By: Barbara S F Davis
Danyelle Sutton was incarcerated in 2010 for a surprising number of felony convictions. She had an expensive addiction. If you meet her on the street now, or drive up to the window where she hands you your food order, neither her appearance or her behavior would give you a clue.
She’s done some weight training, so this black-haired woman of American Indian and Irish heritage is not someone to be trifled with.
Her knees lack some cartilege, a birth defect courtesy of her cocaine-addicted mother, and her body still has some healing to do from years of abuse. Unlike most others in the halfway house, she takes no medications for physical or emotional pain.
Danyelle has an unfailing sense of humor which is lightning quick. She also has a radiant smile. Even after some brutal life experiences, she keeps an enviable balance between gentleness and power. But her noble spirit took a long, long fall.
How Danyelle Got to The Half-Way House
She had a significant spiritual awakening while incarcerated, resulting in making amends to many people she had hurt by neglect, and thefts committed for the reason you’d expect.
She says now, “I believe I’m in the process of reaping what I sowed. I have to be without my two children because of the pain that I caused others. The jobs I’d be able to excel in don’t permit convicted felons. I’d love to open a restaurant with a bar (I don’t drink, though), but there’s no way the ABC [Alcohol Beverage Commission] would give me a permit. Lots of possibilities are closed due to my actions.
“But, I’m a lot happier and joyful instead of full of anger. My kids are a lot happier. Anything worth having is worth fighting for, whether other people see the value or not. Sometimes at work I’m offered a ride home, which would be a whole lot easier than taking a couple buses, but I have to say no. I live in a house where I have to follow rules from the instant I wake up until bedtime.”
Danyelle found out about the half-way house and wanted to move there because, “If you leave any incarceration and you have no job, no home, no money and no family, you’ll probably do what I did, which is to hit the streets, which means being back in handcuffs,” stated Danyelle.
She applied a full two years before she was released, having served four of her ten year sentence.
Now in her fourth month, she’s holding down two jobs and is the go-to person whenever there is some emergency at the house. She was the one to deep clean a trashed bedroom. When the plumbing went haywire and gallons of water covered the floor, Danyelle was the one who cleaned it up. Nobody asked her to. “I just didn’t want it to mold,” she said.
Shame and Hope and Despair
Danyelle was ashamed of being a foster child. She tried to keep it a secret.
“Kelly became my foster parent when I was 9, because my mother was in prison since I was 5 and my father was MIA. Kelly and her family lived in Raleigh, NC. I was happy there.
“Unfortunately the State tracked my dad down after I’d been with Kelly for two years. He was living in Sevier County, and the State arranged for me to spend a week with him on Christmas break. I’ll never forget it because that was when I found out I was forced to move back with him. I had to leave what I considered my real family, my school, my friends, and live with a man who didn’t take care for me or show me love.
“I got away from him by leaving home at 14, getting married at 16, and had a baby and a normal life for four years.”
All the Pain Came Crashing Down
“When I was 20 my childhood caught up to me and all the pain came crashing down. I was trying to be successful according to all the images I had of what a successful life was. Money, appearance, popularity . . . I wanted everyone’s attention. But I never found what I was looking for, so before I knew it I was getting high.”
Do you still want everyone to love you?
“Cause it’s over-rated.”
“People resist hearing the truth, even I do at times, but if you tell someone the truth, they’ll respect you for it. A really important person in my life is a deputy in the Sheriff’s Department. He’s the reason I can give out some truth when I do, because he taught me to take the truth from him. In fact, he was the one who said, ‘You’ll always be in danger of relapse if you don’t recover from wanting attention and love from all the wrong places’.
“Like any hard-core addict, I broke the law to get what I needed to numb the pain. I had no education or help to deal with that pain. Everyone I knew was an addict, so I kept hitting dead ends. I even failed drug tests in a prison work camp, that’s how desperate I was.”
Danyelle seems confident at the half-way house. When a resident was getting away with breaking rules by manipulating staff, she called a spontaneous house meeting. She didn’t blame or accuse. She firmly stated that she works two jobs and still keeps all the house rules even though she’s tired, too. She calmly repeated that she sticks to the schedule even when she’s challenged.
What was the result from speaking out?
“There were some small changes in actions and attitude. Some people don’t see their actions, or attitudes, unless they’re called on.
“I know, I’m tatted up and a convicted felon and come from the streets, but that doesn’t mean I’m an idiot People who judge me for who I was are sadly mistaken.”
Danyelle grinned. “Because that’s not who I am.”
Searching and not Finding
Danyelle’s long search to find Kelly and Kelly’s search to find Danyelle, happened before Danyelle was incarcerated in 2010.
“I actively looked for her for 15 years, and it turns out she was looking for me the same amount of time. I went to Raleigh looking for her husband’s business, ’cause I remembered that place. But they were divorcing and he would not return my calls. I went by the old house a few times, and places I knew she went. Nothing.
“Of course one reason it took so long was that I was in active addiction, not spiritually or mentally or physically in shape to re-form a relationship with her.”
Kelly’s life had not been picture perfect either. She and her husband divorced, and she had to make a life for herself and her other foster child and two biological children.
One reason it was so heart-wrenching for Danyelle to be ripped out of Kelly’s home, the only family she had ever felt safe and loved by, was that Kelly’s daughter Emma was the light of her day.
“Literally. She held my heart.”
The Drive-Through Miracle
Fast forward to June, 2014. Danyelle has been clean for 16 months, and keeps her balance by working and attending classes seven days a week. Occasionally Kelly and Emma cross her mind, but she knows there is no chance to be reunited with them after so many years and so many changes.
On this morning, Danyelle’s wearing her Burger King uniform on drive-through duty when a woman drives up to the window. It’s an early Saturday morning. The lady is there to get breakfast. It’s sunny but not too hot. It’s just a regular work shift.
“I recognized the driver, wasn’t sure at first where I knew her from. But her smile gave it away and I knew who she was as soon as I saw that.
“I asked her name anyway, because I thought there’s no way it could be her.”
She looks at me and says, “Kelly!”
I say, “Kelly Smith?” Her last name had changed, but I’d known her as Kelly Smith.
“And that’s when she recognizes me.
“We both burst out crying instantly, actually sobbing, at the drive-through at Burger King, no less. I was so overcome I was not able to control my tears. My manager, who hasn’t seen me off my game for more than 60 seconds since he’s known me, reached over and took off my headset.
“Kelly pulled into a parking spot and came in.
“We literally fell into each other’s arms.”
© Barbara S F Davis.
Photos courtesy of Danyelle.