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CounselorGateway Foundation In-Prison Treatment CenterBrownwood
“How did I get to Eastfield’s Substance Abuse program? To be honest, I was in recovery myself. With a year and a half sober at the age of 46, I considered myself a loser who had wasted her life and was looking for a way to make a living that took the least amount of time. When I got to Eastfield, I did not even know what a semester hour was — I just knew I wanted to do something that would help someone else escape the horrors of addiction.
“In my very first Substance Abuse Counseling class I met a professor, Gloria Jackson, and had no idea how much my life was about to change. I remember she asked the students in our class to close our eyes and envision what we would do if we had unlimited time and unlimited money. What I visualized was getting my master’s degree, becoming a licensed professional counselor and opening a faith-based treatment center.
“My thoughts at the time were, ‘This woman has no idea what a loser I am, or she wouldn’t even ask such a question,’ and I blinked back tears. Little did I know that what I had envisioned was exactly what I would do — and so much more. In spite of all my misgivings, I could not shake Ms. Jackson’s question, so after that first class, I went to her office and confided to her how scared I was to be starting college with my background and at my age.
“She told me, ‘What you’ve been doing is learning from experience, and there is no greater teacher. What you have learned through life is something I can’t teach in the classroom — it can only be learned by living it. Consequently, the only way that you can really lose in this situation is by not allowing what you’ve been through to be used to touch someone else’s life.’
She challenged me to go do what was in my heart and to never look back, and that is exactly what I have done. The important thing to realize in all this is that nothing in my life had really changed — I had still made all the same mistakes, as a mother, as a daughter and as a human being. What changed in me that day was my perception of myself. In Gloria Jackson’s office, I walked in thinking of myself as a loser who had wasted her life, and I emerged as a person with something to offer others because of what I’d been through. I was no longer a victim or a loser — I was a survivor who had withstood and could now show others how to move ‘beyond.’
“Because Gloria Jackson helped me to change what I thought about myself, my actions and outlook changed also. What I do today is offer to others the life that I’ve been given. I can’t help everyone, and I’m not held responsible for what I can’t do — but I am held responsible for the person who’s been placed in my path. I am responsible for my part, my piece of the mosaic. It is not my job to force sobriety on anyone, but what I can do is show others what I did in order to get the life I am so blessed with today.
“It’s like crossing a stream — we’re all in this together, with someone on the rock ahead of me guiding me, and I in turn help someone behind me find their footing. Ms. Jackson remains my principal mentor — I see her as being the person who carries the light and goes before me. I know as long as I follow her, I will be safe, because she is leading me where she has already been.
“You can’t give away what you don’t have. If I haven’t implemented change in my own life, I would be remiss to try and elicit change in others. Knowledge is simply knowledge until I implement it in my own life. Then and only then, does it become wisdom — and then it becomes a powerful tool that can be used to reach out and help transform lives.
“Most of what I completed at the university level, even through my master’s degree, was basically broadening and solidifying what I learned at Eastfield. For several years I did recruiting for UT Southwestern and often went back to speak to Eastfield students. During one such session, I recall noticing that the class I was there to address was using the very same textbook that we were using in our master’s program at the medical school. I remember thinking, ‘Leave it to Ms. Jackson to push her students to go above and beyond.’ Thank goodness that she instilled this in me — it is a principle that has served me well.
“That one little thing that Gloria Jackson did — challenging us to visualize what we would do with unlimited time and money — is really the only thing we are here to do — to help people change their own perception of themselves. One of the girls I sponsor in a Twelve Step program said she was afraid that if she went on to school and stayed sober that she would ‘outgrow’ her family and friends and would eventually lose them. My response was, ‘Why not be a light in their darkness? Why not show them what they can do, too?’
“That’s what we do: reach out and take someone by the hand and walk with them. We reach forward to the hand ahead of us and then to the one behind us. I simply carry on the work, the hope, the light — I continue to do what Gloria Jackson did for me. If a 49-year-old recovering alcoholic, high school dropout, single parent, grandmother can do this … so can you. If I can, you can — ignore the fear; it will go away, I promise. Here, take my hand and I will walk with you — you are not alone.”
Sheila Grace earned dual associate degrees in Social Work and Substance Abuse Counseling at Eastfield College in 1999. She holds a bachelor’s degree in rehabilitation counseling and a master’s degree in rehabilitation counseling psychology from the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas. She is a licensed professional counselor intern (LPCI) and will soon receive certification as a licensed professional counselor (LPC).
Sheila is ta full-time counselor for the Gateway Foundation, an in-prison treatment center in Brownwood (south of Abilene) offering a six-month program for clients to go through before they begin parole. She is also the founder of the Sigma Twelve Recovery Center, a halfway house for girls in substance abuse recovery, also in Brownwood, and located in a house donated by her mother. (The name is derived from the Greek symbol, sigma — meaning “sum of” — referring to the sum of the twelve steps of recovery.) Sheila and her team hope to open another unit soon.
“There’s such a need for a facility like Sigma Twelve,” she says. “I want it to be a place where girls are taught to believe in themselves — to learn that they are not ‘bad’ people who need to get ‘good’ but are simply sick people who need some help. My desire and the desire of all who are involved with the center is to provide a helping hand and some direction like that which was so freely offered to us in early recovery. I consider my sobriety to be my most precious gift, and what I do with that sobriety I consider to be my way of giving back.”