Social workers number among those called to minister to the needs of broken, shattered souls like Jennifer J. Lee, whose life was a case study of domestic violence, childhood sexual abuse, drug addiction, trauma, crime, and prison. Her secondary education ended when her alcoholic father stopped taking her to middle school.
Twelve years later, at death’s door in a hospital where she awoke from a 10-day coma, the Lord began gently restoring her to life. After she came to faith in Christ, He placed her on a path to help others like her.
“Everything was alcoholism or rejection on both sides of my family,” Lee says. “Whom the Son sets free is free indeed. I knew I had been set free.”
In December, Lee graduated summa cum laude with a Bachelor of Arts degree in social work from Southwestern Assemblies of God University (SAGU). The department’s faculty chose her as Bible-bearer at graduation ceremonies because of her moral integrity and character.
Equipped with the SAGU degree, Lee, 46, an example of the redemptive power of Christ, uses her adverse experiences as a springboard for helping others. She’s a social worker at Adult & Teen Challenge of Texas in Azle. With her husband, she’s launched Abby’s House, metro Fort Worth residential homes for women and children, some of whom come from backgrounds similar to hers.
Her earliest memories are of her divorcing alcoholic parents’ rage-fueled quarrels. The man who moved in with her mother began molesting Jennifer, then age 4. Her violent father took custody of Jennifer and a brother to evade paying child support. She and her siblings were left to raise themselves. A child introduced Lee to marijuana at age 9; at 13 her oldest brother gave her meth, launching her 15-year descent into drugs and alcohol.
At age 18, she got pregnant with the first of six children by four different men. In 1998, she landed a three-year prison sentence for cocaine possession, robbery by threat, and unauthorized use of a motor vehicle.
Behind bars, Lee learned hanging out with the “church people” provided a measure of protection.
“I went through the motions of reading the Bible and going to church, but I didn’t believe in the God that I have today,” she says.
Jennifer and Sam had met while living in the same Fort Worth apartment complex. Miraculously, Sam never tried drugs even as Jennifer’s addictions worsened. Each weekend Sam drove 2½ hours to visit her in a correctional facility.
“He was a pure man who loves very deeply, the most committed man,” she says, “I didn’t know what to do with a man like that.” A Hispanic Christian couple had taken in Sam and his mom and brother, eventually putting Sam through med school and his brother, Steven, through law school.
After Jennifer finished her sentence, her addictions resumed. She had relationships with Sam and other men. She moved to St. Louis.
“On a road called Battlefield Drive, I had the worst battle of my life.” She lost custody of her kids and drank and drugged until the devil told her to throw herself off her apartment balcony.
She didn’t jump; instead, in delirium she went downstairs, where passersby found her partially naked on a picnic table and called 911.
Ten days later, she awoke in a hospital room tied to a bed, unable to speak.
“I saw this lady’s face — bright, shiny, beautiful — saying it’s going to be OK,” Lee remembers. Her doctor recited what later she recognized as Scripture, her nurse played Christian music, and the Lord sent Christian visitors.
“I knew there was a God at this point,” she says.
She wound up at Russellville Women’s Center, an Adult & Teen Challenge facility in Arkansas. In time, while working in a thrift store, she formed a friendship with AG evangelist Kandi Rose, who also experienced a hard-knocks life. Later Jennifer moved to Fort Worth, married Sam Lee, and regained custody of her children. At Bethesda Community Church, then a satellite campus of SAGU, she began taking online classes.
She believes SAGU, located in Waxahachie, Texas, is a place where dreams are realized, even though she started with a less-than-stellar educational background.
“At SAGU, I interacted with people who told me I could do it,” Lee says. “At SAGU I learned I was smart.”
A dream moved her to switch majors from church leadership to social work.
“They kept encouraging me to keep going,” Lee says. Staff members didn’t let her fall behind. Several professors prayed with her to shepherd her through difficult challenges.
“I learned how to fight at SAGU,” Lee says. “There’s always a way. SAGU teaches us how to be way makers.”
In her required social work internship, professors entrusted her with writing a policy manual for The Heights Ellis County Family Resources, which uses faith-based principles to help domestic abuse victims access help and advocacy from both government agencies and nonprofits.
“Jennifer Lee has field experience with a nonprofit of her own and was a very valuable asset to The Heights,” says Jennifer Salzman, The Heights executive director. “She also has the most genuine caring heart and spirit and is a joy to be around.”
Bottom Photo: Jennifer Lee (second from left) attends her SAGU graduation with children Kali, Dylan, and Kayden, and husband, Sam.