By KATIE EUBANKS
Mississippi needs hope, and Dawn Beam knows it. As a Mississippi Supreme Court justice* and former prosecutor and chancellor, she can rattle off the numbers: “One in four of our kids lives in poverty. Forty-five percent of our black children live in poverty.”
Dawn also can tell you what any pastor could: “We as believers know that our hope is in glory.” And we are called to share the hope of Christ with others.
But Jesus also healed the sick and fed the hungry. So how do we demonstrate hope in tangible ways for the betterment of our state?
Dawn is an advisor and co-founder of the Hope Science Institute, a new nonprofit that aims to create lasting, systemic change in Mississippi through the science of hope (which, yes, is a real thing).
What you might not know is that Dawn — along with motivational speaker and Hope Science Institute board member Dwight Owens — has experienced the power of hope firsthand.
*The Hope Science Institute is not affiliated with or endorsed by the Mississippi Supreme Court.
A flood, a burglary and a blessing
More than 25 years ago, Dawn was a self-employed single mom raising two little boys.
“So I literally prayed for manna,” she says. “They had to eat, I had daycare, I owed more money on my house than it was worth, and … I was like screaming, ‘God, where are You?’”
On the Sunday before Thanksgiving, Dawn was headed to Temple Baptist Church in Hattiesburg. “I’m thinking, ‘What do I have to be thankful for?’ Then I hear my babies in the backseat just being silly and enjoying life, and I realize, I have everything to be thankful for.
“So I go into church, and as the offering is passed, I just felt God saying, ‘Dawn, I want every bit of you.’ So I literally wrote a check for what I had in my bank account. Now don’t be real impressed, because it probably wasn’t a lot.”
That same night, after Dawn’s boys got out of the bath, she got them ready for bed — and never checked to make sure they’d turned off the water. “I get out of my bed the next morning and put my foot on the floor, and it splashed. And my first thought is, ‘God, I have given You my last penny, and You want to send a flood?’ I was crying.”
She called her mom, and then her insurance company. She and the boys moved into a hotel while new flooring was installed at the house.
“I didn’t mention, the house was for sale,” Dawn says. “Can you imagine what the (old) carpet looked like, with toddlers? I wouldn’t have wanted the house (as a buyer). Well, I got brand-new carpet throughout.”
Sounds promising. Also, the hotel had an indoor swimming pool. The boys loved water (as previously demonstrated), so they had fun and didn’t know anything was wrong. Even better!
Then someone broke into the house and stole everything of value.
“So again I’m thinking, ‘God? Seriously.’”
Dawn bought a “For Sale” sign and wrote “New carpet and flooring throughout” on it. She put the sign out on a Sunday.
That very night, “a lady came to my house, just happened to be working for Magnolia Federal Bank in the mortgage department. I told her what I owed,” Dawn recalls. “She said, ‘I’ll go get a contract from the office,’ and she paid me what I owed on that house. I thought I was going to have to sell it for a loss.”
That experience reminded Dawn that God’s timing and sovereignty are perfect. “He uses crazy things, like children playing in a bathtub and flooding a house, to bring blessing.”
A murder, an accident and a calling
Dwight Owens’ hope story started on a December morning in 1994 when, as a sixth grader, he heard that his dad, Dwight Sr., had been hit by a car outside MacDonald’s Store in their small community of Hot Coffee, Mississippi.
“(Our grandmother was told) he was OK,” Dwight recalls. But as he and his siblings’ school bus approached the store that morning, they saw police vehicles and a crowd of people. Dwight’s brother yelled at the bus driver to stop.
On the side of the road, Dwight’s 33-year-old father lay dying. Dwight still remembers whispering, “Dad?”; seeing all the graphic details of a gunshot wound (Dwight Sr. had been shot, not hit by a car); and watching his father’s body go still and lifeless.
Dwight Sr. had plenty of flaws, but he was a good father, Dwight says. “My dad hauled pulpwood for a living. He struggled with his own wounds. And that led him to the bottle. He just wanted us to be better than him.”
Shortly after Dwight Sr.’s death, Dwight dreamed that he and his dad went fishing, and his dad told him, “You have many important things to do in the years ahead. Everything is going to be fine, and I’ll be with you every step of the way.”
After that dream, Dwight vowed to do his best in school — something his father, who’d dropped out of high school, had always urged him to do. Dwight was a straight-A student throughout high school and most of college, and began his career as a teacher and coach.
Dwight’s family knows who killed his father. That person was never arrested.
“I forgave all of that,” Dwight says. “(My family has) forgiven, we’re praying for that family, and we’re going to keep it moving. … Holding a grudge affects how you treat others who had nothing to do with it.”
In August 2005, a 23-year-old Dwight was on his way home from Collins Middle School, where he taught special education and math (he was also assistant coach for the high-school football team). It was raining, and he noticed a Chevy truck closing in too quickly behind him.
Next thing he knew, he awoke to find blood gushing from his head. In a brief moment of consciousness, he whispered, “Please save me, God.” Then he immediately coded.
When he awoke again, he heard a doctor exclaim, “We’ve got him back!”
A drunk driver had hit Dwight’s car, which had then hit a tree. Thanks to God, the Jaws of Life, and tenacious EMTs and medical staff, he was alive — barely.
He had six broken ribs, punctured and severely battered lungs, a bruised kidney, hematoma, blood clots, extensive internal bleeding, a severed spinal cord, a broken back, inability to breathe on his own, a high and erratic fever, and a dislocated liver that lodged in his chest cavity. By the grace of God, all of this was fixed or “managed” by doctors.
A week after the accident, he learned he was paralyzed from the waist down. That was not fixable.
“Still, it didn’t hit me like it should have,” Dwight says. “There were other people in wheelchairs at Methodist Rehab (after I was transferred there).” Dwight and another young man named Ryan, both athletes, would lift “real” weights on their own when they weren’t doing exercises with five-pound dumbbells for rehab.
Even though the driver who’d hit Dwight had multiple DUIs — and had never shown remorse for the accident — Dwight asked for a lenient sentence.
“I knew how my dad was as an alcoholic,” Dwight says. Plus, what would make the greatest impact on the driver’s life — getting the book thrown at him, or being forgiven?
“In court, I looked him in his eyes, and … I could see there was some remorse inside of him. He got seven years — which is better than life. He got out in five for good behavior and died months later at his home.”
When Dwight left rehab and began life as a paraplegic, he experienced confusion, questions, and some hopeless moments, he says. “But that didn’t last long.”
Instead, he called his church and his former school and asked to come speak. “After I did that, I knew that that was part of what I was called to do. After that, I’m getting all these calls (for speaking engagements), and it became who I am.”
By then, he also was in a serious relationship. He’d had countless visitors in the hospital and at rehab — but besides his mother, nobody was more consistent or comforting than Tamika, a fellow teacher with whom he’d gone on a few dates.
Dwight couldn’t believe Tamika would want to be with him now. But “she stuck around,” he says. “She said she fell in love with my strength.” They’ve been married now for 14 years and have a 10-year-old daughter, Brailey.
Dwight says there is more than one kind of paralysis.
“People that live their lives angry, they’re paralyzed,” he says. “If I had a choice (between that and the wheelchair), I would choose to stay in the wheelchair. Because they have no hope.”
Last year, Dwight was asked to join the board of an organization that was all about just that: hope.
HOPE for Mississippi
When Dawn came to the Mississippi Supreme Court, “I had a passion for strengthening families and protecting children,” she says, partly due to her experiences as a single mother.
Early in her legal career, she was what she calls a “barking judge”: “I thought maybe if I just yelled loud enough, people would want to do the right thing.”
Over time, Dawn’s attitude changed. Then in 2019, she read a book called “Hope Rising: How the Science of Hope Can Change Your Life,” by Casey Gwinn and Dr. Chan Hellman.
Dr. Hellman has devoted much of his career to hope science. If that term sounds hokey, here’s what it boils down to: More than 2,000 studies show that hope is the single greatest predictor of success in education, health, mental health, trauma recovery, and just about every other aspect of society.
In other words, this isn’t just feel-good self-help. Hope science is based on evidence.
Dawn already was co-chair of the Commission on Children’s Justice, which had begun forming local coalitions to help families better their circumstances and avoid the removal of children from the home.
“It just kind of outgrew the court system,” Dawn says. “(After reading ‘Hope Rising’) I invited some experts to come together to say, how can we have experts in Mississippi on hope?”
Early in 2021, the Hope Science Institute was formed. Executive director Amanda Fontaine sums up their mission: “We empower people, families and communities to better their lives through the science of hope.”
Cindy Cheeks, director of program operations, explains what that means according to Hellman’s book:
“Hope science is simply goals, pathways, and willpower. But without (all) of those, it’s just a wish,” Cindy says. “We’re trying to help people realize they can have goals of having tomorrow be better than today, that there is a pathway to achieve that goal, and figure out what it takes to have the willpower to achieve it.”
The Hope Science Institute includes Programs of HOPE, as well as a faith-based initiative. Programs of HOPE stands for Housing and transportation, Opportunities for treatment, Parent and family support, and Economic opportunities. All of that comes about through both local coalitions, which meet immediate needs, and trainings aimed at creating systemic change.
The institute has taken part in training youth court personnel, the Mississippi Department of Education (particularly with regard to attendance officers, who often can be the first to recognize when a child is in trouble), and leaders from 40 different organizations, Dawn says.
More training is coming at a Hope Summit, to be held January 19 at the Mississippi Trade Mart in Jackson. In fact, Gov. Tate Reeves is set to declare 2022 the Year of Hope for Mississippi.
“Hope is a powerful tool that can be used to better our communities, strengthen families, and ensure our kids’ well-being,” Reeves said. “There’s no doubt that Mississippi went through a lot in 2021. Despite it all, Mississippians stood strong, stayed resilient, and embraced hope.”
Cindy gives an example of how HOPE’s statewide and local efforts work together: When a child ages out of foster care, he or she often struggles to obtain and keep housing. But now HOPE has brought different agencies together, and the state has for the first time applied for federal housing vouchers, which have already been given to two former foster kids. Meanwhile, HOPE’s local coalitions can help get young people on their feet once they have a place to live.
“It’s just that local network of support that people need, that so many people in poverty don’t have,” Cindy says.
The Hope Science Institute’s faith-based initiative includes 365 days of prayer led by churches and pastors — headed up by Bartholomew Orr, senior pastor of Brown Missionary Baptist Church in Southaven, and Dawn’s brother Chip Henderson, senior pastor of Pinelake.
The institute’s board also is made up of believers, some of whom happen to be top mental health professionals. Dawn says the institute isn’t officially a Christian one — but it’s no surprise that Dr. Hellman came to know Christ after launching the study of hope science, which practically begs for a Christian worldview.
So how does faith play out in the institute’s efforts? Ultimately, it’s up to Mississippi’s service providers whether to share hope science from a Christian perspective.
“But if they want it, we always have some part of faith in our training,” Cindy says. “I think it’s a very easy connection that people make when they’re in training.
“For me, I’m able to take those three components (of hope science) — goals, pathways and willpower — and apply that (to my walk with Christ),” Cindy says.
“The goal is eternity with the Father, that relationship. The pathway is Jesus. Jesus said, ‘I am the way, the truth and the life. No man comes to the Father but by Me.’ And then the Holy Spirit dwelling within me is the will power (to maintain fellowship with God).
“I see (hope science) very clearly aligned with my faith — especially Colossians 1:27, ‘Christ in you, the hope of glory.’”