MANSFIELD -- Candace Williams has dedicated her life to helping women impacted by drug addiction and human trafficking. Her ministry, Rubies, has changed numerous lives.
But before Williams was supporting others’ transformation, she had to undergo her own.
It was 2009 when she found her own redemption inside a four-by-nine foot cell.
Williams, then known as Candace Watson, was arrested while fleeing across the country with her daughter and boyfriend -- a registered sex offender who escaped from a halfway house.
Watson accepted his invitation to travel out west because she saw an opportunity to acquire her "drug of choice," methamphetamine. It was also a chance to get far away from an abusive ex-boyfriend.
But she couldn’t outrun her pain.
“The night before I was arrested, I was like ‘God, I don't even know if you exist or what's going on, but either you kill me or something has to happen,’” she recalled. “Literally the next morning we were arrested.”
Watson and her boyfriend were discovered on a small ranch in Southern California. Their story made national news. Because she was in a high-profile case, she was placed in solitary confinement for the duration of her sentence.
There was no one to talk to and nothing to do, so she turned to God.
“It was just me and the Lord and I felt overwhelming peace,” she said. “I knew that I never had to go back to that lifestyle and something in me changed. My thinking process started changing. My identity changed. I began to start realizing my worth.”
Worth more than rubies
Self-worth wasn’t something Williams was taught as a child.
“I didn't grow up in a very good home,” she said. “It was addiction everywhere, sexual abuse. So I grew up thinking that sex was love.”
Williams moved out of her family home at 16. At around 21 years old, she left an abusive relationship and moved with her daughter to Arizona.
Then she found out that back home in Ohio, a person who had sexually abused her was released from prison. Even though she was on the other side of the country, trauma and fear overwhelmed her.
“I started having flashbacks, started thinking ‘He's gonna come get me,’ ” she recalled. “That was my reality. And then I started drinking and then next thing you knew I was on meth.”
Meth gave her the energy to juggle work, school and single motherhood. After she began using, her significant other started trafficking her.
“If you see drugs, then you're more than likely seeing human sex trafficking,” Williams said. “A lot of people consider it prostitution, but I can guarantee you 99 percent of the women that are prostituting don't want to be out there prostituting.
“Usually they're already caught up in the lifestyle, they don't think that there's a way out. They usually have a dope boy or drug dealer behind them or somebody that they think is their significant other that is kind of in their ear forcing them to be out there, whether it be mentally or physically.”
Williams said a common misconception about human trafficking is that it always involves kidnapping victims and using physical restraints to keep them from leaving.
In fact, many survivors have been trafficked by romantic partners, including spouses, or other family members. And the forces that keep them in bondage are often psychological rather than physical.
According to Williams, traffickers tend to target individuals who are vulnerable due to a lack of family support and low self-esteem. Some victims stay because they believe it will earn the love of their trafficker, or that they have no other options available.
The Department of Health and Human Services supports this assertion.
“Fear, trauma, drug addiction, threats, manipulation and a lack of options due to poverty and homelessness can all prevent someone from leaving,” the department says on its “Myths and Facts about Human Trafficking” page.
As the founder of a survivors’ ministry, Williams saw first-hand how addiction, human trafficking and prior sexual abuse are often connected.
In 2016, she founded Rubies as a support group for women coming out of human trafficking and addiction. The name comes from Proverbs 31:10, which describes a woman of noble character as worth far more than rubies.
“I'd been doing like a Bible study on Proverbs 31,” Williams said. “I literally sat up in the middle of night, in the moonlight and I was like, ‘It's Rubies. That's what this is supposed to be called.’”
The following year Rubies morphed into a housing ministry in Millersburg. Williams lived in a donated home with up to 10 other women at any one time.
One of those women was Jolene Miller.
Miller grew up in an Amish household. After the death of their father, she battled deep depression and suicidal thoughts. She had tried drinking and smoking marijuana, but nothing took away the pain.
“I never did the bigger drugs like coke, heroin, meth,” she said. “Before I went to Rubies, that was my next step to go bigger, to find someone with something stronger.”
Then Miller went to visit her brother in rehab and caught a glimpse of what sobriety could look like.
“It just blew my mind how drug addicts and broken people and people who don’t really know who they are were all smiling,” she recalled.
Instead of turning to harder drugs, Miller prayed that God would show her a place where she could go to get clean. Then she heard about Rubies.
“It was an answered prayer for me because I didn't know where to turn to,” she said. “I just wanted me back.”
Recovery was an uphill battle for Miller. Still fighting bitterness and depression, she was reluctant to open up to others and share her story.
She said finding a relationship with Christ and going through the 12-step program at Rubies were the two key factors that changed her life.
During her time at Rubies, each woman had a “share partner” to talk to while going through the 12-step program.
“That was a good thing for me, even though it was rough,” Miller said. “After so long into it I realized it's good for me. It’s actually helping me to heal because I’m sharing it with someone else, getting it out.”
After graduating from the program, Miller moved back to Indiana. She’s now married and starting her own business. She continues to stay involved with Rubies as a member of the board.
“I’m trying to step out of my comfort zone and start on my own,” she said. “I have not regretted (Rubies) at all. I still treasure it very much because of what it did for me.”
After almost three years in Millersburg, Williams took a hiatus from Rubies to deal with the death of a family member, though women continued to live with her while they worked through recovery.
Rubies reopened officially in October 2020, this time in Mansfield. While its outreach includes street ministry and small group sessions, the heart of Rubies is its recovery house.
The house accommodates up to six women at a time, plus the house manager.
Williams estimates 50 women have been housed by Rubies at one point or another.
Many have left and gone on to live fuller, healthier lives, but Williams has also mourned a few residents.
"My cousin came and lived with me, she got clean," she said. "She was clean for five months, but she went back to Columbus and the very first time she used, she overdosed and died."
Miller said building a support system before leaving transitional housing is crucial to maintaining a life of sobriety.
“I would highly recommend that while you’re at the program, you find those support people back at home before you come home," she said.
Life at Rubies
At Rubies residents meet daily for morning devotionals and nighttime retirements -- a time where each woman shares a Bible verse and why it has resonated with them throughout the day.
Rubies also encourages residents to attend church and participate in 12-step programs.
Williams said she caps the roster at six so that there’s time for personal, one-on-one ministry.
“It doesn’t help them just to fill beds. That's not what we're about,” she explained. “We help women find their worth so that they can be moms, so that they can be productive members of society, so they can not be controlled.
"We teach them how to gain employment.”
Williams meets with each resident weekly to talk about their struggles, accomplishments and goals. She’s helped residents earn their GED and get jobs in the area at organizations with other employees in recovery.
Rubies residents also learn about budgeting and life skills by helping out with weekly chores.
“Some individuals don't know how to do laundry. They don't know how to cook, they don't know how to meal-prep,” Williams said. “They each get like a chore for a week. So we can identify if they're having problems with that.”
Brittany Shaum is a recent graduate of Rubies. She came to the program after being released from prison.
Shaum is convinced that if it weren’t for Rubies, she’d be back on the streets selling drugs. Instead, she’s working at a fast-food restaurant and staying at Rubies as the house manager.
“I pretty much oversee the other women and I mentor them and pretty much hold Bible studies and devotions,” she explained. “I don’t look at it as a program, I look at it as a safe haven for women coming out of addiction and sex trafficking.
"It really helps women get in tune with the Lord and structures them to depend on Jesus rather than the drug or the sex.”
The goal is for each woman to stay at Rubies for between 12 and 18 months, but Williams said women aren’t kicked out of the program or forced to stay.
“My philosophy is that even if the woman has only spent one night at Rubies, she's experienced the love of Christ,” she said. “That seed has been planted, that there is hope.”
Sometimes Williams doesn’t get to see that seed grow -- but that’s OK.
“I've had women that have seen me at Kroger's and ran to come tell me how their life is going and they only were at Rubies for three weeks,” she said. “They could not wait to tell me like they're married now. They have kids. They've been clean for 18 months.
“That seed was planted and things started shifting for them. It made them want a better life.”