Below is a transcript of Gabrielle’s Aurora Alworth Award acceptance speech at the 2022 Celebration of Achievements held virtually on March 1, 2022. Watch the slide presentation and listen to her speech here: YouTube Event Recording »
Good afternoon, friends:
My name is Gabrielle Michelle Shepherd, and I am a Registered Nurse and a 2021 Austin Community College graduate. I am so excited to receive the Aurora Alworth Spirit award because it reminds me of how much I have overcome and achieved. I know that none of that would have been possible without the support of my family, Austin Can Academy, Capital IDEA, and most importantly, my faith in my Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
By the Grace of God, I overcame abuse and an addiction to drugs and alcohol. Growing up was a traumatic experience. My childhood included an unstable home environment filled with arguing and neglect. I experienced many forms of abuse at the hands of other family members, and all of this led to a lack of self-respect for myself and any sort of hope for a happy life. Then things got even more difficult.
At age 15, I took a pregnancy test, and it was positive. Add to that, my boyfriend of two years, the father of my child, split, and it was time for me to grow up. My mother enrolled me in Austin Can Academy to get my life together. Even though I was technically a sophomore going in, I had only earned two credits from my previous school because I was skipping school, getting high with my friends, and dealing dope with my ex-boyfriend. At Austin Can Academy, I had no choice but to get my crap together.
That first year as a pregnant teenager, I had little to no friends and pretty much stayed to myself and did my work. I was doing well, and about two years later, my old ways sucked me back in. I was about 17 when my addiction to marijuana and other hard substances, coupled with the stress of being a single mom, led to me dropping out of school. This was not the life I had hoped for. I wanted more for myself and my daughter. I wanted to graduate high school, and I wanted to make my parents proud.
A few months after I dropped out, I resolved that I would make it. I had to, not only for me but for my daughter. My mother took me back to Austin Can Academy, and to my surprise, I had 16 credits! I only needed eight credits to graduate, and even though I wasn’t a perfect student, I tried my best. The good news was that I wasn’t alone. Through programs offered at Navarro High School for teen moms and after-school evening classes, I earned my high school diploma at 19!
At this point in the story, I wish I could say that after receiving my diploma, my fairy Godmother appeared, and everything fell into place, but that would be a lie. That same year, I met my future husband. We moved in together, and I started working at a cell phone store. Unfortunately, we both had baggage and pain from our childhood and struggled with our own addictions. He drank, I smoked, and we fought all the time. It was abusive and toxic, and as a result, we also had two miscarriages.
In 2012, two years after I graduated high school, my sister invited me to a church program called Celebrate Recovery. This is a free program available to anyone seeking recovery from addiction. I attended their meetings, and I learned more about addiction and how it affects people in all areas of their lives. I was now pregnant with my second child, and I decided to try and get sober with the help of a CR support group and their 12-step program.
Years later, in 2015, while I was still in the CR program, I met a young woman at my church, and we began to talk. I shared with her my dream of becoming a nurse, and she recommended that I look up a program called Capital IDEA. She said they were currently paying for her education at Austin Community College! It sounded too good to be true. I thought to myself, how am I going to go back to school after all these years, and now I have three kids?
Following this encounter, I remember attending a women’s conference, and the guest speaker spoke about living in “the land of milk and honey.” She said that before we could make it to our own “land of milk and honey,” we must first face our fears. Then she posed these questions: what is your land of milk and honey, and what are you afraid of?
I realized that the first step to getting to my “land of milk and honey” was attending an orientation session at Capital IDEA and learning more about their programs. Much to my dismay, they did not have funding that year for childcare, and they recommended that I try again in the future. I admit that I was discouraged, but I didn’t lose hope! I had a relationship with the Lord and a support system that continued to spur me on. I thought to myself, “that’s ok, maybe it’s not the right season…” but I had a resolve within me; I will go back to school, and I will be a nurse! Of course, I had other thoughts, like “but what if I fail? But what if I don’t make it? But what if I’m not smart enough? What if I’m not good enough? The list goes on and on.
Despite all my fears, I thought, “I must try. If I don’t try and reach my dreams, I will not die in peace!!” It sounds funny (and a bit dramatic looking back at it now), but it’s true! The thought of becoming old and gray and not even trying to reach my goal in life made me so sad.
In 2016, I attended another Capital IDEA info session, and by the Grace of God, they had funding for childcare! At this point in my life, I lived in my mom’s house with my husband, our three kids, my sister, her husband, and their four kids (it was crazy and chaotic, literally). I spoke to my husband and my mom, and they encouraged me to give it a go. I applied and qualified for their program and began school after seven long years in the Spring of 2017.
I was not alone on this journey. I had a Career Navigator that held my hand every step of the way. They believed in me. They told me what to do, who to speak with, which classes to apply for, and more. Since Capital IDEA was paying for mostly everything, I could keep the money I got through financial aid. It really did seem too good to be true, but it wasn’t, and my dream of being a college student was coming true. And as much as I’d love to tell you that now my fairy Godmother came and finally made life easy, that would be a lie too.
College wasn’t easy. I was never a great high school student, and college was even more challenging. I didn’t pass every semester, and I didn’t get straight A’s. I had many setbacks: I lost my beloved dog, Cha-Cha, I had another kid, and I was diagnosed with PTSD from all of my childhood trauma. With obstacles piling up, it was hard not to get discouraged, so it became more and more important for me to prioritize. I had to be intentional every single day about making the right decisions for myself and my future. I attended church and my Celebrate Recovery groups, focused on my studies, stayed true to my sobriety, and built up my support system. And it paid off.
On December 13, 2021, I graduated with my Associate’s Degree in Nursing. On February 7th, I started my dream job as a Medical Surgical Nurse on the 5th floor of Seton Main, one of the Largest Hospitals in Austin, TX! My dream had come true! As I sit back and reflect on my life, I can remember when I was a student in high school, and I never dreamed that I would ever make it this far. I used to be a troubled teen who couldn’t seem to get it together, and my parents were far from proud. And now, my entire family is proud of me.
I am so grateful to everyone who supported me along the way because I know that I couldn’t have done this alone. I want to thank my family, especially my mom, my husband, Santiago Valle, and my kids, Abigail, Joshua, Katherine, and Santiago Santamaria. They all had to sacrifice so much for me to get where I am, and without their support at home, I don’t know how I would’ve done this.
I’m also so grateful for Austin Can Academy, which gave me a second chance at getting a high school diploma. Then my Celebrate Recovery family ultimately gave me the strength and courage to participate in the beautiful and life-giving program of Capital IDEA. Capital IDEA provided me with financial and emotional support as I continued this long and arduous journey. They gave me an opportunity to step out of poverty and transform my future and the lives of my family forever.
Think about that for a moment, my destiny was forever changed because of the opportunity they provided!
And it’s because of that opportunity I can do something I love and am passionate about, which is helping others. As a nurse, I’ll have the chance to help others at the hospital. I was also recently invited to speak at my old school, Austin Can Academy, where I shared my story with other students, hopefully inspiring them to pursue their dreams. And I want to do more! In the future, I’d like to be a part of a program or help create programs for individuals who need assistance with affording healthcare and also programs for behavioral health issues like recovering from addiction. I’m not sure what it will all look like, but my goal is to use everything I have learned, and will learn, in the nursing field to help others, just like so many have helped me.
I’m receiving this award not because I did anything by myself. It’s because of all the people who helped me get here. If I could go back and speak to myself at a young age, I would say, “Hey you, you are doing the best you can. Hold your head up high and never give up. Don’t be afraid to own your mistakes and take responsibility for your own actions. Then, find a group of people who are willing to do life with you and support you.” That’s the message I want to leave you with today. Thank you.
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