Cleveland kidnapping survivor 5 years later: ‘I’m stronger than ever’

Officers stand watch in front of the house of kidnapper Ariel Castro on Seymour Avenue in Cleveland, Ohio, May 7, 2013, one day after Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus and Michelle Knight were rescued after years of captivity. Note the broken front screen door, through which one of the girls was pulled to safety by a neighbor. File Photo by David Maxwell/EPA-EFE

May 8 (UPI) — Five years after she was rescued from the Cleveland home of kidnapper Ariel Castro, Michelle Knight has reclaimed her identity and her voice — and she’ll use them as a force for good, after enduring so much evil.

Castro kidnapped Knight, who has since changed her name to Lily Rose Lee, in 2002 when she was 21. Before long, she was among a trio held against their will in his home, with 16-year-old Amanda Berry taken in 2003, and 14-year-old Gina DeJesus in 2004.

Inside Castro’s unassuming home in Cleveland’s Tremont neighborhood, all three were bound in the basement by chains, physically and sexually abused for a decade. Their nightmare finally ended on May 6, 2013, when Berry shouted through a locked door and got a neighbor’s attention. One of the neighbors helped her out of the home and called police.

In mid-2013, Castro pleaded guilty to 937 counts of kidnapping, rape and aggravated murder — for causing miscarriages in the women. He was sentenced to life plus 1,000 years. About a month later, he committed suicide in prison.

In her first book in 2014, Finding Me, Lee detailed the horrors she endured for 11 years and described her early life, including abuse by family members and becoming estranged from her birth parents.

Last week, she released an epilogue, “Life After Darkness: Finding Healing and Happiness after the Cleveland Kidnapping,” detailing her life in the five years since her dramatic rescue.

“The first book was extremely sad emotional and the second book is more of a happy emotional,” Lee, now 37, told UPI. “With both books, I wanted to help others get a sense of courage and strength, especially women and children who had been through domestic violence and other types of abuse.”

‘Now I know who I am’

Lee said she now lives a great life with a strong support system and good friends, but her largest struggle after 11 years in captivity was learning exactly who she was.

“When I looked at myself in a picture, I couldn’t even recognize who that person was, and now I know who I am,” she said. “I’m stronger than ever. My voice is basically my weapon and I’m going to use it for good.”

Part of the reclamation process was adopting a new name, she said — one inspired by people and symbols from her life. She chose Lily after her favorite flower, the peace lily, and Rose from the mother of one of her best friends who cared for her as a child. Lee is the middle name of her estranged son.

“My full name really means a lot to me,” she said. “For me, it was a way to start my beginning of my new life and my new journey.

“Writing this book is one of the ways that I would be able to share with people how I experienced life and how I was able to overcome struggles in my life. So I felt like with the book, it was my best way to inspire others.”

‘I was bound to fail’

Another way Lee has healed is by helping other female survivors of domestic violence, child trauma and human trafficking — women and young girls who’ve experienced similar physical and emotional abuse — through her foundation, Lily’s Ray of Hope.

While some structures were in place to help when she was rescued, there was still a disconnect. Lee said in her case there was a lack of understanding about certain things she needed at the time — like being attended to by only female doctors and police officers.

“When I first started out, I had no person that advocated for me. I had really no good support system. I was basically put in a system where I was bound to fail,” she said. “But I actually strived and survived it and I want girls that are going through similar situations like me to be better supported and understood.”

Lee used those experiences to found her organization, which aims to provide women and girls housing and all necessary amenities.

“Basically, what my organization is helping them with is making sure they have a place to call home, not a nursing home not a hospital,” she said. “A house — that has everything a normal house would have.”

It also provides drivers for safe transport to doctor’s appointments and helps pay for clothing, education, self-care, educational classes and special trips and events, beginning this summer.

‘God gave me a second chance’

Lee has also teamed with California-based coffee maker 3-19 coffee to sell her own special blend, Lily’s Roast, in tins adorned with her artwork. The proceeds raise funds for her foundation.

Collaboration with a coffee company might seem an unusual tie to her mission, but Lee said it felt only natural, since coffee, like art, became one of the things she appreciated most after spending years in darkness.

“My healing process was art and my love of coffee was being able to wake up every morning and know that I have a choice to make a cup of coffee and I wasn’t being told what to do,” she said.

For every tin of Lily’s Roast sold — which all feature an image of a bird flying in front of a radiant sun — $10 goes to Lily’s Ray of Hope.

3-19 Coffee says it’s “honored to partner with such an amazing woman whose resilience is second to none.”

Lee’s life has changed substantially in the last five years, but she says her mission going forward, for the next five, or 10 or 15 years, won’t.

Not long after she escaped from the real life house of horrors on Seymour Avenue that May day in 2013, she knew she’d do what she could to help others.

“I believe within every ounce of my body that I was destined to be an advocate,” she said. “God gave me a second chance and put me back on this Earth for a reason. That reason was to encourage others, give them strength and show them that they can do it.”


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