JACKSON, Tennessee • A broken air conditioning unit on a hot Friday afternoon didn’t stop Stephanie Goode Laffoon from enjoying her day at work.

Laffoon, formerly of Tupelo, continued on in her enthusiastic manner in a worn, two-story office building in north Jackson. She spent time talking to the women who visit the building seeking a new way of life, and then worked on fundraiser plans that would support the women as they pursued their dreams. She even stopped downstairs to serve blackberry cobbler and ice cream to a visitor.

Later, she drove three miles to an 11-acre grassy lot where a vision has been planted. Someday, a home will be built there to replace the office building and give the women and their children a safe place to live.

“It’s 11 acres of beautiful land right in the middle of the city,” Laffoon said while scanning the property. “You’re going to feel like you’re living in the country.”

Laffoon is the capital campaign manager for the Dream Center of Jackson, a faith-based nonprofit in Jackson that provides educational, job and family support opportunities and housing for women who are homeless or going through personal struggles. The center offers classes to help the women become self-sufficient in their lives – emotionally, physically, mentally and spiritually.

“I have a heart for women who’ve gotten caught up in drugs, alcohol, promiscuity, just trouble in general,” said Laffoon, a 1993 Tupelo High School graduate. “The Dream Center is all about giving them a fresh start.”

Once a practicing attorney, Laffoon began volunteering at the Dream Center in 2005. In early 2017, the center’s board of directors asked Laffoon to join the staff full time.

Laffoon is grateful for the two-story building that serves as The Dream Center’s current business office. It was donated to the center, rent-free. The same goes for the homes throughout Jackson where the women served by the center and their children reside.

When the women share their stories with the Dream Center leaders, Laffoon said, they sound similar.

“We find here at the shelter that about 90 percent of the women who come here were sexually abused as a child,” she said. “Probably less than 90 percent of the women have a drug or alcohol addiction, but everyone here has some form of codependency that they’re struggling with.”

Laffoon said she’s motivated to serve in Jackson because she went through similar circumstances in her youth.

“It has to do with my past from Tupelo,” she said.

Rebellion

Laffoon said much of her teen years were spent abusing alcohol and drugs and making one bad decision after another.

“I enjoyed being in the limelight, whether it was good or bad,” she said. “It was mostly bad at that point. Anything that allowed me to be rebellious, I enjoyed it. I enjoyed getting in trouble. I got kicked out of band, cheerleading, classes. I would get in-school suspension and I would laugh about it.”

The reckless behavior, according to Laffoon, was a mask to hide the pain and shame she felt about being sexually abused when she was 9 years old. The memories of the abuse were triggered a couple years later, sending Laffoon in a spiral.

“I was molested by a family friend,” she said. “I really didn’t know what happened to me. I don’t have a great memory of it. I couldn’t tell you what I remember from it, but I remembered it a couple years later. It made me start to believe there was something wrong with me, that I was a bad girl.

“I found out that you could get attention. You could hide it, suppress it and be sad about it, or you could exploit it,” she said. “I exploited it. And at too young of an age, I began to be very interested in boys. Making very perverted and inappropriate comments. I found out I could get attention that way. I think it was just me trying to overcompensate for someone finding out that I might be damaged goods.”

Laffoon said she kept pushing the limits of how far she’d go until she reached a breaking point in February 1993, during her senior year in high school and weeks before her 18th birthday.

“I found myself in a situation where I was involved with a drug dealer, and I thought I was pregnant,” she said. “I was going home to commit suicide. My life had become a train wreck.”

On her drive home, Laffoon said she heard God’s voice telling her, “I’m very angry at you. Go home and read your Bible.”

“I’ve heard it outside my head,” she said. “He speaks to my heart in what I call ‘downloads.’ But this was an audible voice, and it sobered me instantly. He knew I reached the end point of myself.”

Even in the midst of her troubles, Laffoon said she still made good grades in school. After graduating from Tupelo High, she enrolled in Union University – a private, liberal arts college in Jackson operated by the Tennessee Baptist Convention.

“I got a brand new start at Union,” she said.

Laffoon believes going to Union fulfilled a divine appointment that was given to her five years earlier. As a member of a youth group from Tupelo’s East Heights Baptist Church, she attended Centrifuge – a week-long spiritual camp – on the Union campus.

“I knew I had a mess, but I gave him my mess at 13 years old,” she said. “I remember signing a little card that said, ‘I accept Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior.’ I was baptized at East Heights. My commitment to the Lord lasted a week or two, and then I lived like the world.

“But when we were leaving Union, I didn’t get to ride the big bus back. That was a big deal to ride the big bus,” she recalled. “For some reason, I got stuck in the smaller van, which was like the most uncool thing to ride. I sat on the very back and I remember being mad about that. But as we were pulling out of the Union parking lot, that was probably the first time I heard God speak to my heart, and I heard him say to me, ‘One day, you’ll come back here to go to school’.’”

Laffoon graduated from Union and then went on to earn her law degree from the University of Memphis in 2000. Laffoon and her husband, Michael, returned to Jackson where she practiced law until a son was born in 2007 with a life-threatening condition.

From her wild teen years to adulthood, Laffoon said she learned the power of prayer and that having trust in God can lead to miracles. The son who was born with health issues is now 11 years old. He’s the third of Michael and Stephanie’s four naturally born children, and they have an adopted son who’s 28. He was born in Uganda and grew up in Rwanda, surviving the Rwandan genocide, before coming to the U.S. to attend Union in 2011 – exactly a year after Laffoon began praying for a child from Uganda to come to her family.

“I believe in miracles,” Laffoon said. “I believe miracles are the same today as they were yesterday. As long as God wants to perform them, he will.”

A dream

The Dream Center of Jackson began its drive for a new home about three years ago, and Laffoon said it’s at the halfway point for its goal of raising about $3 million to build the home and move in debt free. The new home will be about 30,000 square feet and serve 125 people.

Northside Assembly of God, a church located in a residential area in north central Jackson, donated the adjoining 11 acres of property to the Dream Center for the home. Laffoon said the center has commitments from builders, plumbers, concrete companies and others who’ll donate their services toward construction.

“And the fact that it’s going to so far back of the road, that makes it even better,” she said. “We couldn’t have asked for better land. It’s prime real estate.”

The Dream Center has had several fundraisers to support the center’s current services and funding for the new home. For her 40th birthday, Laffoon hosted a party at a skating rink in which guests were encouraged to donate to the Dream Center. The event raised almost $27,000, including a $12,000 donation that led to the purchase of a 15-passenger van for the center – something Laffoon specifically prayed for.

“We ask God for a lot of things, but we don’t always believe he’s going to give them to us,” Laffoon said.

Laffoon said the pain of her past has been turned into a positive message for the women who come to the Dream Center with little hope. She encourages them to disregard anything that tells them they’re unworthy.

“As much as hurt people hurt people, healed people help heal other people,” she said. “I’ve moved from being a hurt person who hurt other people to a healed person who can show there’s a way to healing.

“I know what it’s like to be an addict. I know what it’s like to have something else driving me instead of me driving me. That plays into every single day that I work here and every single woman I work with. I can say, God knows where you are and will meet you where you are. Don’t think you’ve gone too far. You’re still living, still breathing, and God still loves you.”

bobby.pepper@journalinc.com

TWITTER: @bobbypepper30

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