After 20 years of being involved in organized crime, dealing with drug addiction and hurting the people around him, Shawn got sober, connected with The Salvation Army and now dreams of having a career where he can help others.
“I'm living proof that change is possible, but you have to commit to it,” says Shawn. “I wouldn't be where I am today without The Salvation Army.”
A Rocky Life
Shawn grew up in the Ottawa area and suffered physical and sexual abuse as a child. He gravitated to drugs and alcohol at the age of 13, and by 14, he was selling drugs.
“Some people can go through life without too many visible signs of the abuse they have suffered, but it's always there inside,” says Shawn. “You think you're secure, but, really, you're not.
“That's why I stayed in that lifestyle: I felt accepted, important and secure, even though it wasn't real. But that's how I lived until I was 39.”
That was in 2010 when Shawn found himself in jail on 30 charges related to domestic violence, weapons, stolen property, drugs and assaults. He was also addicted to cocaine and opiates. But while he was in jail, he experienced a life-changing moment.
“I was lying in my cell and this feeling went right through me,” Shawn explains, “as if I'd been hit by a freight train. At that moment, I knew that nobody else was responsible for what was going on except me. I broke down and cried.”
Someone in the next cell heard him and handed Shawn a book by a Christian motivational speaker.
“I kept relating to the things I read,” says Shawn. “I believe God was telling me, 'You've had enough of this lifestyle and it's time for you to do things you are worthy of doing, instead of hurting people.' ”
While in prison, Shawn participated in therapy and a treatment program and, upon release, took part in The Salvation Army's Anchorage Addictions Program in Ottawa. After graduating from the program, he moved to The Salvation Army Transitional House in August 2012. An extension of the Ottawa Booth Centre men's shelter, the facility provides minimum support housing for up to 16 single adult men with limited resources and income as they make the transition to independent living situations. Here, Shawn continues to receive the support he needs before taking that next step.
“I'm going to say this from the heart,” states Shawn. “I have never experienced the same kind of support, kindness and thoughtfulness that I have received through The Salvation Army.
“I've never been judged by them,” he continues, “and the staff have always been behind me 110 percent. They're committed to you. You're not just a number. They want to help you, and they don't want anything in return.”
On New Year's Day 2014, Shawn suffered a terrible loss when his mother suddenly passed away. Despite everything, he had always been close to her, and she'd always been loving and supportive.
“I learned from my mother what unconditional love is,” says Shawn. “During all those years I was doing the wrong things, she always said, 'I hate what you're doing, but I love you.' ”
Shawn had a second powerful moment in his life during a phone call with his mother, just six months before she passed away.
“She said to me, 'I can finally go to sleep without worrying about a phone call or a knock on the door.' Now that I was sober and clear-headed, those words hit me like a second freight train. I apologized to her then, realizing how selfish I'd been.”
Even through his grief, Shawn stayed clean and sober. Now, he speaks to men going through the Anchorage Addictions Program about how change is possible.
Transitional House director Steve Ridgley says Shawn takes a leadership role, not just at the house but with others who are struggling.
“He befriends people at the house,” says Steve, “and provides transportation for clients to run errands and go shopping. By making the visits to Anchorage, he really demonstrates his interest in helping others.”
Shawn also regularly goes downtown and talks to those on the streets who are hurting.
“I get offended when I hear somebody say something negative about homeless people,” he says. “They're no different than us. We don't know what struggles and pain they've been through. Tomorrow, that could be us.
“For many years, I did horrible things. I've since learned that God was with me even then and He was sending me messages all that time. I just chose to ignore them.”
Today, Shawn often attends services at the Booth Centre chapel.
“It's clear to me that God is present and that prayers can be answered,” says Shawn. “I want to keep my connection with Him. I read the Bible every night and I pray. I wouldn't be able to sleep if I didn't. That's the most important part of my day.”
As for the future, Shawn wants to go to college to become a social-service worker, as well as be a good role model for his daughter.
“I started with nothing but now I have a lot, and I don't mean things like cars or motorcycles. I mean in here,” Shawn says, tapping his heart, “and I wouldn't trade that for anything.”