Richard McAdams’ life confirms what we are learning more and more — that childhood trauma is a life-shaping force that often leads to adult lives marked by dysfunction, including poor mental and physical health, addiction, homelessness and more.

“Brain development is significantly impacted by childhood trauma and stress,” says Cheryl Gingerelli, Guest Care Administrator for the Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission’s Hope Place. “These neurological changes can cause increased vulnerability to substance use and other addictions. In addition, an individual’s ability to cope is also impacted over time, which can lead to addiction and an increased desire to numb feelings and emotions associated with trauma.”

“I had a stepfather that was very physically abusive,” Richard says. “He was a severe alcoholic … he was also sexually abusive.” Richard told his mother about the abuse, but she did nothing to help him.

“I was probably about 8 years old and that just devastated me,” he says. Her unwillingness to help him led Richard to turn to drugs.

Over the next several decades, Richard continued to turn to drugs whenever he experienced trauma or felt uncomfortable. He eventually started selling drugs, and wound up in prison for three years. After his release, life only got worse.

“I just lost everything,” Richard says. “I didn’t have anybody in my life that I cared about or really cared about me.”

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Richard became homeless. One morning, he greeted a woman on the streets and “she just looked at me and crossed the street to get away from me,” Richard says. “It was a horrible feeling.”

Things reached a breaking point in March 2013. After being up for five straight days, Richard prayed that he would go to sleep and never wake up. His prayer was answered in an unexpected way.

About a half-hour later, the Mission’s Search + Rescue van arrived with volunteers handing out sandwiches, cocoa and more. “But it was more than that,” Richard says. “They wanted to be in relationship with me. They wanted to find out what was going on with me … It felt good.”

That night, Richard got into the van, and after sleeping overnight in a bed for the first time in quite a while, he entered the Mission’s recovery program the next morning.

Counseling plays a significant role in the Mission’s recovery program. “Through counseling, healing and learning new ways of coping, beliefs, thoughts and behaviors can change, ultimately fostering a new sense of empowerment, a healthy identity and greater hope,” says Cheryl.

Richard now oversees Search + Rescue with the Mission as the Search + Rescue Manager. “It’s a calling on my life,” Richard says. “Being able to just come out and show people that they matter motivates me.”

Richard McAdams (left) with Brian Chandler, Director of Outreach for Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission.
Richard McAdams (left) with Brian Chandler, Director of Outreach for Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission.

Sheena, whose childhood was also marked by abuse, calls Richard her guardian angel, because “he never gave up. No matter how many times I blew off the chance [to enter recovery], he never gave up on me.”

Sheena left the streets and entered Hope Place, and she plans to work in the human services field. Like Richard, she wants to help others as she has been helped. “I want to find a career in which I can really just pour the love of God out into other people,” she says.

Sheena and Richard have come to believe that, while childhood trauma can affect us as adults, it doesn’t need to define or imprison us. Healing can occur, and beauty can come from ashes.

“At some point during the [recovery] program, they come to a place of realization,” Cheryl says. “As trust is established … they begin to realize they are not alone and allow vulnerability, and ultimately growth. This work is such a privilege as we watch God work in those who are willing to seek true change.”

Richard says he would describe his life today as “blessed and hopeful.”

“I have a great support system, I have an amazing job, I have people in my life that care about me. And I have a place to live,” he says. “I just have a meaningful life.”

The Mission is a nonprofit ministry that loves and cares for our homeless neighbors throughout greater Seattle. We want everyone to know, no matter their circumstances, they are loved and cared for, by us and by God. Learn more at ugm.org.