Klayton Forrest Kirkwood’s life took a dramatic turn at age 20 when the drunk driver of another vehicle ran a stop sign and T-boned Kirkwood’s Dodge Caliber hatchback in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Kirkwood bore the full brunt of the impact, which resulted in a severely broken collarbone, a fractured kneecap, three broken ribs, and a shattered ankle. He spent the next 18 hours unconscious.
The crash occurred as Kirkwood drove back to his dormitory during his sophomore year at the University of New Mexico. The auto had been a high school graduation present from his parents, Paul and Brenda Kirkwood.
After ankle surgery and four months of confinement to a wheelchair, Kirkwood returned to University of New Mexico classes, but quickly dropped out. The same pattern occurred at Eastern New Mexico University and New Mexico State University. Although the traumatic injuries resulted in difficulties concentrating on studies, Kirkwood says another factor took over.
“As my use of substances, especially marijuana, increased, my trust in the Lord decreased,” he says. “I made a series of bad choices that distorted my priorities, most of them in choosing a lifestyle counterproductive to my education.”
Likewise, Kirkwood bounced around a series of jobs: hotel desk clerk, restaurant server, oil refinery pipeline programmer, cellphone store salesman. A hefty insurance settlement from the collision kept him from having financial worries.
“The money enabled me to live irresponsibly,” Kirkwood recalls. “Rather than buckle down and work, I partied.”
Although raised in a Christian home, Kirkwood had stepped away from his faith by the time the accident occurred. He had become more interested in dabbling in drugs such as cocaine and Ecstasy than having a relationship with God.
Kirkwood noticed that he felt much better after taking the prescribed medications designed to alleviate his agony.
Consequently, the wreck prompted an 8-year addiction to painkillers.
“I decided to tell doctors a sob story, that I was in more pain than I actually was to get more pills or stronger pills,” Kirkwood remembers. “I manipulated the system.”
The strategy continued as Kirkwood moved from place to place. One look at X-rays of his distorted collarbone convinced physicians to prescribe powerful drugs.
Within a couple of years after the accident, the painkiller addiction began in earnest. Hydrocodone became his primary drug. Sometimes he took Percocet; Oxycontin less frequently.
Kirkwood kept relocating, thinking his surroundings caused his troubles rather than the choices he made. He moved to Portales, Roswell, Las Cruces, and Albuquerque in New Mexico, as well as Denver in Colorado, and Dallas and Lubbock in Texas. In between, he moved back in with his parents four times for lengthy stays in Artesia, New Mexico.
By late 2013, Kirkwood had started supplementing his prescribed painkillers with illegal ones from drug dealers on the street. In retrospect, Paul Kirkwood realizes his son’s strange behavior — such as sleeping in the evenings — indicated a drug dependency. But Paul and Brenda didn’t really comprehend the depth of their only son’s addiction until Klayton showed up at the elementary school where Brenda taught in 2015.
Klayton delivered a startling message: if he didn’t receive help fast he would either overdose on drugs, go to prison, or get killed.
Ronnie Williams, pastor of Harvest Fellowship, the church Paul and Brenda attend, suggested enrolling Klayton in Teen Challenge Men’s Center in Tucson, Arizona. The Kirkwoods drove their son there immediately.
Klayton struggled at first, and after two days called his parents and asked them for money to come home. They refused.
“He called us up to buy him a bus ticket home, but we said no,” Paul recalls. Instead, they sent him encouraging cards every week expressing their love.
For two months, Kirkwood felt no better. Then at a chapel service one day, a transformation began. He went to the altar to pray as he had done almost every day he had been in the program. But, Kirkwood says, he heard God speaking audibly to him for the first time: Go do the things I’ve called you to do. Have faith that My blessings will follow.
Kirkwood committed his life to Christ that day.
“I began building relationships, not based on drug use, but on Christian love,” Kirkwood says. He graduated from the 13-month program and then served an internship at the Tucson facility. He stayed on as intake coordinator, bookkeeper, and then, in March 2020, center supervisor. In that position, he oversaw daily activities of the program.
Only two months later, he started serving as interim center director. A couple of months after that, the position became permanent.
Paul Kirkwood believes parents in such situations need to show tough love tempered with compassion.
“If parents don’t stick with their kids, it opens the situation up to the devil,” says Paul, 60, a retired social studies teacher. “It’s our job as parents to see our children through the good and the bad.”
Jeff D. Richards, chief operations officer for the Tucson-based Arizona Teen Challenge, credits Kirkwood’s parents with helping their son regain traction and his subsequent rising in the ranks quickly. Unlike some former addicts, Kirkwood doesn’t display physical symptoms of ever being addicted, according to Richards, himself a Tucson Men’s Center graduate in 1988.
“Klayton’s parents poured a lot into him,” says Richards, 55. “The humility, politeness, conscientiousness, self-discipline, and stick-to-itiveness that he manifests now can be traced to his upbringing.”
Richards, who has worked with Teen Challenge for 31 years, says Kirkwood responds well under pressure and because of his street smarts he isn’t easily fooled by addicts entering the program. Richards says he appreciates Kirkwood’s inquisitiveness and his offer to pray whenever they are discussing business over the phone. Adult & Teen Challenge is a department of U.S. Missions.
Kirkwood oversees 15 staff at Tucson Men’s Center, which houses 20 students. On April 23 his life took a new direction for the better, as he wed Kaitlyn Ramos.
“I share with the students every day the need to say yes to whatever God asks,” says Kirkwood, now 32. “Trusting in God’s path will never lead me astray.”
Bottom Photo: Paul Kirkwood (left) never gave up on his son.