“If It Bleeds, It Leads”—One Woman’s Recovery from Tragedy

By Constance Gilbert

Laurel and Randee

Tragedies make headlines and the TV news. If it bleeds, it leads—as if the violence and travesties, to which we’ve become so desensitized, don’t happen to real people. But horrible things, things of nightmares and novels, do happen to real people.

In 1995, the Saturday before Easter, Laurel and her oldest daughter went shopping for holiday basket goodies. They shopped for the three grandchildren and for Randee, the fourteen-year-old baby of the family. Randee stayed home to babysit her big sister’s two-, four-, and six-year-old children.

After dropping off Laurel at her house, her older daughter went home to quickly stash the packages. She heard the children playing in the bedroom, but Randee didn’t respond to her greeting. Maybe Randee hadn’t heard her.

The bedroom door wouldn’t open when she tried to check on the kids. We have to get that fixed, she thought as her six-year-old jiggled the doorknob, just so, to let her in. The children proudly showed her their tower of brightly-colored blocks on the floor between the twin beds and giggled wildly when the rickety structure fell.

But where was her sister? It wasn’t like Randee to ditch the kids.

She scouted through the house, calling out Randee’s name to no response, and found the other rooms empty. With growing trepidation, she walked down the stairs to the basement. I can’t imagine her horror when she found her little sister, lying in bright red blood on the floor. Dead.

As a nurse who has seen graphic, real-life injuries and observed autopsies, reading the killer’s appeal transcript haunts my thoughts. Randee was repeatedly and violently raped. One of her two attackers murdered her so she couldn’t identify her assailants.

Laurel and her husband arrived at their older daughter’s house in shock and disbelief. “They wouldn’t permit us see her,” Laurel told me. ”I can’t stress enough how good the police treated us AND Randee. They were kind, respectful, and always at our beck-and-call.”

That’s Laurel. In the midst of the most horrible moment in her life, she noticed the first-responders’ courtesy.

Laurel

This story is really about Laurel, my friend and Randee’s mother.

Laurel always has a smile, sees the positive side of life, is compassionate and caring. She’s also the only housekeeper whom I’ve trusted to clean my office without moving or misplacing papers or other materials at the long-term care facility where we worked.

Occasionally, she’d stop by and say, “Mrs. G, do you have a moment?”

In the rocking chair next to the window in my office, she would rest her feet and ask for my input on common life issues. She always had encouraging words for me too. After that Easter in 1995, Laurel would sit in my rocker and cry for a few minutes before wiping her tears with a deep sigh and returning to her work with a smile.

It is Laurel’s grieving that amazes me. Everyone responds to losses differently. The Grief Cycle is not linear. We don’t go from point A to B.

Nor do we grieve alone in a bubble. Laurel grieved alongside her husband and three childreneach in their own way. As a wife and mother, she tried to comfort her family through their anger and pain.

I experienced some of that chaos when family members disagreed about telling Laurel’s mother of the tragedy, who was my patient. Grandma had the right to know her granddaughter died. Besides, secrets are hard to keep in small towns—especially in long-term care communities where TVs, papers, and gossipers spread news quickly.

I gently shared Randee’s loss to spare Grandma the discovery in a less than savory way. She cried in my arms, lamenting that granddaughters shouldn’t die before their ninety-year-old grandmas. Lots of anger was hurled at me the day. I like to think I was Laurel’s shield from the family’s frustration and grief for a little while.

 

Laurel says she found support and stability through her work. The love of staff and residents in the retirement community enveloped her like a cocoon. While at work, she could leave conflicts at home and take a break from the police investigation that lasted for years. She could retreat into my rocking chair to shed a few tears in private or to “talk” even when there were no words.

When Laurel emerged from that cocoon, back to living life in real time, there was no bitterness. She has a special, unique spirit and is thankful for the fourteen years the Lord lent Randee to her.

Author Elisabeth Kubler-Ross wrote:

“The most beautiful people are those who have known defeat, suffering, struggle, loss and have still found their way out of the depths. These people have an appreciation, a sensitivity, and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness, and a deep concern. Beautiful people do not just happen.” 

Laurel is one of the most beautiful, wonderful, amazing people I know.

Randee in a popcorn fight at a sleepover.

“[Randee] was very loved and spoiled by all,” Laurel shared. “Her siblings were nine, ten, and thirteen years old when she was born. We all were proud of her. A week after her death, she would have been inducted into the National Honor Society. She planned on attending Michigan State University to become either a child psychologist or a veterinarian.

She was a bright light to all who knew her. I am thankful for the time she was loaned to us.”

For anyone experiencing loss, Laurel wants you to know there is no right or wrong way, nor “acceptable” length of time for dealing with grief.

Randee’s father lost his will to live and died three years after the murder, never knowing the two suspects were convicted in 2002 based on DNA evidence.

As in many rape cases, the perpetrators were not strangers. They took advantage of Randee’s sister’s absence. Randee could never have defended herself against two men, one who weighed more than 200 pounds and had prior convictions. As the killer, he was sentenced to life without parole. He was twenty-six. His seventeen-year-old friend left prior to the murder and was sentenced twenty-five years to life in prison.

Laurel hopes her story will help other families through their losses.

Rape is far more common than most of us imagine. Sexual intimacy isn’t an easy conversation, but our children need to understand their vulnerability. I watched a three-part documentary on Netflix that BBC produced entitled “The Detectives” to inform young adults and their parents of the truth about sexual assault and how to prevent becoming a victim. “The Detectives” could be your golden teaching moment. Myriad articles on this subject are also available online.

May Randee and Laurel’s experience touch your heart unlike any newspaper headline or TV reporter’s lead story.

 

 

Special thanks to Constance Gilbert for this Tenacity to Triumph story. Connie is a retired nurse who moved to Central Oregon to be a nearby “gramma”. She, too, has survived losses, which led to her heart’s desire to encourage others through written and spoken words. Numerous periodicals have published her short stories, and she regularly posts on her blog consheartstrings.blogspot.com, which always ends with    “Selah think on this…”

Donna’s Tough Road Led Her to 8 Keys For a Great Life

Donna

Donna May grew up in a happy home in Saint Louis, but as an adult, she got mixed up in an abusive relationship. One fateful night, injured, hysterical and crying, Donna ran her car into her abuser while trying to flee. He’d told her if she ever hurt him, she better kill him, so she wheeled around and ran him over.

Except the body on the street turned out to be her violent lover’s friend.

Donna was charged with second-degree murder and sentenced to 30 years in prison. On December 19, 1990 she entered the Department of Corrections, and her two daughters went to live with her parents.

While incarcerated, determined to make a better life when she got out, she took classes from Lincoln University to add to the 18 credit hours she’d earned from St. Louis Community College at Forest Parks. In the meantime, her father passed away in July, 1996 and then her mother in January, 1997.  Adding to the crushing grief of losing her parents, she worried for her children who had been in their care, but her family came through. Her oldest daughter, then 17, went to live with Donna’s grandmother, and her younger daughter, 14, moved in with Donna’s cousin.

In 1998 after being denied parole, another offender asked if Donna would share her background with a visitor involved in a law school working on behalf of people who were incarcerated for killing their abuser. Though Donna’s situation was unique, a student and professor took her case, speaking on her behalf at a parole hearing in 2000. The board granted her a two-year release date, and she arrived at Saint Mary’s Honor Center on August 22, 2002.

Donna and her daughters, now ages 23 and 19, eagerly got to know each other again, making family unification quite easy. It became Donna’s habit to go to church with her Aunt Jenny, and one Sunday, a member of the congregation encouraged her to visit a group meeting at a coffee shop. She loves coffee, so she attended and found herself in a “judge-free zone”. There she learned about the Dress for Success.

Dress for Success fitted her for a suit the following week in 2002, a suit that she still has today.DFS_Midwest-web

Though Donna knew the Center for Women in Transition (CWIT) only accepted non-violent offenders, she submitted an application anywaylogo-side-gold3b while still incarcerated. In talking to Barbara Baker at CWIT, Donna explained the steps she’d taken to create a better life; her college classes, becoming an effective computer coder for the Department of Corrections, how she had become reacquainted with her faith in God – and Ms. Baker accepted Donna to the program.

With a criminal record, Donna couldn’t get a job in computers, so she took a position working for a cranky boss at a thrift store making $5.15 an hour. During that time she attended weekly Let’s Start meetings, a letsstart_logosupport group for women, and monthly CWIT gatherings to set goals and work with a mentor. She came to understand she had choices, so Donna walked off the job at the thrift store when she decided her boss had berated her for the last time. That same day, she got hired at McDonald’s for $6.00 an hour – which meant she got a raise.

Donna left Saint Mary’s October 2002 and moved in with Aunt Jenny, and continued to improve her life. As a mentee with CWIT, she got health coverage and a therapist. With the help of her therapist and support from CWIT, through Vocational Rehabilitation she was able to attend Vatterott College for a year where she earned a certificate of competence with Microsoft Office. But it was also during this time, in 2003, that her aunt passed away. CWIT paid for Donna’s deposit and first month’s rent, so she could move into her own apartment.

Donna took a position working for The Women’s Safe House, an emergency shelter for abused women and their children, while she completed classes for her Associate of Arts degree in business at St. Louis Community College at Forest Park. By then, she had completed the mentee program at CWIT, but she remained active by attending monthly gatherings.

In 2004, she became a customer service representative earning $10 an hour, the most she’d earned since returning home, where she stayed until the call center closed in March, 2006. In May, she graduated with her AA, but hard as she tried, she couldn’t find a job. Then she got a message on her phone to call CWIT.

“Hello, Donna,” said the director. “We have a job for you if you would like it.”

“God hears and answers prayers,” Donna says. “I could not believe it…as if the path to my future began with becoming a mentee [at CWIT] in 2002.”

The next day, June 7, 2006, Donna went to the CWIT office where she became the Administrative Assistant. By March, 2007, she was askedLogoNewBanner2 CWIT to be a Lead Case Manager. She had no idea what that meant, but she accepted the position – and the pay increase. In working with clients, women adjusting to life outside of prison, Donna had already enrolled in the University of Missouri-St Louis School of Social Work because she felt she needed more education. In addition, once Donna was released from parole in 2009, she became a mentor at CWIT, helping other formerly incarcerated women to set goals and take steps toward recreating their lives.

Despite her history, Donna also took a leap of faith in 2009 and applied for the Payroll Specialist position at CWIT.

She told Executive Director, Nancy Kelly, “…given the opportunity, I know I can learn [Quick Books] and be successful in this position.”

“Donna May,” Nancy said, “I am confident that whatever position I place you in, you will succeed.”

Those powerful words have helped to fuel Donna’s belief in herself ever since.

She remained the Payroll Specialist at CWIT until May, 2010 when she left for a paid practicum position in social work. Due to receive her bachelor’s degree, Donna recognized that effectively supporting people in navigating their complicated lives would require more training. She wanted to apply for graduate school, but writing the required essay terrified her.

“I never chose social work,” her story began, “social work chose me because of the challenges that I have come face-to-face with in my life…”

In August 2011, Donna started her journey in grad school and was able to perform her practicum in private practice where she learned a greatDonna's MSW deal about diagnoses and barriers for those with mental illness. Sadly, after she graduated with her MSW in December 2013, again she struggled to find a job.

logo-connections-to-success-cRejection after rejection, Donna kept reaching out until she eventually applied for a position with Connections to Success, an organization working to break the cycle of poverty with hope, resources and a plan. During her interview in April, 2013, she wore the same suit that had been assembled for her at Dress for Success back in 2002.

The program director hired Donna as a Life Transformation Coach, the perfect position for someone who had been a mentee and spent several years mentoring others at the Center for Women in Transition. Donna knew how to support people’s decisions and goals as well as help them to see what’s possible.

Less than a year later, Donna was promoted to Life Transformation Coaching Manager, and by April 2014, she shared a dual role as Program Director. Today, Donna oversees the database as the Fidelity and Compliance Manager at Connections for Success. She also works with the Restorative Justice Committee on the Board of Directors for The Center for Women in Transition. 

And she makes people’s lives better every day.

Donna’s 8 Keys to a Great Life:
  1. God hears and answers prayers.
  2. We’re never stuck; we have choices.
  3. Past mistakes are in the past; focus on the future.
  4. Learn to think of yourself and present yourself in a positive light.
  5. Never let others define who you are.
  6. Never allow anyone to tell you what you can’t do.
  7. If you are ever in an abusive situation, please call for help. (ALIVE is a great resource, and there will be several others in your community.)
  8. Most important, follow Norman Peale’s advice: “Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars.”
Which of Donna’s keys have you found helpful on your life’s journey?

Former Prison Inmate, Barbara Baker, Helps Women to Recreate Their Lives

Barbara at work at the Center for Women in Transition
Barbara at work at the Center for Women in Transition

My childhood in St. Louis, Missouri was a happy one. My mother had seven sisters, and when they began to have children, they continued to live at home with my grandmother.   Four of my first cousins and I grew up together. We were normal kids who played and got into trouble sometimes, and when we got out of hand, my grandmother was the one who punished us.

The first school I remember attending was Laclede Elementary, which was in walking distance from our house.  In third grade, I got suspended because I hit another student when she refused to give my cousin a piece of candy. I was afraid to tell my mother, so I left for school  the next day as I normally would and walked around the neighborhood. This lady asked why I wasn’t in school, so I told her what had happened. She offered to write a letter to get me back in school, and I left her as happy as I could be. When I got school, though, I found out she had written that she did not know me, but I had been walking around outside by myself, and she was concerned. Of course the principal called my mother and told her to come pick me up. I can’t remember if I got a spanking, but I do know I was glad to return to school.

I liked school, but I couldn’t resist being the class clown and getting into trouble, even knowing that my mother would whip me for it. As a young child, I liked to skate, run, dance, play baseball and volleyball, and meddle with adults. Why, I don’t know, but upsetting them made me laugh. At any given time, I always had a bag of something sweet, mostly candy. In fact, looking back, I realize candy was my first addiction. If my mother or someone else in the household did not give me money for candy, I would steal the change laying around the house, or I would cry and throw a fit until I got it.

When I was 11 or 12 years old, my mother met a man who would later become my step dad. I did not like him and did not want him as part of

Pruitt Igoe Projects, St. Louis
Pruitt Igoe Projects, St. Louis

our family. Although he was a good person, I did not realize that until many years later. He worked hard to support us, but I wanted nothing from him. To this day, I do not know why I did not like this man, except that he and my mother moved us to the Pruitt-Igoe housing projects. I fought tooth-and-nail to stay with my grandmother, but in the end, I had to go with my mom.

In time, I grew to love the projects. I met other teens who were as confused about life as I was. Around the age of 16, my friends turned me on to cough syrup with codeine and weed. I loved the way I felt like I could take on the world if I wanted to, and we could just walk into any drugstore and buy this cough syrup. Then the FDA began to require a prescription to buy it. I guess I was about 18 when this happened, and someone suggested we get some heroin because they said the high was the same as the syrup. Like a fool, I tried heroin and my life was a roller coaster from that day on.

Addiction caused me to be in and out of jail until I was about 45 years old. Drugs had such a grip on me that sometimes when I got locked up, I would be relieved. I was caught in a revolving door where I would get out of prison, get a job, get a house, get my children back, and then relapse again.  I wanted to be drug-free but had no idea how to make it happen. Treatment was not talked about at that time. The mindset was that addicts chose to use drugs, so they had to suffer the consequences.

In my mind, I was not a bad person because I did not steal from my family. I had given myself permission to steal from stores, my rationale being that stores were insured, so no one got hurt.  After going to prison for the third time, I started to look at myself, but I still had no idea that I was an addict or what I needed to do to change.  When I went back to prison for the fifth and last time, I knew I had to do something different.

The day I had been arrested, my family was in the process of moving on a Saturday morning. While my son and daughter, who were living with me at the time, went to get the second load of belongings to take to the new house, I decided to run downtown to Macey’s. I was dope sick and could hardly help with the move, so I had planned to steal something quickly, so I could get my fix.

But I got busted.

inside prisonMy daughter had no job to support her two small children. When she came to see me in jail, I told her that I had violated my parole and would not be getting out. I could see the fear and hurt in her eyes. She didn’t know how she and her children would survive. The pain in her eyes that day, along with my desire to escape from the revolving door, finally got me to seek the help I needed.

I wanted to change and make a better life for myself.  My daughter and grandkids were also a big factor as well as the prison warden. I worked in administration as the Institution Activities Clerk in the same building as the warden’s office, across the street from the prison.  She and I would talk about my life, my children, and my addiction to drugs. She respected me and the way I carried myself while I was doing time.  We met the first time I landed in prison. She was about 5 feet tall, very intelligent, and she dressed smart. She talked to me plainly so I would understand in lay terms what she said to me. Don’t get me wrong. I was not a goody-two-shoes in prison, but I kept up the appearance that I was.

The last time I got high was in prison, and that is where I made the final decision not to get high again, and to this day I have not. I made this decision because I was on work release and close to getting my good time to get out in three years rather than seven. Then me and two other women had used heroin and crack on a Friday, and the next Tuesday I was asked to give a drug test. I prayed as hard as I could asking God not to let those drugs still be in my urine. Cocaine and heroin can clear in 72 hours if you just use them once. Well, I did not drop dirty, and I was grateful.

I had told my roommate I was never going to use again when I got to the streets, but after risking four more years of incarceration, I told her I was not using again in prison either. When drugs came my way, I passed them on to another friend. Had I known what I know today about addiction, I would not have given the drugs to anyone else either.

I came home October 3, 1995. My family would always welcome me back with open arms each time I got out of prison. Like so many families, they hoped I would stay away from drugs. Before this, their dreams had always been dashed when I had gotten involved with the same old people, places, and things. But they never gave up on me. They always did what they needed to do for my children. When I disappeared, they hoped and prayed that the phone call they would get would be that I was in jail and not dead.

That October in 1995 began a new way of life for me, though, because I joined a support group called Let’s Start which is dedicated toletsstart_logo assisting women in transition from prison life to society. I began to find out what I needed to do to stay clean, and I learned about myself and my addiction. I finally let go of those old people, places and things. No one besides positive people and family members knew how to get in contact with me.

After eighteen months of sobriety, my family gave me a birthday party. A woman in my support group had told me to stop counting the days, so I had not realized that I had been out of prison for that long. The most painful thing about getting clean was to learn that my children had suffered the most from my addiction and incarceration. My son is a heroin addict, has been to prison, and is now on probation. My daughter stayed away from drugs, but she struggled as a young single parent who could not depend on her mother for help in any way.

For the first two years, I had an apartment out in the country, so none of my old influences would find me. After I felt people knew I was serious about changing my life, I moved back into the city. During that time, Let’s Start taught me how to approach judges, legislators, probation officers etc. I had no idea how I was going to use any of this information at this stage in my life. I was just desperate to stay clean and out of jail. My way of life had never worked for me, so I listened and took suggestions. I’d always known the God of my understanding had a plan for my life because I survived two overdoses, so there must have been a reason for Him to keep me around.

Then I was hired by the Center for Women in Transition and was given an opportunity to use my past to help other women struggling withlogo-side-gold3b addiction and advocate for alternatives to incarceration. I did not come out of jail with an ideal that I was going to work with other women who had been in my situation, nor that I would become a role model for them. I am so comfortable in this job. This had to be God’s plan for my life. No one could have told me that I would have judges calling to ask my advice about clients, or that judges would reschedule clients’ court dates to accommodate my busy schedule. The God of my understanding has blessed my life so much. I could not be here without His grace and mercy.

My future goals are to live a simple life and be there for my grandchildren. I can’t get back the special times and events that I missed in my children’s lives, but I can give back through my grandkids. I turned 64 at the end of April and am getting close to retirement, however, I still plan to continue to help women get their lives back on track. Supporting other mothers in recovery means that fewer children will have to go through what my children experienced with me drifting in and out of their lives.

“My motto is: A closed mouth don’t get fed.”

             My Advice: If you or a family member struggle with addiction, don’t hesitate to ask for help. I don’t care how well you know a person, when their addiction is active, you are not dealing with or talking to that person. You are talking to their addiction, and it won’t hear you. You have to be ready to show tough love. Don’t get caught up in the fear that if you put them out of the house, they will die out there. If you let them stay and they continue to use, one thing will surely happen: death, jail or another institution. Addiction affects the whole family, but the fact that someone in your family uses drugs has no reflection on you. We can give our children the best upbringing possible, but we have no control over the paths they choose. Tough love is not saying, “I don’t love you.” It is saying, “I’m here to support you in getting help, but I will not watch you DIE.”

If you are using and trying to stop, it can happen, but there are things that you must do.

  • Get involved in some type of support group.
  • Change people, places and things. You can’t have a relationship with anyone who is still using. You won’t get them clean. They will get you high.
  • Go to treatment and get a sponsor.
  • Seek out the help you need.  Look up resources on the Internet.
  • WE DO RECOVER.

In working towards your goals, no matter what they might be:

 

The links in this article provide lots of great information and resources. We’d love to hear your thoughts and welcome experiences you’d like to share. Your comment could be the tipping point in someone seeking help in dealing with a loved one or setting personal goals to recreate their own lives.