A Hope and a Future
Stefani Mitchell first met Paul Gifford, lead pastor of First Assembly of God in Toms River, New Jersey, and Paul Hulse, outreach director of a ministry to the homeless called Haven-Beat the Streets, during the winter of 2017.
The Toms River church became the first facility in Ocean County to open its doors to the homeless on nights when the temperature dipped below freezing. Police brought Mitchell, high on drugs, to the facility. She used heroin and ecstasy to dull the pain she felt due to a series of losses. By then, Mitchell had given up on herself and her four daughters. Family members had temporary custody of her older girls, and the twins lived with their father.
“Nobody wakes up one day and says, I'm happy. I want to do drugs,” says Mitchell, 30. “I had this pain. I lost myself on the streets, and I needed healing.”
Mitchell’s journey to freedom had its share of ups and downs. Although Gifford and Hulse got Mitchell into a Christian recovery program, she left early, choosing instead to return to drugs and life on the streets.
With a warrant out for her arrest on drug-related charges, Mitchell ran hard, trying to stay one step ahead of the police, sleeping on the streets, and doing whatever it took to survive.
But not only authorities sought Mitchell’s whereabouts. Kim Popek, a recovery specialist and life coach, also pursued Mitchell after learning about her from another addict. After many failed attempts, the two finally connected.
“When I found her, she was scared, tired, and hungry,” Popek says. “But she was coming around to the idea of detox and rehab.”
Later that night, authorities arrested Mitchell. It turned out to be her saving grace.
“During my time in jail, I had this moment when I walked into my cell and I had all these books on the cartel I was reading,” she says. “I heard these words: Stefani, you have to get rid of all these things. You have to put good things into your mind.”
She jettisoned those books and picked up the Bible instead. When she came across Psalm 139, Mitchell realized she needed a new way of life. She wanted her children back.
Mitchell called Popek and told her she was ready to enter a faith-based program. Popek wasted no time, and within days, had located a long-term Christian women’s program, Hoving Home in New York, which has close ties to Adult & Teen Challenge, a department of Assemblies of God U.S. Missions.
Popek also wrote a letter of recommendation to a superior court judge and talked with Mitchell’s public defender, requesting her release to enter the program. Mitchell had two choices: participate in either a six-month or 12-month program. She chose the extended program.
During court proceedings, the judge agreed to release Mitchell into the custody of Popek, who transported her to the facility. Unwilling to take Mitchell to collect her belongings being held by fellow addicts, Popek instead drove to Walmart to buy her some bare essentials.
“As we pulled onto the grounds of Hoving Home, I knew right at that moment that she was never going to turn back,” Popek says.
“I knew this was where my life was going to be made new,” Mitchell says.
Mitchell found herself immersed in a loving community and a way of life based on God’s Word. Mitchell fought for her recovery and her children, and after many ups and downs, graduated from the program on July 19.
Today, Mitchell is back at First Assembly of God in Toms River, but this time, to worship and participate in the life of the church. Recently, she was water baptized.
“Her recovery is going great,” says Gifford, 43, who now serves as Mitchell’s pastor. “She is in counseling and looking for where God would have her be.”
Gifford, along with Hulse, 40, continue to check in on Mitchell to ensure her recovery stays on track.
“There’s so much peace and transformation in her life now,” says Hulse, who recently launched Just Believe, a new ministry to the homeless and disenfranchised based in Toms River. “She is blossoming in her relationship with Jesus and focusing on being a mom.”
Popek continues to maintain an especially close relationship with Mitchell. They talk or text several times a week.
Today, Mitchell is no longer homeless. She lives in an apartment with her three-year-old twins, Kelsey and Brienna, and has renewed her relationship with their father, Dallas Manzoli. She also has reunited with her older girls, Malia, 6, and Isabella, 5, who live with their father.
“I pray that I can be a light to my daughters,” says Mitchell. “I desire to be a godly, nurturing mother and bring my daughters to Jesus.”