Eric Lyons’ tragic past is giving children around the world a new future.

If you didn’t know Eric Lyons’ story, you’d think he’s a glutton for punishment. For a hobby, he competes in Muay Thai, a kickboxing-like combat sport popular in Thailand. And he can take a punch! In fact, in a strange way he thrives on taking a beating in the ring. His strategy is to sit, absorb, analyze, and defend. In other words, he endures punches until his opponent is exhausted, then he attacks. Once you get to know him, and all he’s been through, you’ll realize that his strategy for life is much the same. He’s 46 years old, and while most of his life until now has been one of abuse, pain, and difficulty—his attack is just beginning.

Eric knew early on that his childhood wasn’t normal. In Deerfield, Illinois, a small village north of Chicago where his parents still live in the same house he grew up in, Eric was the second of four sons. He describes an out-of-body experience he often had as he lay awake in bed at night. “Sometimes I would feel like I was hovering over my neighborhood, looking down at my house,” he says. “I would watch my family live their lives unaware of what was happening to me.”

At age seven, he was sexually abused by a neighbor, and the abuse continued for several years. His family didn’t know, and he felt like he couldn’t tell a soul. His abuser would tell him not to tell anyone, so he, being a child in a world where grownups were to be trusted and obeyed, didn’t say a word.

There were few escapes for Eric. Sports took his mind off reality momentarily. He was a great football player, and he earned his way into the University of Kentucky football program as a wide receiver. Another diversion came in the form of alcohol. “I had my first drink at age eight,” he says. “We had a surprise 40th-birthday party for my dad, and I grabbed a beer from the fridge and snuck outside by myself.” That was just the start of the addiction, but it was rooted in the turmoil beneath the tough outer shell he was already building. How he made it in college football as an alcoholic is testament to his athletic ability. By then, his childhood was over. In fact, he says he never really experienced childhood because of the abuse that started at such a young age. “It was like a magnetic ball and chain that rolled with me for a long time,” he says. “And other unhealthy stuff was attracted to it.”

After college, Eric moved to Dallas to live near his brother who was married. Mostly, he went for a change of scenery, but he thought he could leave some of his baggage and addictive behavior behind too. He was wrong. Dallas is where things began to unravel for him. He took a job in insurance while he waited for his next move to become clear. The waiting went on for several years.

During that time, he visited Irving Bible Church, where his brother attended. He would sneak in side doors to avoid being greeted and leave before the congregation was dismissed. “I’d show up with my knit hat pulled down over my eyes, breeze in, and sit in the back,” he says. “It felt like the message was aimed at me each week, and I didn’t like it. I’d think, If You’re up there, God, You can talk to somebody else besides me because this chair feels hot every time I come here.” He made a few friends there but kept them at arm’s length.

One night, he got an unexpected call from his ex-girlfriend who was still living in Chicago. She said, “I had a dream and I know what happened when you were a kid.” At 31 years old, it was the first time he had ever acknowledged his abuse with anyone else. With her encouragement, he began getting counseling and therapy, but he felt like his life was stuck in a holding pattern. He was growing more tired of living without a purpose.

Then, a friend stumbled upon something interesting. “A buddy of mine found an article in USA Today looking for volunteers to go overseas and help with relief after the devastating Southeast Asian tsunami,” he says. “I thought, That’s for me.” Thinking this could be the change he needed in his life, he took a leave of absence from work and hopped on a flight to Sri Lanka a week after reading the article. However, he was far from ready for what he would encounter overseas. His volunteer work consisted of digging through rubble in search of survivors, of which he found few. “One day we were digging for a little girl,” he says. “I dug out a little school notebook of hers, but we never found her. It devastated me, and I kept the notebook.”

When he left Sri Lanka and returned home, he was worse off than when he arrived. Adding a new layer of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from his relief work to the childhood trauma he was just beginning to work through was too much for him. He had tried to add purpose to his life, but it only seemed to make things worse. He wanted out, and he came up with the perfect plan. After hearing about Daniel Pearl, the journalist who was beheaded by members of Al Qaeda in Pakistan, he knew where he needed to go next. “I had come to the end of my rope, and I decided to go to Pakistan,” he says. “That was my exit plan.” He found relief work there similar to the tsunami relief work he did in Sri Lanka, so he saw it as an opportunity to let his life end while fulfilling some intangible purpose. “I was looking to accomplish this under the guise of helping vulnerable people,” he says. Without telling anyone, he went on a suicide mission, certain that he’d be killed. But when he arrived there, a man outside the airplane was holding a sign with his name on it. The man took him to be interrogated, and immediately put him on the next flight home. “My desire to end my life was circumvented by God,” he says. “He had better plans.”

The flight home was tough. Eric was a broken man. The years of abuse, trauma, and now PTSD from his travels welled up to the surface. He couldn’t stuff them down anymore. When he returned back home, he arranged to have friends from Irving Bible Church pick him up at the airport. That same day, he finally gave his life to Christ. “That moment catapulted me into Celebrate Recovery (addiction recovery) and counseling,” he says.

Eventually, something began to shift Eric’s perspective. As he continued to travel and do relief work, he ended up in Cambodia, working in a slum that was built on a garbage dump. One day, as he looked around taking in the horrific sights and smells, something caught his eye. A man was walking with a young child. It wasn’t anything out of the ordinary, but something about it didn’t sit right with Eric. “I had the lenses to see what was really going on in that situation,” he says. “Because of my own experience, I could almost script it from both the victim’s side and the perpetrator’s side. I started seeing guys walking down the streets with young girls everywhere I went.”

At first, the situation hit him like a sharp punch in a Muay Thai fight. Many people would feel the urge to respond violently, and Eric feels that urge too. But instead, he came up with a strategy to attack the overall problem. He started a non-profit organization called Hope for the Silent Voices that rescues children sold into the sex trade in Cambodia. He has a unique perspective that fuels his desire to save and protect these vulnerable children. He started to view his own childhood abuse as a blessing because of the purpose it put on his life. Because of his work, children are being rescued, fed, clothed, and protected. And most of all, Hope for the Silent Voices shares the gospel with the women and children they are rescuing. “Just a few weeks ago,” says Eric, “four of the girls chose to be baptized.”

Now, when you talk to him, you still get the sense that he’s a broken man—one who has given his own burden to Christ but now carries the burdens of others who are hurting. His own mother and father have stepped in to help carry the load as well. “They have become inspirations to me,” he says. “I no longer hover above my life, but enjoy it in real time with my whole family.”

He believes it’s his mission and responsibility to rescue and protect every little one he can from the abuse he suffered as a child. “I still don’t understand why I’ve seen what I’ve seen, experienced what I’ve experienced, or done what I’ve done,” he says. “But I can say now that it’s a blessing to have gone through the hurt, pain, and insecurities I carry all for the sake that it will allow people to have a hope for a different future because of God’s reconciliation.”

Eric attends the Gateway Dallas Campus.

To learn more about Eric’s work in Cambodia, visit hopeforthesilentvoices.org.