Brenda Combs: Making The Right Choice

Brenda Combs: Making The Right Choice

How often does a teenage girl drop out of high school, and then, a couple of decades later, transform herself into a nationally recognized teacher with a Masters in Special Education? Probably, not too often. What about a teenager who drops out of high school, and in almost no time at all, thanks to crack cocaine, finds herself a hopeless crack addict? Her chances are getting worse. Now add this to the dreadful story: As our teenage dropout “grows into adulthood” on drugs, she is homeless in the city streets, sleeping in alleys, under bridges and abandoned buildings, scrounging in trash cans for food. She’s often beaten, suffers a rape or two, a stabbing or two, and gets shot (accidentally - she wasn’t the intended target) in a drive-by shooting. And don’t forget how this kind of abysmal life is always punctuated by lots of police, courts, jail time and probations. Chances now for a Masters degree, with a PhD just around the corner?

Zip. Zero. Zilch. Nil, nada, none. Or so one would think. But we’d only be thinking that if we hadn’t heard the story of Brenda Combs, of Phoenix, AZ. Once you hear Benda’s story, you’ll never think “hopeless” again. Brenda Combs came from a decent family in Northern Arizona. She attended decent schools and could look forward to a normal, even happy life. But Brenda Combs went a different direction, took a detour, dropped out of high school and for two decades, managed to get all the way down to the bottom of society in the first 10 years, and then all the way back up again in the second 10 - surpassing, on the way, whatever dreams she might have had way back in high school. “I had self-esteem problems as a kid,” she told a television reporter not long ago, “and that’s what led to the drugs. I fell in with a bad crowd, and...” We’ve all heard that story before. And happy endings to such stories are unusual indeed.

Just Brenda Combs’ drive-by shooting incident, for example, doesn’t portend a happy ending, never mind a decade of homeless drug addiction. Brenda was on the sidewalk talking to some guy, and a car pulled up. She saw the guns come out the windows - she holds both her hands up and points her fingers to illustrate the moment - and the shooting started. “They were actually shooting at the guy I was talking to,” she said, “they weren’t looking for me.” The guy grabbed her and pulled her down to the ground, apparently trying to protect her. But the shooting continued, and Brenda took a bullet in the ankle. It was a terrible wound, shattering the bone, and she still bears an ugly scar today. After getting out of the hospital, Brenda went right back to the streets, and the drugs. Such is the way of drug addicts who have not yet come to terms with their lives and their addictions. So there were beatings, rapes, stabbings and shootings. But when asked what was the worst part of living on the streets, Brenda told a CNN interviewer a few years ago that the worst things about street life were “not being able to take a shower, looking through trash cans for food, not feeling safe to sleep at night.” Didn’t you want to get out? “At that time, I didn’t think there was a way out.” So how did Brenda Combs get out of it? A family intervention? She suddenly ‘got religion’?

No. It was, in fact, a pair of shoes. Or actually, the lack of them. One morning, Brenda woke up in an alley, and discovered that someone had stolen her shoes right off her feet, while she slept the dead sleep of a drug addict. Phoenix in the summer can get well over 100 degrees, making the pavement scorching hot. She started to walk in her bare feet, and was soon painfully blistered. A homeless woman with no shoes will soon be victimized, she says, because she can’t run for help. But the whole thing, her life, her addiction, it all just came crashing down around her. “It was the last straw,” she said. “I had to walk a mile with no shoes on, in 115-degree heat, and that was it for me. Really, I just made the decision that I have to change my life, or I’m going to die out on the streets.” Her boyfriend at the time took her to her brother’s house, her brother took her to the probation office (she had been in and out of jail numerous times) and from there she was able to find a half-way house to take her. For the next year she did a drug rehab program and lived in a halfway house for women. She got involved with a church, started singing, writing songs, and credits the support from her family and friends as important factors in her successful rehab. Her first job during this period was as a part-time teacher at a school located in an at-risk neighborhood not far from the streets that had been her ‘home’.

As she worked with these special children she knew she had found her life’s calling, to teach and inspire by sharing her own story of overcoming tremendous obstacles. Before the college degrees, even before getting fully accredited as a teacher, Brenda remembered that morning without her shoes. In 1999, she established the Finding My Shoes Foundation, to provide shoes to the homeless population of the city. “Most people don’t realize the value of one pair of shoes, but the homeless do when they live on the streets of Phoenix and it is 105 degrees outside,” she said. “Being without a decent pair of walking shoes limits your ability to get the basics like food and water, so I am determined that people don’t suffer like I did when my Converse [a brand of shoes] were stolen off my feet. I know what it means to have your very own towel to wash your face, when you live in an alley. I know what it means to have your very own soap and shampoo.” A decade of incredibly hard work followed while she completely turned her life around, and totally ended her dependence on drugs. Working 2 or 3 jobs, she completed enough studies to make it into the University of Phoenix, where she earned her B.A. in Human Services, and in short order got a Masters in Special Ed at Grand Canyon University in Phoenix.

She now is working hard on her Doctorate. When she became a teacher, Brenda would tell her students, “Whatever it is you want to be, whatever it is you want to do, it’s up to you. Make the right choice!” Brenda taught Elementary grades at the Starshine Academy, Phoenix, taught kindergarten at Tutor Time for a year or so, and taught 1-3 grade elementary and 4-8 grade language arts at Bright Ideas, a Charter School. She is now CEO of Brenda Combs Enterprises LLC, and works as a motivational speaker. She is also a board member of the Phoenix Rescue Mission, and is Ambassador of Inspiration & Achievement at the Grand Canyon University in Phoenix, Arizona. Brenda has been inducted into the Who’s Who of America’s Teachers, was chosen one of the best teachers of the year for the 2005-2006 school year, and was listed on the National Deans List in 2004, 2005, and 2006. She received a letter of recognition from First Lady Laura Bush in 2007, received A Distinguished Teacher Award from Grand Canyon University in 2007, a Phoenix Mercury WNBA 2008 Inspiring Woman of the Year Award and a Spirit of Education Award from University of Phoenix. She is a member of Cambridge Who’s Who, and is listed in the Who’s Who Among America’s Teachers.

From homeless to heroine - and Brenda says no single or particular program enabled her to overcome her addiction and achieve her goals. “The difference was me,” she said. “I finally made the decision that I’m going to take suggestions, and I’m going to do whatever they tell me to do, whether I like it or not. And that’s what I did. I am not living my life ‘in recovery’. I am recovered.”

At Novus, we strive to help our patients on their journey to full recovery. They have each made that all-important decision to make the transition to a new life, and we applaud them.

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