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The Prodigal s Healing

The Prodigal’s Healing

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Deborah Kovach wanted to honor the request of her father, Robert Ray Stewart, to sit with him at the 40th anniversary banquet of Teen Challenge of Arizona. Stewart and his wife, Violet Sue, founded the drug and alcohol rehabilitation ministry chapter in 1965.

More than 300 people had gathered in a banquet hall in 2005 to mark the occasion and to fete Stewart. Kovach arrived, but headed straight for the women’s restroom. She closed a toilet stall door, pulled out a bag of methamphetamines and a pipe, and proceeded to smoke.

Kovach, then 43, felt she needed the meth high before the evening’s festivities began.

Unknown to her parents, Kovach had spent most of her adult life as a “functional addict,” holding down a full-time job as a construction company office worker, despite daily illegal drug use.

“Meth was my drug of choice and I always carried it with me,” Kovach recalls. “I did it every morning before my feet hit the floor.”

In addition to having no idea of the depths of their daughter’s addiction, Kovach’s parents didn’t realize other secrets she had been harboring: trauma over her parents’ divorce; sexual molestation by a girlfriend’s father that began at 10 and lasted five years; and a sexually promiscuous lifestyle that led to seven abortions beginning at age 16.

The troubles started at age 5 when Robert and Sue divorced. Deb’s 9-year-old brother, Terry, went to live with his father. Sue remarried another minister, Bill Gaddis, two years later. The family breakup and reconfiguration left Deb confused.

“I thought I’d done something wrong,” she says. “I felt lonely and ashamed.”

By 14, Deb began using drugs and sex to numb the pain. She married and gave birth to her daughter, Shalynn, at 18. Kovach visited her husband in prison and agreed to smuggle drugs inside for him and his white supremacist friends.

The marriage lasted only three years, with her husband incarcerated most of that time. By 22, she had divorced a second time.

The addiction continued for another two decades, up to the Teen Challenge banquet. That evening, Kovach heard testimony after testimony of how her father had helped others turn their lives around after quitting drugs. As Kovach went home, the irony of how empty her life had become in comparison stared her in the face. She uttered a simple prayer before going to sleep: God, I want to quit this lifestyle, but I can’t do it on my own. I need your help.

“I woke up the next morning delivered, and I haven’t touched drugs since,” says Kovach, who notes that God quickly sent confirmation.

That next day she went to breakfast at an unfamiliar diner on the road. The owner came to her table, grabbed her hands, and gazed into her eyes, declaring: You have made a recent change in your life. You are going in the right direction. Keep going. Kovach never saw the woman before — or since.

With a handful of other new Christians, Kovach began publishing an Overcomers for Christ newsletter for inmates, letting them know God is real and permanent change is possible on the outside. One of the inmates who read the newsletter was Tracy Kovach. He later met Deb at a Teen Challenge function.

Tracy had his own dysfunctional childhood, drug addiction, and incarceration to contend with before he accepted Jesus as Savior. Tracy and Deb have been married nine years, soon after Tracy gained sobriety at the Greater Phoenix Teen Challenge. Teen Challenge is a department of U.S. Missions.

“If we would have known each other before we got saved and clean, there is no way we would be together,” says Deb, now 57. “God makes it work because He is in the middle of our marriage.”

Deb works as the training and learning manager in the quality and compliance department of RI International, a nonprofit that helps the seriously mentally ill and substance abusers.

Deb’s mom, Sue Gaddis, operated a home for struggling women for 19 years called Cabrini House, where everyone from single mothers to the developmentally disabled lived.

“I was helping other women, sowing seeds for Debbie, believing someday she would come to the Lord and turn it around,” says Gaddis, 77. She periodically watched Deb’s daughter, Shalynn Evans, during the girl’s formative years in hopes that Deb would get her life together. Shalynn has been married for 16 years and has four children.

Gaddis is appreciative that Deb didn’t let her drug friends know where her mother lived.

“I didn’t know it at the time, but she was running with some really bad people,” says Gaddis, who lives in the northwest Phoenix suburb of Peoria. “When she stayed away, my prayers increased. I knew she was protecting me.”

Gaddis considers Tracy a godsend.

“I’m so thrilled at what God has done in Debbie’s life,” Gaddis says. “I prayed for it, but I’m still flabbergasted how God answered the prayer.”

Snow Peabody, executive director of Teen Challenge of Arizona the past 43 years, now oversees the ministry that has grown to five residential recovery centers with 230 bed spaces for those seeking help.

“It is my joy to honor Tracy and Debroah Kovach as friends of the ministry that Debroah's father founded whenever I can,” Peabody says.

Photo: Deb Kovach (right) has reconciled with her mother, Sue Gaddis, (center) and daughter, Shalynn Evans (left).

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