these connections are so important for a healthy reentry; after several months of things going smoothly, a string of Dawn's family members lost their lives or experienced prolonged illnesses.
Traumatic events like these can be dangerous for addicts who are tempted to dull the pain. But Dawn has pressed on and found comfort from family, friends, and Prison Fellowship volunteers who have reached out to check in on her.
"I'm so grateful for [the Academy] and everything it brought," she says. "I want to do what's right even when no one's looking. I came to see that no matter what, [life's] about choices … and it's going to be OK as long as my eyes are fixed on Christ."
Photography by Kara Elizabeth Photography
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