Shelley Underwood

Deception, Financial Ruin, and Triumph.

I loved my life in Thomasville, Georgia. Married for twelve years, I was living a busy and fulfilled life as a wife and stay at home mother of five boys. I home schooled the boys and felt a true purpose in being there for my family.  We lived a conservative and traditional life: my husband was the main income earner, and I managed our home. I never felt “less than” because of my lifestyle.

Life was good until I began to realize the things my husband was telling me, weren’t quite right. Typically, I’m not a depressed person but I began to feel both depressed and confused, and our marriage began to decline because of it.

Eventually, I was blind-sided by my husband’s confession that we were having money troubles.  I knew nothing about it. I’m a big believer in not going into debt for things we need and in saving our money. We were living a comfortable lifestyle, but I believed we were living within our means. In reality, he was not making the income he claimed, we were $75,000 dollars in credit card debt and owed money to people all over town! My husband’s family owned a business in town, so our name was well-known in the community. It was very embarrassing. My entire life was nothing that it had seemed. It was such a shock.

When my husband dropped this financial bomb in my lap, I began to realize things could not stay the way they were. I debated whether I would stay with him or leave. Desperate to keep my family together, I decided to stay.

Up until this point in our lives, I had not worked outside of the home. The only “work experience” I had was leadership positions in our community home schooling association. But the financial mess we found ourselves in meant we had to make big changes. I took over the management of the household finances.  While my husband started up his own business, I began working part time at the private school my two oldest sons had started attending while still home schooling my three youngest.

Life went on until I awoke one morning and suddenly it came to mind that things were not right. Again. Questioning my husband about certain things he had told me, that I had not seen evidence of, he began to deflect. That was the sign that something wasn’t right. Vowing I would get to the truth of his deception, I argued with him to show me our financial papers. Suddenly, he pulled a gun case from a shelf and threatened to harm himself. As I wrestled with him, trying to take the gun case out of his hands, our children ran to safely lock themselves inside a bedroom. I was finally able to get the gun case out of his hands and hold him back while I somehow called the police.

After a second round of being deceived, I still waffled about whether to stay or go. It came to light that my husband had embezzled all his client’s money. I ultimately decided it was best to leave. My soon to be ex-husband went to prison for two years.

My entire family, 2002.

When he left, the amount of anxiety I had was off the wall. I was making a pittance from the private school, but that was all going back to the school for tuition. I had no retirement savings or house. I was 42 years old and my family had nothing.

There is a scripture in the Bible that has been meaningful to me throughout my life.  “For God has not given us a spirit of fear but a power of love and of sound mind”. Through that scripture, I created a mantra for myself; “I will not allow fear to dictate my destiny”.

Consumed with anxiety and fear 24/7, I clung to my mantra through the rough times telling myself fear would not dictate my destiny, choosing to act in spite of how I felt.

My main goal was to take care of my children. Desperately needing a job, I called someone I knew, who was looking for someone with my skill set. For the next three years, I was able to take care of my family, on welfare, and working 30 hours a week. We were living at poverty level, but I was able to take care of my children and provide stability.  Although I loved my job, and did well while I was there, the company was small and not designed for growth.  I had to course correct so I could make more money and get health benefits.

Ten years prior, I had fallen in love with science and medicine, watching medical shows on tv.  I decided I’m going big or I’m going home!  I’m chasing my dream. One of my core values is that I’m not going to live a life of regret. I’m not going to get to the end and think, “gee I wonder if I could have”.  I’m going to know if I could or couldn’t have.  My dream was to become a Physician’s Assistant. Quitting my job, we moved to Augusta so I could go to P.A. school.

Transitioning from being home and available for my children to becoming a student and being less accessible, quickly became stressful. After class, I worked in a research lab and then I’d go to my part-time job at the Apple Store.  What kept me going was knowing it wouldn’t be forever. I could do anything for a short period of time. I had a goal in mind, and I was pushing myself to reach it. I applied to P.A. school, was invited to interview and was wait listed.

Hopeful that the second application would land me a spot at the school, I was devastated when that didn’t happen.

While I was greatly disappointed, I learned a valuable lesson. We start on a path and think we’re going to get straight to our goal.  But when the journey doesn’t get us there, we learn along the way. I wouldn’t have traded that experience for anything because one of the most valuable lessons I learned was how intelligent I was. Prior to this, I never believed I was an intelligent person. Others thought I was, but I just thought I had them fooled. Not having had any science training, here I was taking Chemistry I with freshman who had just completed AP Chemistry. I didn’t even know what a periodic table was!

Shelley Underwood_family
My sons and me, 2018.

Part of what I think keeps people from succeeding, is the fear of failure. So many are afraid to try, afraid to raise a hand, afraid to speak up, look stupid, or be rejected. I encourage others to set it all aside and try. When afraid to fail, you prohibit yourself from learning.  Every failure is a stepping-stone to your goal. Where I am today, is because I persevered through the failure and learned things I couldn’t have learned any other way.  It brought me a level of confidence I would never have acquired and allows me to carry myself, in confidence, in the role I’m in now.

When I didn’t get into PA School, I spent about 48 hours crying. Then I asked myself what do I do now?  A customer from the Apple Store, who worked at ADP, told me if I ever wanted a job, she would refer me. I called her, she referred me, and I was hired!

I didn’t love the job, but it was a good fit with the skills I had picked up along the way.  More importantly, I was able to get off welfare.  It was a glorious day because the experience with welfare was humiliating and defeating: every time I used the EBT card for food, I was mortified. I also rejoiced because I was finally able to provide health benefits for my children. I was so grateful.

With my best friend Erin, 2020.

While I came to the job with business acumen, I had acquired at my previous jobs, I really didn’t know much about the corporate environment.  One of the first things I did was find mentors to help me.  A mentor is not just going to drop into your lap, so I sought out female colleagues and asked if I could get time on their calendars.

I asked my mentors questions about how they handled certain situations and what their career journeys were. Gracious women really stepped up for me. Someone with an important role at ADP, always made time for me and answered my questions.  How gracious is that?  Another who became a dear friend, really helped me. I literally didn’t know how to compose certain emails and she helped me figure it out. All I needed was the example, then I could run with it.  To this day, she will make time for me.  Another wonderful mentor helped me on a project which ended up getting me a lot of notice.

I strongly believe women in leadership roles should be making time for others and helping to lift each other up. If they’re not, shame on them. Connecting with mentors was a key part in my advancement at ADP–two promotions in the four years I’ve been there.

I eventually landed a job as a Client Success Manager. When I read the job description, I knew I was perfect for it.  I applied, interviewed and did very well. It was so rewarding after all the failures I went through. But all the things I learned after each failure, led me to where I am now, doing what I genuinely love.

Shelley Underwood_home
My new home.

I had been wanting my own home for an awfully long time. I was heartbroken about renting and I wondered if I would ever be able to afford my own home. I felt it was the right time; the new position led to a nice increase in pay and interest rates were low. Having gone through financial upheaval with my ex-husband, I was firmly living within my means and didn’t have credit card debt. I ran my budget a million different ways to make sure I could afford it. I applied for and was granted a homeowner’s loan.

Three months ago, I bought a house and my family, and I are now living in our new home!

I often reflect on the journey my life has taken. My family went through a lot, and it’s taken me a long time to get to where I can now say that we are in a good place. My children and I all have a good relationship with my ex-husband, the boys’ father. To the best of one’s ability, I think it’s important to have a good relationship with an ex-spouse because it’s best for the children.  After all of the challenges I have been through, I now feel proud that I persevered and accomplished my goals of home ownership and taking care of my children as a result of the work I put into developing a new career. In the end, fear did not dictate my destiny—I did.

Shelley is leading a meet-up group via 52 Living Ideas

Website: ShelleyUnderwood.com


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One Response

  1. This is such an inspirational story of not giving up and moving forward. I am going to send Grit & Soul to my daughter in laws

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