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Daniel DeLeon, Lancaster PA

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I was born and raised on the streets of Lancaster city. I came from what could be classified as a dysfunctional family. This is evidenced in a mother who would lash out in frequent psychotic outbursts; a father who would discipline his children by pretending to be the devil; a sister who was diagnosed with Dissociative Identity Disorder (multiple personalities); and a brother who made a name for himself for the animalistic brutally that he dished out on rival gang members. This was my family, so it should come as no surprise that at the age of eleven I started drinking alcohol and experimenting with drugs. At twelve, I was placed on probation for shooting a girl in the face with a pellet gun. At fourteen, I was locked up for almost beating a man to death. By sixteen, I was locked up once again for armed robbery. And from that point forward, I was in and out of detention centers and prisons for the majority of my adolescent and adult life.

As a result of my chronic addiction to drugs and alcohol, I became homeless at the age of 25. With an alcohol and drug habit to feed, I made a living by robbing drug dealers (and anyone else on whom I thought I could gain the upper hand). Eventually, this kind of lifestyle led to the demise of all meaningful relationships in my life. All alone, sleeping in a back alley in the middle of November, I found myself bracing for death. It was at this point that I began to ask the big questions: Why am I here? Where am I going? Why can’t I change? At various times in my life, I believed I’d had encounters with God. For that reason, I believed Him to be real, but up until that point, I was just not willing to surrender the only life I knew.

It was shortly after this, on December 7, 2007, that a series of events and influential people persuaded me to enter the Christian Life Development Program at (what was then called) the Water Street Rescue Mission. From the outset of this process I knew that God was involved in directing my life to this point, and my new motivation was to live to the fullest for Christ. From the very beginning, a thought was implanted into my heart that I was not at the mission to get my life back; rather, I was there to give it up.

The verse that was deeply implanted within my heart and mind was Jesus’ simple yet profound words recorded in Matthew 6:33, “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” Since then, this verse has continued to motivate me to seek the things of God first in all I do. As a by-product, God has added many wonderful and undeserved blessings into my life. I have a wonderful wife (Alicia DeLeon) who has followed Christ since she was a little girl. I have a restored relationship with my daughter (Sabrina DeLeon) after three years of disappearing from her life. And my wife Alicia recently gave birth to our little baby boy named Micaiah DeLeon. On top of all this, I have had the opportunity to go on several out of country short term mission trips (Mexico and Dominican Republic) and I also had the opportunity to spend two weeks in Israel on a travel learn tour.

There are two things, besides my family and relationship with God, that bring me the most joy. The first is when I can spend time with God in His Word, and a light turns on in my mind as I see Him revealed through the pages of Scripture. The second thing relates to the first. When this happens, I must tell others. With that said, I believe I am called to be a pastor, but I also could see myself teaching in an academic setting. This spring (May of 2013) I graduated from Lancaster Bible College with degrees in Biblical Studies and Pastoral Ministry. If, God willing, I can raise the money, I will begin online classes this fall at Reformed Theological Seminary, where I hope to pursue a Master’s Degree in Theological Studies.

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Nash Doud, Lancaster PA

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I think it’s important to mention that the person I am today is not the person I used to be. Throughout my life, there have been trials and tribulations that have come and gone. I can say that these hardships have influenced and changed my demeanor.

Back when I was a child, my life was full of adventure. We lived in an area that was surrounded by trees, but our closest neighbor was still about an acre away. I remember running through our small forest and picking up sticks as if they were swords. My imagination flourished in such an environment and having two sisters and a brother allowed for more fun. This went on for years and I’m so thankful I never gave up my imaginative play. However, being happy and engaged in my own fantasy world came to an abrupt halt when I reached my middle school years.

There were so many changes happening in all respects to my body. My thought process was being altered by new hormones and an unexplainable attraction to girls. I was no longer concerned with imagination and the pretend, but instead, the real world. If you haven’t noticed, the real world can be a depressing place. I was now focusing on how I behaved, how I looked, and what others were doing. To be honest I was disgusted with all of it. I hated the way my new hormones were making me behave, I hated the way I looked, and further more I couldn’t believe what others were doing.

Within two years, “play” went being about running around at recess to having conversations about adult affairs. I didn’t want to be consumed by it, as it took center stage in most of my friends lives. Realizing all of this, I found myself slowly becoming depressed. This could also be the hormones fluctuating, but regardless I went from being an extremely happy child to a sad teenager. I thought this was it. This is how life becomes when you start to grow up, and then high school happened.

Even though my freshman year started off in a new exciting place, my feelings were the same. I had dreams and goals from my childhood that I tucked away as I prepared for the real world. I had everything mapped out. I was going to participate in the vocational tech program and be a certified carpenter, ready to work, by the time I graduated. I thought it was the perfect idea. I’d get out of school for half the year. But those were my plans, not the plan that had been laid out before me.

After two months into my freshman year I met one of my best friends and most influential person in my life. We shared many deep conversations about life and what it meant to us. At first, I was unfamiliar with looking inward towards myself and seeing what most of us ignore. He asked me hard questions that forced me to look deep inside and I’m very thankful he did. Not many of us ask the hard questions and try to find the answers as to why we do things. He did. All the time. And eventually I stopped saying, “I don’t know why I did that.” Or “I don’t know why that makes me upset.” And I started answering the questions, “It makes me upset because I don’t want to live in a world where people are consumed by their impulses.” Eventually I adopted this way of thinking and became very in sync with my subconscious and was able to understand myself on such a deeper level.

Now, six years later, because I have a better understanding of myself, I am able to understand others better. When friends or loved ones approach me about the problems they have in their life, I ask them questions and try to figure out why they feel the way they do. I’ve noticed that a lot of people don’t like what they see when they look at themselves in the metaphorical mirror. Who wants to be reminded of how imperfect they really are? But when a person finally looks inward and doesn’t try to cover up what they see, or rationalize their behavior, they will begin to make changes.

It took me a few years to rediscover myself. I locked that young imaginative spirit away for what I thought I needed to be. Only you know what makes you special and only you can share that with the world. If you seek the truth it will set you free.

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Sean Jesiolowski, Lancaster PA

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Perhaps nothing else in my life has provided such an opportunity for developing maturity in me than the experience of my partial hearing loss – my deafness in my left ear. Though my hearing loss is not a complete deafness, I am “half deaf”, as I tell people. I have learned to simply live with this truth, and through it, I have come to understand much about suffering. Perhaps more importantly, I’ve learned what it means to grow from suffering. Thankfully, I’ve been blessed with a challenge that has cultivated important social and emotional growth in me.

Much like the water-borne situation of George Bailey in the classic film It’s a Wonderful Life, I developed a bad ear infection at a young age. Like other kids with swimming-related ear infections, I wore tubes in my ears; I received plenty of attention from my parents, doctors, and specialists. News struck my family that I had the chance of losing hearing, but as it turned out, avoiding complicated surgeries proved to be the wrong choice in saving it. My left ear would from then on have but a hearing level of 15%.

During my teen years, though I’d gotten used to living with my hearing situation well before then, I became more and more conscious of the loss. Being half deaf in middle and high school was an enormous source of discomfort and anxiety while I learned how to relate to my peers. I recall glimpses of cafeteria lunch tables, with kids and trays of French fries, and I was so nervous about finding a seat toward the left (the “good side”) of the kids that I wanted to befriend. I wanted so desperately to communicate. Having to think strategically, I fought an emotional battle in frantically attempting to hear everyone – and in a way that they wouldn’t suspect I was “weird”. (I was also embarrassed of being thought of as the “half-deaf kid”, despite just how true it was.) Often I sat quietly and nervously in the cafeteria, struggling to hear everyone in the conversation. For my hearing and for other home-related reasons, I acted out by cracking inappropriate jokes to gain the attention that I felt I needed, but this made things much worse for me. These were truly tough times for a teenager!

Today, this struggle persists but in a much less selfish and debilitating way. I am now a prospective student of Mental Health Counseling, and my moments of social anxiety have become useful memories – rich examples in emotionality – with truths I can use to better understand psychological concepts. These social experiences have provided me with a deeply poignant and personal knowledge that is analogous to narratives of mental illness, personal suffering, and human brokenness. I can say confidently that I know what significant pangs of awkwardness, or frustration, or anxiety (things I read about) feel like. I’m becoming more and more grateful that God has inclined my mind and heart towards understanding the real, diverse, and sometimes intense struggles that all of us face.

In addition, and regarding my professional interests, being handicapped in this small way has paradoxically sharpened my listening skills! I have noticed that I can pay close attention to the verbal and non-verbal communication of others, and this skill-set has been developing from continual efforts to hone in on the words of my peers. As I’d engage in conversations at the lunch tables, for instance, I had to be quite selective as to which speakers, and to which times, would provide me with the most essential words of the conversation. If the speaker is on my left side, I still have to hold on to every word ever so closely as not to miss key details. In this way, God is continuing to sharpen my gift of listening!

Throughout my life, especially more recently, I have met more and more people like myself who have lost hearing in one ear (sometimes both), and I am comforted to know that I am not the only one with a struggle like this. I share my pains with others. Lastly, I am content in knowing that God has used both my physical handicap as well as my emotional and social adversity to mold me into one of His vessels for righteousness. I continue to find strength and encouragement in the optimistic, hopeful outcomes seen in the losses of others and of myself. I relish in knowing the Lord is working these and all things together for His good ¬– including that I may one day help another person see the beauty, truth, and goodness that can emerge from his or her unique brokenness.

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