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Helping People, Changing Lives

Author: Cerrissa Kim and Petter Westby
November, 2017 Issue

 

Some young people find themselves drawn to careers that hold promise of prestige or a large salary, and often they go on to become prominent business members and leaders in their communities. Then there are those whose paths lead them to quieter careers, the kind of vocations that offer vital support to our society, but don’t garner a spotlight. Rosa Angelina Coleman is one of those people. Working as a substance abuse counselor for California Human Development, she has carved a unique path to her calling by following her passion for helping others.
Known as “Angie” to family, friends and colleagues, Coleman turned 29 in August, but she is wise beyond her years. Her mother, Rosa, a native of the Jalisco region of Mexico, was only 15 years old when she had her first child, and 16 when she had her second. She knew life would be difficult raising her boys as a single parent in Mexico, so she left her young sons in the care of family, and bravely ventured to the United States by herself, planning to earn enough money to provide a good life for her children. Upon her arrival in California, she worked long hours in the vineyards picking grapes and cleaning horse stables. She sent money home, while saving as much as possible, so she could one day bring her children to the U.S.
Rosa became a U.S. resident in 1986, brought her two sons here from Mexico, and started working toward her dream to become a U.S. citizen. She learned from friends about an organization called California Human Development (CHD) and used the services offered through the Citizenship and Immigration program at CHD to attain citizenship. In 1988, she gave birth to Angie. Little did Rosa know then that CHD would someday become a cornerstone in her daughter’s life.

The early days

Coleman’s mother and stepfather worked from sun up to sun down to provide for their family, but wages for their manual labor was always low. Rosa gave birth to another son in 1995, and though the family couldn’t afford much beyond the basics, they always had a roof over their heads, food to eat and they always supported one another. Her parents always stressed that nothing was more important than family. There were many struggles trying to make ends meet, but her parents always encouraged her and her brothers to do well in school and in life.
“I remember going to kindergarten wanting to be a lawyer,” says Coleman. However, when she met with counselors in high school, she became discouraged and doubted whether she could meet the many requirements necessary to get into college. Being from a family where no one had been to college before, she didn’t have anyone who could tell her the steps necessary to achieve, and pay for, higher education. She was placed into a college prep program at Elsie Allen High School, “Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs” (GEAR UP), a competitive grant program of the U.S. Department of Education that increases the number of low-income students who are prepared to enter and succeed in postsecondary education. The program leaders not only helped Coleman choose the high school classes she would need to get into college, they took GEAR UP students to Sonoma State University (SSU) to spend the night in the dorms, and on college tours to give them an idea of what university life would be like.
One important piece of advice Coleman was given through GEAR UP was to volunteer in the community since colleges would value her extra-curricular experience. She was interested in helping other youth and she volunteered at a shelter for runaways. She had never been exposed to teens that lived in situations so dangerous they had to escape their own homes to find safety. Their experiences affected her deeply. Though she attended a public high school, she didn’t have a typical high school experience. Her stepfather was a devoted parent, but also old-fashioned and believed a more “traditional” Mexican upbringing would be the best way to raise his stepdaughter. “I wasn’t allowed to have boys call me, or do school work outside of class anywhere other than at home. I couldn’t wear make-up. I had to be picked up from school by my father until my freshman year when I was finally allowed to ride the city bus,” says Coleman, “However, my parents did support my volunteer work.”

Culture change

Angie’s mother tried to be open-minded, wanting to adapt to American culture while also being respectful of her husband’s desire to raise their children within the traditions of their birth country. When Coleman finally got some freedom, she started to run with a fast crowd and ended up pregnant in her senior year. She hid her pregnancy from her parents for five months because she didn’t know how to share the news with them. Coleman knew that her stepfather, especially, was going to be gravely disappointed in her. The pregnancy put a strain on her relationship with him, but she managed to graduate high school, seven months pregnant at the time. Once her son was born, they managed to repair their relationship and he once again became a source of support. She gave birth to her son in October, and still had the desire to attend college, enrolling at Santa Rosa Junior College (SRJC) the following spring. She took night classes and worked two jobs—as a sales clerk and administrative assistant for a criminal defense attorney— to pay for childcare.
She graduated from SRJC in 2009 with two AA degrees (administration of justice and social and behavioral sciences), and two certificates  (“Children in the Justice System” and “Correction.”) “The attorney I worked with said that I had a way with teens. He said I didn’t judge them, and [he suggested] I might do well in a job where I worked with youth,” says Coleman. She continued working part-time for the attorney and also explored at-risk youth work opportunities, hoping to find an entry level position with a youth serving organization. She secured a job working the graveyard shift at R House, a residential substance abuse treatment program for foster and at-risk youth. Within three months, the team lead noticed how well Coleman was doing and began training and preparing her to take on more advanced tasks like facilitating group sessions. She was moved from the graveyard shift to the swing shift.
In 2008, Coleman began dating a childhood friend, who is now her husband, and became pregnant with her second child. In order to advance at R House, she needed a bachelor’s degree but with her oldest son about to start kindergarten and a baby on the way, she needed a job with hours that would be conducive to raising a family. When her baby was six months old, once again she typed “at-risk youth” into the search engine. “The first thing I saw when I landed on the CHD website was the logo with two hands and the agency’s mission to create paths and opportunities for people to rise above barriers in pursuit of better lives,” says Coleman. She applied for a part-time receptionist position hoping that it might open doors for additional opportunities.
In July of 2012, Coleman became CHD’s Drug-Free Treatment & Recovery receptionist. The following March, Dana Alvarez, the outpatient program director, asked Coleman if she was interested in joining the team as a certified addiction counselor. It meant that Coleman would have to spend a considerable amount of time to attain her certification. Still, Coleman jumped at the opportunity. CHD’s employee training assistance program provides each employee with $500 for training, and she used these funds to help pay for costs related to her certification. She worked at her own pace, completing an internship while accumulating 2,200 online course hours by 2015. Though it was a long and laborious haul, her perseverance never waivered, and she passed her state certification tests in March of 2017. Being bilingual has been a huge plus for Coleman who facilitates separate male and female substance abuse prevention support groups for youth ages 13-17, helping them navigate away from the strong pull of addiction while they are still young. When asked what has made her successful in her job she says, “I think staying humble and authentic helps people feel comfortable. The majority of people who come into our programs are not in their best shape. They are looking for a safe space where they aren’t judged. When they feel compassion, it helps them to open up. And when they’re honest and sharing with me, I can do a better job helping them.”
“It has been a privilege to supervise Angie through the years. Her commitment to helping people learn to improve their lives is evidenced by her day-to-day compassionate interaction with her clients, as well as her willingness to continue her education,” says Alvarez. Coleman notes that the work can be extremely difficult. Addiction is well known to ruin people’s lives in many ways and can devastate people from all walks of life. Without intervention, addiction often spirals out of control, causing ruined relationships, divorce, financial collapse, run-ins with the law and even death.
Coleman has seen the best and the worst of people as they fight against their addictions. “It’s important to give people who are struggling with this illness the benefit of the doubt and to trust that most people want to do the right thing,” says Coleman. In addition to working with teens she also works with monolingual, Spanish speaking adults.  Her caseload includes a number of Hispanic men, some who have questioned her credibility, since she’s not only young, but she’s a woman. She’s been able to overcome such doubts with her steadfast commitment and positive attitude. One 65 year old client, a Latino man told her, “There’s nothing a little girl can do that would make me listen to her.” Coleman validated how he felt and responded by telling him, “Just know I’m here to help you.” Over time, he learned that she possessed skills and training that were helpful to his recovery. “I had to work extra hard to prove myself,” says Coleman, “And he has turned out to be one of my most successful clients.”
Colleague Tina Millis says, “Angie was in her early 20s when she started working in the reception. She worked at R House but she hadn’t worked directly in substance abuse before, and she grew into her current counselor position by following her heart, working hard and being dedicated. She’s been hugely successful as our main bilingual counselor. She knows the culture, she’s passionate about helping the people she works with and she’s not afraid to ask questions.”
Coleman takes some of the lessons learned in her work and integrates them into to her home life. She had her fourth son in 2016, and this past summer she made his first birthday party an alcohol free event. Since it was a children’s party, she didn’t feel the need to serve alcohol. The change didn’t go over well with some family members at first, but once she told them that she’d like to add and shape new family traditions, everyone was onboard. Coleman has returned to SRJC and started taking the final few classes needed for her to transfer to Sonoma State University. “My ultimate goal is to get a master’s degree and become either a licensed clinical social worker or a marriage and family therapist. There’s a big need for bilingual workers in these fields.” Her oldest son, now 11, was only 18 months old when she graduated from SRJC and doesn’t remember her attending college. Recently when she was getting ready for class, he asked her why she was going to school. She explained to him that it was one of her personal goals to earn a bachelor’s degree. Now when she’s doing her math homework and tells him it’s hard, he says, “I’m proud of you Mama.”

Making a difference

More than half a century ago, President Lyndon B. Johnson knew it would take Community Action to not only relieve the symptoms of poverty, but to cure it and, above all, to prevent it. This endeavor become known as “The War on Poverty,” an effort to help end the plague of poverty in the United States.  “Stories like Angie’s remind us that our pasts do not define our future. California Human Development enables low income individuals of all ages, to attain skills, knowledge, and motivation to secure the opportunities needed for them to become self-sufficient. With a caring heart and encouraging hand, we can all play a role in supporting others through their greatest hardships, “ says Chief Executive Officer Anita Maldonado, Ph. D. “California Human Development holds true to the promise that Community Action changes people’s lives, embodies the spirit of hope, improves communities, and makes America a better place to live. We care about the entire community, and we are dedicated to helping people help themselves and each other. Angie’s story is a testament of the possibilities that can happen to any individual if given opportunity and the proper tools to succeed.”
What advice does Coleman have for a youth planning for the future? “There is never a reason—no matter how big the storm may feel—to give up. You can do everything you want to do.” Wise words from a young woman who plans to continue making a difference in the world.

 

Sidebar 1: California Human Development: Creating Opportunities to end Poverty

California Human Development (CHD) is a nonprofit, human services provider waging “The War on Poverty” across 31 northern California counties, including Marin,
Napa and Sonoma. Inspired to serve our state’s migrant farmworkers in 1967, today CHD serves people of low income from all walks of life—giving 25,000 people a year a hand up to the American dream. CHD provides these valuable programs:
employment Assistance. Education, vocational training, paid work experience and job placement support for farmworkers and other low income individuals to help them achieve income stability.
Affordable housing. More than 500 affordable housing units provide shelter to those in need of a safe place to live.
immigration & Citizenship. Provide pathways to legal immigration and citizenship for those whose dream it is to work, live, go to school and become a contributing member of American society.
disABiLiTY services. Education, employment training, and coaching for life and work success to prepare hardworking men and women to reach their potential and enjoy happier, more independent and fulfilling live.
Drug-Free Living. Residential and outpatient treatment programs and sober living homes provide a course of action for recovery to individuals struggling with drug and alcohol addiction.

 

Sidebar 2: The Cost of Substance Abuse on Business

In the United States, 62 percent of people with substance abuse issues work full time, according to a 2008 estimate by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services
Administration (SAMSA). Workplace substance abuse can affect a business in a number of ways. A Working Partners’ National Conference Proceedings Report sponsored by the Department of Labor, the Small Business Administration and the Office of National Drug Control Policy, found the loss of money connected to drugs in the workplace is considerable. Here’s how substance abuse impacts the bottom line for employers:
• Increase in workers compensation claims since 38 to 50 percent of all Workers Compensation claims are related to substance abuse in the workplace and substance abusers file three to five times as many workers compensation claims.
•    Medical costs are 300 percent higher for substance abusers than for other workers.
•    Absenteeism is higher amongst substance abusers, who are two-and-a-half times more likely to be absent eight or more days per year.
•    Lost productivity is greater for substance abusers, with one third being less productive than their colleagues.
•    Employee turnover is expensive, costing a business an average of $7,000 to replace a salaried worker.
There’s no way to know what the precise figure of the cost of substance abuse is on businesses. SAMHSA found smaller businesses were less likely to have employees participate in drug testing programs due to the cost. People who didn’t think they could abide with a drug-free workplace policy often searched for employers that didn’t have a drug testing policy in place.
Only one in five human resource professionals report that their company openly and proactively deals with employee addiction issues. However, when workers with substance- use disorders get treatment, both employers and employees benefit in the following ways:
•    Better employee health and lower total health-care costs over time.
•    Less absenteeism.

•    Improved job performance.

•    Reduced costs associated with short- and long-term
disability and workers’ compensation.

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