RECEIVING MERCY & FINDING GRACE
A man’s path from substance abuser to Christ follower
Story by Sommer Stanley
Photos by Hannah Dorward
Most 12-year-old boys spend their time playing video games or sports. When Donovan Siler was 12 years old, he began using methamphetamine with his stepfather.
“I caught him smoking meth when I was 12. I thought that it was something we could bond with,” Siler said. “I started selling drugs to my stepdad and his friends at 15.”
When Siler was 5 years old, his biological father was killed in a car accident. Siler and his father had a strong relationship and his father’s death was very difficult for him.
“Donovan was pretty much a happy child. He was very tender-hearted and very compassionate,” Siler’s mother, Gale O’Brien, said. “His first real bad experience in life was when he lost his dad. I think that was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to tell him.”
After his father’s death, Siler’s family moved to Gilmer, Texas, from Florida. Siler’s grandparents moved close to his family so they could help his mother. Siler also became more involved in his church.
“I got into church and I was following God,” Siler said. “I had a pretty good walk with God, but once I started doing drugs, that pushed me away and then I got deeper into the drugs.”
Siler grew very close with his grandparents, but when he was in middle school, his grandfather died. Eventually, Siler’s grandmother moved out of the state. Shortly after the death of his grandfather, two of his other friends from school were killed in car accidents. So at a young age, Siler experienced great loss.
“Donovan had gone through more than most kids experience in a lifetime,” O’Brien said. “That’s when Donovan started questioning God. I remember him coming and saying, ‘Momma, why does God take kids like them?’”
Siler continued to use and sell drugs during his teenage years and dropped out of school. For the next ten years, Siler struggled with drug use and was in and out of jail. He went to jail for the first time when he was 19 years old and was released right before his 21st birthday.
“I had known members of the Aryan Circle (a white supremacist group). So when I went to state jail the first time, I knew my life would be that,” Siler said. “When I went to prison, I would have to do a heart check, which is a fight, and then I would get my number and be affiliated. This whole time the thing was I just wanted to be accepted.”
After his first release, Siler began to cook meth and continued his drug use. After about a year and a half, he decided he wanted to get clean and moved to Longview to work. Although his meth use stopped, Siler used Xanax and smoked weed.
When Siler was 22 years old, he met the mother of his child. She became pregnant within their first month of knowing each other. They decided to move in together but were evicted after constant fighting.
Siler did not think the child was his, so the mother of his son spent most of her pregnancy without him. When it was time for the baby to be born, she begged Siler to come to the hospital and he reluctantly agreed.
“I had it in my head that I would feel my son was mine if I held him. I was nervous, and I reached down and grabbed him. I just felt that he was mine when he looked at me and smiled,” Siler said. “I was clean from January until Halloween.”
On Halloween, Siler went to a party where there were drugs, and he relapsed. The next day, he sought to buy drugs again.
“I stopped by some hotel where some Aryan Circle people lived to get drugs from. Some dudes saw me and when I got back to my car, they robbed me at gunpoint and my son was in the back of the car,” Siler said. “They hit me in the back of my head with a gun, threw me on the pavement and jumped in my car and left. They drove a few blocks down the road and stole my stereo system and everything I had in my car, but they left my son in it. They left the car in a driveway and honked the horn.”
Siler’s son was thankfully left unharmed. However, the police called Child Protective Services to the scene.
“So then it was back to doing drugs because I had failed my son and I almost lost him,” Siler said. “I was just on drugs real bad. My son’s mom was using with me and then she got in trouble by CPS. So we got our son taken away.”
Siler and his son’s mother remained in a toxic relationship for five years that consisted of drugs and CPS visits. Eventually, Siler’s son was given to his grandmother.
“In his 20s, Donovan was in and out of jail. Many times I was the one who put him there; I’d call the cops on him. I’d rather see him in jail than dead because at least I knew he was eating,” O’Brien said. “I know I became the enabler because he needed food to eat. In the back of my mind, I thought it would be for drugs, but then I was like he needs to eat and take his insulin so maybe it’ll go to that. I thought that if I gave him the money and kept him happy, maybe he’d stay off the drugs. I learned the hard way it doesn’t work like that.”
The first rehabilitation center Siler attended was Cenikor, a 35-day program. The state paid for his attendance as part of the conditions set by CPS.
“I did really good in the program. I got a big brother, so I got out and I was clean for three months and then went right back to it,” Siler said. “Every time I went back (to using drugs) it got 10 times worse. Probably a year later I wanted to get help again.”
Siler returned to Cenikor for a second stay. After his release, he moved to Waco with a girlfriend.
“I knew I couldn’t go back home because I’d always relapse there,” Siler said. “But then I started selling drugs in Waco to support my habit. I called my mom and was like, ‘I can’t do this! I’m running out of drugs and money.’ I was really scared and skittish.”
Siler’s mom came to Waco and brought him back to Gilmer, and he stayed clean for two months. Siler found a job working on custom painting for hot rods. His boss told him he could work as long as he stayed clean.
“I went out and then got fired,” Siler said. “So then I was just doing drugs, and that went on for about a year. That was when Isaac Fuentes was telling me about Mercy House. He told me I needed to do something, or I would be living in the streets.”
Siler met Fuentes, a former Cinekor employee, during his stay at Cinekor.
“I kept up with Donovan on Facebook,” Fuentes said. “I ended up seeing his life on Facebook, which was really dark most times. I reached out to him again and I was like, ‘Are you ready?’ He would always say no, but finally, he said, ‘I’m done and ready to find a program.’”
Fuentes referred Siler to Mercy House, a one-year rehabilitation-based recovery home through Antioch Community Church. Fuentes has been friends with Jason Ramos, the director of Mercy House, since they were kids.
“It happened to be at the time Mercy House was taking applications for the new year and they only let so many people in,” Fuentes said. “So, I contacted Jason and said I had a friend who would be a perfect candidate for the program.”
While Siler was considering entering the Mercy House, he went to jail for possession of a dangerous drug, a terroristic threat and public intoxication charges. The jail accidentally released Siler early and if they would not have made that mistake, Siler would not have been able to enter the Mercy House. A week after his release from jail, his arm became infected from meth.
“I went to the hospital and they told me it was a flesh-eating bacteria in my arm and they would have to cut it off,” Siler said. “Jason reached out to me. I was like, ‘Have you accepted me?’ He was like, ‘Just trust the process!’ and I was like, ‘What else do you need to know? I’m broken and about to get my arm off.’ He said they wanted to pray about it. I was like, ‘There’s nothing to pray about. Just accept me!’”
Ramos and Mercy House staff continued to pray for Siler while he was in the hospital. The doctors were able to salvage Siler’s entire arm and nothing had to be amputated. Thirty minutes before his surgery, Ramos called and told Siler he was accepted into the Mercy House.
“Honey, I can’t tell you how excited we were. I wanted that for Donovan,” O’Brien said. “I promise you, every bit of this was God’s work.”
Siler was supposed to go back to jail for a previous meth charge. However, due to his arm, they would not take him because he was a liability. Instead, they agreed to let him attend Mercy House as part of his four-year probation. Siler entered the Mercy House on Feb. 26, 2018.
“In the beginning, I didn’t want to listen to Jason because he was Mexican. I was brought up white was supreme and everyone else was trash,” Siler said. “No one is born hateful or racist; you’re taught it. That’s what my stepdad and them have taught me my whole life. I thought minorities hated me as much as I hated them. Even though they knew I was racist, they still accepted and loved me. It opened my eyes up to something different than what I had been taught.”
Racism was just one of the many obstacles Siler had to overcome. Siler’s arm did not heal properly, so Mercy House leaders took him to his doctor’s visits. However, the appointments and procedures were expensive, and Siler could not afford his medical bills.
“Jason paid the $100 for me to see the surgeon,” Siler said. “Once the surgeon heard my story, she didn’t charge me any more doctor’s visits. I just had to pay for the materials, which was like $17.30 a visit.”
Siler’s doctor referred him to a plastic surgeon and said he would need $200 for the appointment.
“I was like, ‘I don’t know what you don’t understand; I don’t have no money,’” Siler said. “The next morning there was an envelope in the mailbox with $200 with my name on it.”
Siler’s final operation was $14,000. The hospital wanted a $4,600 check at the time of the surgery, but Siler was unable to come up with the money.
“They told me to just show up for the operation and they would work on the payment later,” Siler said. “A week later, I got another letter in the mail that said someone had paid for my operation in full and it was almost $14,000. I don’t know who; it didn’t say.”
While Siler’s arm was recovering, he was also struggling with drug and medication withdrawals.
“Whenever I came in, I was withdrawing from meth, Xanax and I was on seven different meds for bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, depression and anxiety. I had to get off all that because they believed God could heal you from anything,” Siler said. “So not only was I coming off the drugs, I was coming off of prescription meds. So I was hearing voices and kind of losing it. The first three months was hard on me.”
Siler survived the withdrawals and his paranoia stopped. Siler had been using those medications since he was 12 or 13 years old. He now realizes many of his symptoms were probably drug-induced. Siler still does not use these medications today.
“I wanted to get clean and sober so bad. So if that meant I had to quit taking my meds, that’s what I was doing. But going through the house I wasn’t perfect,” Siler said. “I was always honest when Jason asked me and he let me stay. He wanted us to own our mistakes, give them to God and ask for forgiveness instead of fighting.”
Even though he made mistakes along the way, Siler persevered through the Mercy House because he wanted a better life for himself and for his family.
“I decided to get baptized outside the Mercy House on April 29th. That’s when I started having a breakthrough,” Siler said. “When I fully surrendered, a lot of things started to open up and change for me. The whole big thing about Mercy House was everyone treated you like family.”
Mercy House consists of four phases: orientation, foundation, reintegration and transition. Throughout the program, residents work up to transitioning from the Mercy House and rebuilding their lives. During the transition phase, the men secure their own jobs and housing.
Because of Siler’s background, it was difficult for him to find a house to rent. However, members of Antioch Community Church and Siler’s family helped provide him with necessities. A man from church rented Siler his duplex, while other people donated furniture and household items. Siler successfully found a job and, with a little help from Ramos, paid all of his bills. For one of the first times in his adult life, Siler was employed, sober and self-sufficient.
On March 2, 2019, Siler graduated from the Mercy House.
“Getting out was the first time in my life I had accomplished something. I had to hold onto it and keep paying,” Siler said. “It was important to me because I wanted to be able to take care of my son. I’ve always wanted a family. My biggest fear was that I would continue what I was doing and my son would end up with a stepdad like I did. I loved doing drugs, I loved partying and I loved selling them. But I loved my son more.”
In addition to improving his relationship with his son, Siler’s brother Michael came back into his life.
“Donovan always looked up to Michael. If he disappointed Michael, that bothered him more,” O’Brien said. “Michael had washed his hands of him. But when he graduated, Donovan asked if I could mention it to him and see what he says.”
Not only did Michael attend Siler’s graduation, he rented an apartment for the entire family for the weekend and treated them to dinner.
“The good thing about the graduation was we got to tell a story about how the house was,” Siler said. “I told my story, and my brother was in tears. He thought I did drugs just to do them and he didn’t understand. After that, he gave me a big hug and told me I was wanted.”
Siler’s determination, love for his family and love for God helped lead him into sobriety. Siler made the conscious choice to not only complete the program, but to better his life and his son’s life.
After his graduation, Siler had to complete jail time for previous charges. He was originally supposed to complete six months. Siler was worried he would lose everything.
“They didn’t even recognize me at the jail because I was always strung out,” Siler said. “They were like, ‘Man, you don’t even look the same!’ They didn’t even realize I was in the tank.”
The jail took a risk on Siler and decided to reduce his sentence to two months.
“I ended up getting out. I came straight back here. The church had wrote my landlord a check for three months so I could keep my stuff and my place,” Siler said. “I got out and continued to do right and continued to press through any obstacles I had.”
Siler has also continued to succeed in his career. He now works as a Kirby vacuum salesman for KOW Enterprises in Waco. In under a year, he has received a promotion, won a VIP trip and won a watch for his good work. Siler has his own home, own car and pays his own rent.
“I prayed to God for a low-key car I could afford,” Siler said. “I got a bright yellow Chevy Cavalier. It’s not low key, but I can afford it. So I feel like God has a sense of humor.”
In his family life, Siler and his brother, Michael, have continued to build their relationship and Michael invites Siler to his house for the holidays. O’Brien still has custody of his son, but Siler is working to gain custody.
Siler attends church every Sunday and is an usher and greeter. He makes sure to stay connected with Antioch and the guys from Mercy House.
“Because of God, I’ve found hope in the midst of brokenness,” Siler said. “Life’s pretty good.”
Siler celebrated two years of sobriety on February 26, 2020. Now 31 years old, he is determined to continue to live a clean life.
“I haven’t relapsed, but I’ve been close. It’s an automatic thought when things get tough. But it’s ok to have thoughts, just don’t put them into action,” Siler said. “I would tell people struggling with addiction to change your people, place and things. Find God. You can’t do it without God.”
O’Brien also offered advice for families with members struggling with addiction.
“So many people give up on them. But they need to have people behind them. They need that encouragement and support because if everyone gives up on them, they’re going to give up on themselves,” O’Brien said. “You just need to love them and get them through it. God doesn’t turn his back on us, so we can’t turn our backs on them.”
O’Brien and Fuentes both witnessed Siler’s journey firsthand and they have both expressed their joy in Siler’s success.
“He’s had a job for a while now and he’s paying his own bills. He’s doing what he needs to do; he’s being responsible,” Fuentes said. “I think he’s got a good head on his shoulders, and he has a plan and a purpose. I’m really proud of him.”
“Donovan has turned his life completely around. I’m so proud of the man he’s become and the father he’s becoming,” O’Brien said. “He has come so far. I am so amazed he has learned his priorities and responsibilities; bills, house, electricity and car payment. He has become that adult man he needed to be, and I just think he is going to continue getting better.”