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A global volunteer organization working to improve the lives of women and girls through programs leading to social and economic empowerment.
2014 Live Your Dream: Education and Training Awards for Women Finalists
Each year since 1972, Soroptimist has provided financial support to women striving to achieve their dreams despite having faced tremendous obstacles. Through the Live Your Dream Awards (formerly the Women’s Opportunity Awards), Soroptimist has made it possible for these women to fulfill their potential despite domestic violence, sexual abuse, poverty, and other hardships. They, in turn, have improved the lives of their families and communities
Rebecca Shuflin of Humboldt County, California, describes herself as a survivor. Working to rebuild her life from scratch, the single mother of six is driven by her passion to help homeless families and survivors of domestic violence, an area she is all too familiar with on a personal level.
When Rebecca courageously left her abusive husband, she had been a stay-at-home mom for more than 10 years. She and her children left and sought refuge in the rural Humboldt County community. They spent months living and recovering at Humboldt Domestic Violence Services, and later at Safe Haven, a transitional home for women and their families.
“I left with just a few backpacks and my beautiful children,” she said. “After enduring heartache and stress with the legal system, I secured a restraining order and sole custody of my children. I wasn’t able to get our belongings back or any child support, but at least we had each other.”
While working to start over, Rebecca spent a lot of time in court with her now ex-husband sorting out matters including child custody, a restraining order, and violation of restraining orders. But instead of letting this daunting process wear her down, she used the experience to fuel her passion to help others in similar situations.
Rebecca enrolled at the College of Redwoods, where she slowly worked her way through general education classes. She then transferred to Humboldt State University, graduating in May 2014 with a bachelor’s in social work. While caring for her six children completely on her own, she managed to finish out her last semester with an impressive 4.0 GPA. In addition, she holds a full time job at the Arcata House Partnership, a transitional housing program, where she is a Case Manager working with homeless families and additionally helps out with legal advocacy. Rebecca is also a staff member for the Social Work department at HSU working as an assistant for the distributed learning program.
“I have a strong understanding and experience with the legal system in regard to domestic violence and child custody. I spent five long years filling out, filing, and serving court forms for my own hearings with the help of an amazing attorney in San Diego who assisted me (for free!) for the full five years. The court process is overwhelming and difficult to understand,” said Rebecca. “One way abusers get back at partners who have left them is by retaliating in court. This is the position I found myself in, just as my [Arcata House] clients are now dealing with. These clients are already traumatized by their current circumstances. This is where I come in with my personal experience.”
Inspired by Rebecca, SI/Eureka, California, selected her as its club-level Live Your Dream Award recipient. She went on to receive $5,000 as the Soroptimist Founder Region recipient, and was ultimately chosen as one of SIA’s three finalists, for which she received an additional $10,000. In total, Soroptimist awarded Rebecca more than $15,000, which she is using to obtain her paralegal certification through the university’s extended learning program and also towards her Master’s degree in Social Work.
“By getting my paralegal certification, I will gain a better understanding of the appropriate procedures for filling out legal documents. There is such a lack of legal support in our rural community that our clients are completely helpless when it comes to these situations. I have spent countless unpaid hours assisting these people,” she says. “I will use the certification to continue to help families, survivors of abuse and other disadvantaged individuals who need legal assistance, which I believe will make me an asset to the community.”
Rebecca also started graduate school in the Advanced Standing program at Humboldt State this past June, and is on track to receive her master’s degree in social work in May 2016. Because of her incredible determination, she has been able to build a career and provide a whole new way of life for herself and her children.
“My kids have been through so much and are so humbled by our experience. They often help me out with the homeless families I work with and are always so willing to do so. They see how hard I work, being in school plus working multiple jobs just to provide for them and I know it inspires them. They are such giving people who know how to appreciate life,” she said. “It's been a long road and it feels like every step of the way was worth it, to get here—with a job, a home, and healthy children.”
Christina Valadez of Battle Creek, Michigan, endured a difficult and misguided childhood. The daughter of a migrant worker, she and her three siblings moved frequently so their father could find work. She recalls living with her family in harsh conditions, often being crammed into one-room shacks, without enough food. When she was three-years-old, her parents divorced and she continued to live with her siblings and father. During that time, she suffered physical, sexual and emotional abuse and neglect at the hands of her father and other family members.
After attempting suicide when she was just 13, Christina went to live with her mother. But instead of a fresh start, her nightmare continued. Her mother was addicted to drugs and had turned to prostitution. She exposed Christina and her siblings to an unhealthy lifestyle—one filled with alcohol, drugs and sex—and was unable to parent the children safely.
At 16, Christina decided enough was enough. She moved in with a friend, working two jobs to pay rent while still going to high school. At 17, a year earlier than expected, she graduated and took on the major responsibility of caring for her younger siblings and ensuring their safety.
“Throughout the chaos of my childhood, I met people who showed me that I could have a different lifestyle than I lived,” says Christina. “I saw different aspects of life on television and had friends who couldn’t believe the experiences I’d been through. I knew I didn’t want my siblings or my children living the life I lived, so I decided to make changes to better my life.”
In 2001, Christina enrolled in college. But after three semesters, she regrettably had to drop out because of an abusive relationship with a boyfriend. She eventually got up the courage to leave him. By that point she had four children of her own, who she was struggling to support while continuing to help her other siblings. Life was extremely difficult and just when it didn’t seem that things could get worse, her daughter was molested. Christina then came to a turning point. She sought counseling to help her cope with her own childhood abuse and concerns over her children’s safety.
Working one full-time and two part-time jobs, she faces many challenges raising her children all on her own. She wanted to be a better parent, and decided to go back and finish what she had started 10 years earlier. Christina enrolled at Kellogg Community College and began to make some hard changes in her life. She started using stronger parenting skills, and ending unhealthy relationships, including those with family and friends.
“We don’t have a reliable car or live in a safe neighborhood. But I do everything in my power to make sure my children are involved with after-school activities, and I hold high expectations for all of them academically. I am involved with their teachers, and help them with their homework and projects,” she said. “This is important to me, since I never had anyone in my life who cared about these things. My kids always come first.”
Christina is currently working toward a degree in nursing, a profession she has chosen because it will allow her to help others.
“When my brother was little he had a brain tumor and spent a lot of time in the hospital,” she recalls. “The nurses were always so nice to him and took such good care of him. I knew I wanted to be like them and help people feel better.”
Despite her many struggles at home and work, she has maintained an impressive 3.76 GPA. In recognition of her course work, her chemistry teacher recommended her for a peer tutoring position, which she started in 2012.
Christina was selected as a 2014 Live Your Dream Award at-large recipient, for which she received $1,000 from Soroptimist. She went on to receive Soroptimist’s Midwestern Region award for $5,000, and was ultimately selected as one of the organization’s three overall finalists, bringing her total award to $16,000.
“The [Live Your Dream Award] will help me in many ways,” says Christina. “It will give me security that I’m not going further into debt while trying to prosper. I will use the award to further my education, and provide safer transportation and living conditions for my family.”
Christina often wonders, as mothers do, if she is doing enough for her children. “Am I spending enough time with them? Am I teaching them the right things? Being a parent is hard because I’m all alone and I didn’t have anyone who showed me the right way to do this,” she said. “But my daughter tells me she appreciates everything I do for them and how lucky she is because she sees her friends going without. And my son tells me I’m the best mom ever. And I know I’m doing alright.”
“Everyone is handed at least some adversity in life. The beauty of our intelligence is that we get to choose how we respond to it,” says Shirlee Draper of St. George, Utah. For the single mom of four, that adversity began at birth, when she was born into the extremely patriarchal and polygamous religious order, the Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints (FLDS) sect.
Despite constant reminders of the negative status women possessed in her community, Shirlee grew up outspoken and tenacious. She fought hard to prove she was as good as any boy, especially when it came to education. Because of her determination to prove herself, she was able to go to college and obtained an associate’s degree before getting married.
“Marriage [in my community], as is commonly known, is done through assignment, and mine was no different,” said Shirlee. “Though I was a ‘first’ wife, my place was piercingly clear—women shall have no voice.”
With so many societal and religious pressures, Shirlee’s dream to pursue higher education now seemed out of reach. She had three children in rapid succession. While pursuing developmental therapy for her eldest son, her fourth child—her only daughter— was born and suffered a global brain injury due to a medical accident, leaving her with severe cerebral palsy.
“Doctors did not expect her to live, and if she did, they said she would never do anything for herself. When I finally took her home from the hospital, she was blind and deaf and needed equipment to breathe and eat,” Shirlee recounted. “She had no muscle tone and would stop breathing if placed in the wrong position. I spent many nights sleeping upright over her crib, monitoring the machines that kept her alive.”
Shirlee’s outspoken ways and habit of questioning authority soon interfered with the culture of her community. When her daughter was 3 years old, she made the decision to take her children and leave.
“This action made me a single mother, the sole support for four children—two of whom have special needs—in a world I knew nothing about,” she said. “I know what it is like to be an outsider from every angle.”
Because of the work and research Shirlee had done attempting to help her son, who has autism and a significant development delay, she had great belief in the healing powers of children. After leaving the sect she began what she calls a “crusade to help her daughter.” She used nutrition and intensive therapy, and within a year, her daughter was off all medications and able to see, hear and crawl. Today, she can even walk and is doing more than anyone ever expected.
Because of her background, Shirlee is naturally interested in helping others who find themselves in similar situations to those she has experienced. She began doing voluntary informal advocacy for women who left the FLDS community and soon realized she needed to reclaim her dream of higher education if she wanted to be effective. She enrolled in the University of Utah’s social work program and will graduate with a bachelor’s degree in May 2015.
“It’s not my job to “rescue” [these women] from their experiences, and rob them of their wings. It’s my job to shine a light on their inner strength and show them how to reach within the well of their own tremendously abundant beings and use the strength they didn’t know they had to unmask their true selves,” she said. “It’s my responsibility to pass on what Soroptimist has given me: hope in the face of hopelessness and recognizing the possibilities in the impossible.”
Financially, life is difficult for the single mom who works two part-time jobs to make ends meet. Despite her financial struggles and the pressure of juggling her roles as mother, student, employee and volunteer, Shirlee manages to maintain a 4.0 grade point average.
Impressed by Shirlee and her courageousness, SI/Salt Lake City, Utah, selected her as its club-level Live Your Dream Award recipient. She went on to receive the Soroptimist Rocky Mountain Region award, and was ultimately chosen as one of the organization’s three finalists.
“I have actually arrived at a place of gratitude for my experiences, because I realize that without them, I would not have the strength nor the wisdom, to take life full on and enjoy it to its full capacity,” she says. “I laugh as I wonder where I will end up, because if I have learned nothing else by now, I have learned that life will continue to throw challenges at me. And I absolutely know that I have the resilience and tenacity to overcome them and turn them into assets.”
That strength and gratitude, as well as her intense desire to help others, was evident at Soroptimist’s recent biennial convention in Vancouver, Canada. There, Shirlee accepted her $10,000 Live Your Dream award, which she plans to use to start an agency that will provide services to women and teens exiting the FLDS community.
“I plan to create a bridge between this population and existing services, using my knowledge of their history and fears and their unique language to help them understand and utilize what is available to them in terms of education, financial, psychological, and physical support, as well as housing,” said Shirlee. “In addition, we will provide social and emotional supports that are so desperately needed at a time when they are so vulnerable.”
Shirlee graciously stated in her acceptance, “I am so honored to be chosen as a recipient of this award, and I realize that the Live Your Dream Award is not recognition of just me, but of the indomitable female spirit, the human spirit. Life has given me many challenges, yes. Nonetheless there are many women in the world who masquerade as mere mortals every day, performing superhuman feats without a cape. So I hope that with this recognition, I can represent all these women, and that my life will be spent paying it forward to these unsung heroes.”
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