Phillis Dewitt has turned her personal trauma into a mission to help heal others
At 63, Phillis Dewitt is a powerhouse.
She’s a nurse practitioner with a post-doctorate degree. She teaches future nurses at four different universities, including Bradley. The mother of three is a board member for Court Appointed Special Advocates for Children (CASA) of the Tenth Judicial Circuit. More than 170 foster children have lived with her, and she took permanent legal custody of 10 of them. Through 35 medical mission trips, she’s helped heal the physical and emotional wounds of the victims of human trafficking and abusive situations.
“Sometimes, I think it takes a little bit of trauma and pain to develop people’s passion and motivation,” said DeWitt. “And that’s how I view my own life.”
Indeed, Dewitt said she overcame years of sexual assault herself. Since 1985, she has been using her own story to remove the shame and stigmatization of sexual abuse. It’s the subject of I’m Still Standing: How God Turned My Pain into Purpose, written by Dewitt and Mary L. Alesandrini. Published by Trilogy Christian Publishing in October of 2022, the book tells how faith helped Phillis turn trauma into healing.
“The title I’m Still Standing was certainly appropriate,” said Cal Rychener, founding pastor of Northwoods Community Church in Peoria, who wrote the book’s forward. “By the time you’ve finished the story, you wonder, ‘How?’ I believe her relationship with Jesus Christ is the answer to that.”
A troubled childhood
Phillis also believes that faith kept her going. She grew up in Pekin, where she remembers her parents fighting often. A couple of extended family members sexually abused her before she was old enough to tie her shoes, she said. The bright spot in her life was Grace Baptist Church in Pekin, to which she and her brother walked every Sunday.
Dewitt went into foster care when her parents divorced, she said. Her first foster father was arrested for embezzlement, so she was rehomed, she recalled. Her second foster father, a prominent community member and a church deacon, molested her, she said. When she told her pastors, one didn’t believe her, she said. Dewitt remembers another telling her not to return to church. Shortly afterward, at just 16, she became an emancipated minor.
Learning ‘how human people are’
Dewitt said people often ask her why her experiences didn’t turn her away from God.
Those chapters of her life “never made me angry with God,” she said. “It made me realize how human people are, even pastors and deacons.”
Co-author Mary Alesandrini said that letters and therapy notes from this time gave her insight into the insecurities and destructive behaviors Dewitt had to overcome.
‘She teaches people you don’t have to live as a victim. Turn pain into purpose’
“What I like best about those chapters,” said Alesandrini, “is to learn how she started to grow and begin the journey of overcoming her issues and begin to have small victories in her life that encouraged her and gave her strength and hope.”
Marriage and family
Eventually, Phillis fell in love and married Tony Dewitt. Together they had three children, Melanie, Chris, and Brandon, and fostered children from backgrounds of sexual abuse. Tony helped his wife confront her abusers, and before he passed away from cancer in 2006, he recorded a testimonial about those confrontations.
“Tony felt it was important to get the testimony on record,” said Alesandrini, “The way he put it, she would have no one to corroborate her story once he was gone.”
After Tony passed, Dewitt continued working, raising her children, and earning her doctorate in nursing. Friends encouraged her to date, but Dewitt laughed it off. She didn’t expect to find a connection with Craig Nelson, then a senior vice president at Ameren. Despite their different backgrounds, the pair have been married since 2010.
“I get to live with her and watch her work,” Nelson said, admiringly. “Some of the driving motivators behind Phillis, how she lives her life, are themes in the book as well. She teaches people you don’t have to live as a victim. Turn pain into purpose. She’s telling her story, and it’s encouraging others to break the power their secret has over them.”
“He’s one of the biggest fans of the book and is very supportive of me doing my talks,” Dewitt said of her husband. “He’s a huge cheerleader.”
‘Emerging a victor’
Dewitt has spoken around the United States. She and her co-author have been humbled by how many women in their 70s and 80s approach Dewitt to share their stories of abuse. Many times, these women have been holding the secret their entire lives.
It’s important to Dewitt that men are actively involved in her talks, as she believes it counters the idea that sharing stories of trauma is shameful. It also offers an outlet to men suffering from abuse.
“Nationwide, men struggle with talking about their abuse far more than women do,” she said. “I hope that I’m giving them a voice.”
The mixed-gender audience has shocked women in other countries, said Dewitt. Through a ministry called Hope Partners International, she has given medical exams in India, Israel, Costa Rica, Romania and Ukraine to help women who have been trafficked or abused. At the end of each clinic, she shares her story.
One group told Dewitt that they thought sexual assault only happened to girls in India.
“They said, ‘We had no idea this could happen to an American doctor, and your husband heard that whole story. Does he still want to be married to you?’ I said, ‘Absolutely.’ There’s nothing that I have to be embarrassed of.”
“When she shares her story, people find it inspirational,” said Alesandrini. “She doesn’t blame God. She doesn’t speak in terms of self-pity and really doesn’t present her story from the viewpoint of a victim, though she certainly was a victim.
“She shares enough about what happened to her regarding the abuse to let people know how difficult it was, but then she changes focus from being victimized to emerging a victor. That is really the purpose of telling her story, to inspire women that they can leave their pasts behind and not be prisoners to what happened to them.”
To learn more about Phillis Dewitt, her book and future speaking engagements, visit https://phillisdewitt.com/.