Story and photos by Craig Dirkes, writer/photographer at The Salvation Army Northern Division
When Crystal Hill’s baby boy was born, it was the best day of her life – and the worst.
She gave birth to her son, Jayden, while she was serving time in prison. He was taken from her almost immediately. She didn’t know if she’d ever see him again.
The sound of Jayden’s cries haunted her.
“I heard him crying inside my jail cell for days,” said Crystal, 36.
Today, with help from The Salvation Army, Crystal has turned her life around. She has a full-time job and is a full-time student.
Most importantly, she is a full-time mom.
“The Salvation Army taught me how to live with integrity and trust,” Crystal said. “It’s an amazing feeling. I’m excited for my future.”
Not long ago, Crystal didn’t have a future. She’d been addicted to drugs and alcohol for most of her life. She first started drinking at age 12.
At 19, she began using and selling crystal methamphetamine. She’d earn up to $1,000 for every ounce she sold.
“In my 30s I was selling it by the pound,” said Crystal, who has spent her life bouncing between living in Minnesota and Ohio.
She sold drugs for almost 20 years. She finally got caught in early 2014. She was sentenced to 366 days in prison, during which time she gave birth to Jayden.
In August 2014, Crystal was released from prison early. Jayden was just a few months old and living in Ohio with Crystal’s mom, who’d assumed custody of him until Crystal could prove she was fit to be a mother.
Crystal was dying to see Jayden, but she wasn’t allowed to. The conditions of her parole prevented her from leaving the state, and her mom was too poor to bring him to Minnesota for a visit.
So, what did Crystal do?
“I drove to Ohio, saw Jayden, and was back to Minnesota within 36 hours,” she said.
In seeing Jayden, Crystal’s love for him intensified. But she felt ashamed that she couldn’t provide for him. She was homeless, living on the streets of Minneapolis.
Like many men and women who are fresh out of prison, the two things Crystal needed most – a job and housing – were almost impossible to obtain.
Almost out of necessity, Crystal went back to earning money the only way she knew how: selling drugs.
“That was my justification for selling drugs – to let Jayden know I loved him,” she said. “I sent as much money as I had, as often as I could.”
It didn’t take long for Crystal to end up back in prison. In October 2014, she got caught with over a pound of meth and was sentenced to 74 months in prison.
Before Crystal’s sentence began a year later, a judge allowed her to travel to Ohio to see Jayden for a short visit.
“I got to see him walk for the first time,” Crystal said. “It was so hard leaving him.”
Crystal began her prison sentence in November 2015. Her dream to be Jayden’s full-time mom had all but died. By the time she got out, he’d be 8 years old.
Soon into Crystal’s prison sentence, she enrolled in an intensive 18-month rehabilitation program called Challenge Incarceration – known to inmates as “Boot Camp.”
The first six months of the program took place inside prison. She underwent long and rigorous days of physical training, education, chemical dependency treatment, and therapy.
“It was quasi-military,” Crystal said. “We were up at 5 a.m. and in bed at 9 p.m., every day, for six months. They broke you down to build you up.”
She thought about Jayden nonstop. “I wrote him a letter every single day,” Crystal said.
She made it through the first six months. Along the way, she gave her life to God and got baptized.
In July 2016, Crystal moved on to the next phase of Challenge Incarceration: 12 months of living a productive life in the outside world, under heavy supervision.
Crystal made the most of the opportunity. During the ensuing year, she:
- Spent five months in inpatient treatment
- Went to school full-time
- Worked two jobs, including 30 hours a week at a thrift store and two weekend graveyard shifts at a warehouse
- Attended three support group meetings per week
“If I would have messed anything up, I would have gone back to prison for four years,” Crystal said.
Hello, Salvation Army
During Crystal’s supervised release, one of the weekly support groups she attended was a Salvation Army post-prison outreach program called Aftercare Support.
Aftercare Support includes Salvation Army staff and volunteers who help ex-offenders find jobs and housing, while offering emotional and spiritual support. Participants can also receive food, clothing, bus cards, and other essentials. Dozens attend the program every week (read story).
“The support at Aftercare Support is amazing,” Crystal said. “I never felt ashamed. They made me feel like I was a part of them.”
Aftercare Support also helped facilitate a meeting between Crystal and Jayden in April 2017. That month, Crystal’s mom brought Jayden to Minnesota for a visit. Crystal was excited to see Jayden, but she felt helpless because she didn’t have any money.
“I needed things for Jayden – a car seat, blanket, and pillow – but I couldn’t afford them,” Crystal said.
The Salvation Army got Crystal all of those things and more, including a restaurant gift certificate. In the end, Crystal’s visit with Jayden was a wonderful experience.
“I got to see him for five days,” Crystal said. “On the last day, I could see it in his face that he was saying goodbye to his mommy.”
Crystal went on to complete her year 12 months of supervised release. In July 2017, she drove to Ohio to pick up Jayden. He had just turned 3 years old.
“I didn’t believe he was mine until he was in my car and we were driving back,” she said. “For the first time, I felt whole. And proud. Very, very proud.”
Crystal’s mom came with them, too. The three of them now live together in the northern Twin Cities suburbs.
Today, Crystal’s life is beyond fantastic. She works full-time as a property and business manager for a new Sober Living housing company. She is also a full-time MBA student with a 4.0 GPA.
She still attends Aftercare Support meetings every week, receiving personalized guidance from Aftercare Support mentor Tonya Carlson.
Tonya continues to be impressed with Crystal’s progress.
“Many women lose their kids due to addiction and incarceration,” said Tonya (pictured). “They think they’ve lost everything and that they’ll never get it back. Crystal’s story shows that it’s possible.”
Tonya has spent a lot of time helping Crystal strengthen her relationship with God. Crystal now tithes her money, reads her Bible regularly, and prays often.
“I start every morning with a Bible study,” Crystal said. “The Bible answers everything going on my head. I talk to God a lot now.”
She talks to others about Him, too. Every Saturday, she uses her company’s bus or its limousine (pictured) to take dozens of men and women to church.
“Some of them are friends of mine, others are from sober houses,” Crystal said. “The other week we filled a bus with 37 people. It’s incredible to see.”
Crystal is proud of the person and mother she has become.
“She is proof that with a lot of hard work and focus, you can get back what addiction has stolen from you,” Tonya said. “The Lord restores.”