For years through my volunteer work, I knew I had a calling to work with people suffering from substance abuse and mental illness. Because of my life circumstances and responsibilities, it took a while to be able to pursue this professionally, but after starting college at 50, I now have the career I always wanted as a Substance Abuse Counselor. It took some doing to get here, but I know I’m doing what I was meant to do and I couldn’t be happier.
Early Life and Challenges
Growing up on the island of Trinidad and Tobago, I was the second of nine children and the first girl. My parents divorced when I was young and my mom raised us as a single parent—I look back and realize how challenging her life was. While I was still a child myself, I had to help raise my younger siblings. I felt it was unfair that I never really got to experience the freedom of childhood since I had so much responsibility so early. But I know that my mother had to work to make a life for us-there was no choice.
Maybe I wanted to get away from these responsibilities, so I got married at 17 and had five children by the time I was 25. So, here was the pattern: I hadn’t really grown up, hadn’t had the chance to finish high school, but I was raising five children – a lot of responsibility again. My husband and I started a small business, so I was an entrepreneur for several years. We divorced soon after and I was a single mother. In 1990, my mom, who had moved to the USA, was diagnosed with cancer, so I came here to take care of her. It was very difficult because my kids were not able to come with me. During those years, I had to work two jobs taking care of a senior citizen and working for a family, seven days a week. That went on for a couple of years. It was hard– I had no time for myself.
I then went to work for a family as a nanny where I stayed for many years. I really give God thanks because he placed me with a family whom I love like my own. Even though I had landed in a good position, it was challenging because I was thinking about my own children and worrying about them. Dealing with the immigration process was very difficult. You can start to feel a little hopeless, not knowing when it would turn around and when the frustration would end. Eventually, they finally were able to come. I did my best as a parent—I would come home from work tired and not have a lot of energy left over. It really was a growing process for me–I learned to develop more patience.
In the midst of all that, my faith was the thing I held on to for dear life: I could still hold on to the God whom I believe in. My church family also provided so much support and encouragement as I supported my five children. As busy as I was, I always had in my mind that I wanted to finish high school and pursue higher education. There was always something about me–perhaps because I raised my younger siblings, but people would always gravitate towards me for counsel. I connected with them and tried to show support–often emotional or sometimes financial. For many years in my church community I was already working with people struggling with addiction, providing support and providing them with referrals. Because of that work, I decided, there was more I could do– I began volunteering with women in recovery from alcohol and substance abuse and I’ve been volunteering with a faith based recovery home for over 20 years. I wanted to do more and knew that with education, I could have a greater impact.
A Passion to Pursue
After finishing a GED, I started college at 50, and two of my daughters went with me! It wasn’t easy– I worked full time and stayed up studying much of the night. I was the oldest in the class, a grandmother! My daughter was living with me at the time and she would ask, “Mom, how do you do this? How can you stay up all night and study, go to work the next day and school again at night?” I had a lot of sleepless nights but I was focused on my goal to fulfill my purpose. I am grateful for so many people around me, including the family I worked for, encouraging and supporting me. I knew what my calling was, I knew my purpose; I had always gravitated to disenfranchised, marginalized people. Pushing myself to get the degree, in four years I graduated with honors.
Then I had to face a whole new challenge—entering a new career. I was scared! At the age of 54, and without a track record of work experience in the field, I started submitting applications. At the Institute for Community Living, the interviewer was impressed with all the volunteer work I had done with people challenged by substance abuse. I got the job and have worked there for several years as a Substance Abuse Specialist/Case Manager.
My work is incredibly gratifying. When a client is able to recover and pursue a master’s degree for example, it is thrilling for me. We work with a philosophy of “person-centered” care, helping clients with life skills, ongoing assessment and monitoring, managing their medications and helping to keep them on track in their recovery. Many suffer from mental illness as well, and some have just left the prison system. There is collaboration with parole officers, psychiatrists and others-a team effort to help clients recover and live their most productive lives. The love of people is essential to do this work passionately. Beyond a shadow of a doubt, this is my calling, my destiny, and I take every opportunity for further training to attain another level of knowledge and effectiveness. I know that many in my age group (early 60’s) are retiring, but I am so fulfilled and energized by this work, I am nowhere near wanting to retire. What I do is rewarding beyond any financial measures.
My advice to others is even if you’re scared, it’s never too late to overcome setbacks in our lives. The setbacks we encounter set us up for the comeback, but we must have that mindset for the comeback. Pursue your goals and dreams: don’t stop envisioning what you want and continue to be tenacious. If you are persistent, if you work hard, you don’t have to let your past define your future. I was a child, without a father; a teenager, raising a family. Yet, I have watched my children grow to be self-sufficient and raising my 10 grandchildren. Now is the time I can focus on me and my career! I advise women to surround themselves with mentors, people who can really influence their lives, and they can conquer anything.
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