Overcoming Obstacles: 3 women put a difficult past behind for success

The women you are about to meet in this article changed my life. I once considered myself a godly woman of faith, with a heart for the less fortunate, a strong will, honorable in my intentions and striving to do my part to make this world a better place. But I was wrong. I have not even begun to tap into my potential. The women within these pages are the definition of strong, godly, honorable, capable, and I don’t feel worthy to tell their stories. But I will do my best. These warrior women, as I have come to think of them, endured a myriad of circumstances including poverty, discrimination, lack of education and a brutally abusive childhood and went on to fulfill dreams and destinies far beyond the reach of the common woman. And they’re not done yet. I hope their stories touch your lives as they have touched mine, for each is unique, and each will inspire you to believe in the impossible, work harder and persevere.

They are not simply victims. They are more than survivors. They are women who refused to let circumstance guide their destiny, and instead, paved their own roads to success and happiness on every level.

Melissa Anderson

Her earliest memory is of her father beating her little brother until they thought he was dead. “He was only 3 years old,” Melissa recalls. “My parents wouldn’t call 911 because they didn’t want to get caught, so they put him in the bathtub and left him there.” This first memory exemplifies the horrific childhood Melissa and her 16 siblings endured in the small desert town of Apple Valley in Southern California. “My parents ran the gantlet of abuse,” Melissa states. “Physical, emotional and sexual abuse; also physical and educational neglect.” Her stories of daily starvation, beatings, strangulation and torture are so horrific, so unimaginable, I want to cover my face and hide from her words. Yet Melissa’s voice is calm, almost soothing, though there is no mistaking the note of steely determination behind her words. She has told this story before. And she will tell it again and again, for it is her calling. “People don’t understand the nature of abuse because it is too ugly to look at,” she says. “If we refuse to look at abuse, it is going to keep raging, and children will continue to suffer.” Pulled from school in the fifth grade, Melissa, the oldest daughter, was left to care for her younger siblings while her parents were out with friends all day. “The school system was noticing signs of abuse and reporting it, so my father decided to home-school us,” she says. Although numerous reports were made to Child Protective Services by the school and their church, in the end, Melissa and her siblings were left to fend for themselves, as much victims of our justice system as they were of their parents. “I still feel that someone should have known. Someone should have done something,” she muses.

Despite her young age, Melissa was in charge of taking care of her brothers and sisters: “I did my best to make sure they got something to eat. I was in charge of their education. I tried to protect them. I cared for them 24 hours a day.” It was Melissa who cleaned them, medicated them, put them to sleep in her own bed, dried their tears and took countless blows for them when she could. And it was this responsibility to her siblings that kept her going through endless days of hell and virtually complete isolation from the outside world. “I had nothing outside of the home; no contact with anyone. Every once in a while they took us to church, but that was a farce. Aside from that, we never left the house,” she recalls. The children were not even allowed in the front yard, only the back yard for short periods of time and only with permission. But Melissa refused to give up. “I had to take care of my siblings. There wasn’t time to worry about myself. And I had this innate belief that there was someone out there who wanted me and loved me,” she recalls. “I clung to religion like crazy, no matter how much my parents tried to beat it out of me. It was my safety net.” Yet she admits she had no idea that there was something different out there. Something better. “Abused children don’t have any other idea of normal,” she explains. “Normal for me was being beaten, starved and watching my brother tortured. That was normal to me. I thought all families were like mine. I thought everyone had secrets.”

Melissa’s turning point came at the age of 17, when she joined the Army and left behind the nightmare of her childhood for good. “The Army was my saving grace. I had to get out. I didn’t even know how badly I had to get out, until I was out,” she says. In basic training, deep in the heart of South Carolina, Melissa began to experience some normalcy for the first time. “It was in the Army that I was fed daily until I was full,” she laughs ruefully. “All my peers were complaining about how awful the food was, and I thought it was the best thing I had ever tasted in my life!” She saw tall, beautiful trees like she had never seen before; watched people interacting with each other, showing kindness to one another, and she began socializing with people outside of her family for the first time since she was a young child. The Army brought many other good things to Melissa’s life. It was there that she met her husband, Jared, whom she describes as amazing. “He never saw me as broken. He just saw me as me.” They were married in 2001, and at the tender age of 19, nine months later, Melissa gave birth to their first child. “It was the scariest thing. I’d seen torture, but nothing was as scary as holding this baby in my arms. I was so afraid I would hurt her. I didn’t know how not to hurt her,” she says.

But she was determined. Melissa spent hours sitting in public parks and libraries watching other mothers interacting with their children. “I watched these mothers touching and hugging their babies. I’d never seen mothers touch their children so much. I thought it was unnatural. Personal touch was hard at first,” she says. Now, with six children of their own and one adopted sibling, Melissa’s sister, Kayli, Melissa has mastered the art of love and touch. “My kids have absolutely no concept of personal space,” she laughs. The Army also brought about the counseling Melissa needed to open up about her abuse. Following the death of her oldest brother in 2007, Melissa began receiving grief and trauma counseling. It was during this therapy that she first began to speak about the abuse she had suffered as a child and working through the grief of surviving abuse. Even her husband had no idea of the atrocities she had endured in her childhood. “I could finally say it was wrong,” she recalls. “It shouldn’t have happened, and it’s not my shame.” During this time of healing, Melissa also began to feel a conviction to do something about the abuse she and her siblings had endured. She spoke with her younger brother (the recipient of the majority of torture inflicted by their father while she was living at home and now a decorated sergeant in the Army) and convinced him to press charges. Melissa and six of her siblings served as witnesses. In 2009, Richard Jay Swank was arrested, tried and sentenced to life plus 96 years in prison for his crimes.

Though she had only made it through fifth grade, Melissa was determined to continue her education. She began taking classes at a junior college doing basic math and reading. She then transferred to another junior college, where she received an associate degree. The University of Arizona was next, where she earned a 4.0 GPA and received her bachelor’s degree in political science and history with a minor in Mandarin Chinese. She took the LSAT, scoring in the top 50 percent of the nation, and was accepted to St. Mary’s Law School, where she graduated in the top 20 percent of her class this year. All this while having and raising their seven children and serving in the Inactive Reserves. In 2010, she wrote and published an illustrated children’s book, The Big Fib, which is available on Amazon.com. She has also written a memoir about her life that she is hoping to have published: “It’s a story of triumph; a story of healing. It’s the story of making it when nobody thought you could.” Melissa intends to use her law degree to help other children who are victims of abuse, explaining, “I want to change some laws to better protect children. And I want to raise awareness about what children in our country go through.” In February, she will return to active duty as an Army lawyer in the Judge Advocate General Corps. Her message to other victims of abuse? “The best way to thumb your nose at your abuser is to succeed,” she states firmly. “The shame of abuse is not yours, it belongs solely with the person that abused you. There is nothing shameful in having survived abuse. And although the pain will never go away, that pain is sanctifying. You don’t have to look at the pain of surviving as something ugly. It can be beautiful. It’s the one thing that you have left, and you will have to live with it your whole life. But you can. You can make it through, and you will be stronger for it.”

Consuelo Castillo Kickbusch

Born to immigrant parents and raised in El Rincon del Diablo (The Devil’s Den) in Laredo, Consuelo Castillo Kickbusch is no stranger to the darker, seedier side of life. “The bus wouldn’t come into my neighborhood,” she recalls. “The police wouldn’t come to my neighborhood until after the ambulance did. It is hard to emerge from that type of community with any sort of positiveness. The negativity was overwhelming.” Growing up, Consuelo encountered many challenges that threatened to entrap her and imprison her in a world of poverty, ignorance and despair. “Poverty was so ravishing and debilitating, you sort of already knew all the other outcomes of it: drug addiction, crime, illiteracy, alcoholism,” she recalls. “My mother suffered from mental illness, and, of course, we didn’t have insurance. There was no medical plan for the poor. No outreach clinics to help her.” She describes life in the Devil’s Den as being surrounded by ignorant innocence — “You don’t know what you don’t know.” And she recalls dark times in her childhood that threatened to pull her deeper into the black abyss of the despair. Between the ages of 9 and 12, Consuelo was sexually abused by a neighbor. “My mother was suffering from her most severe bouts of mental illness,” she explains. “I felt so alone.” One day, Consuelo found herself hiding out in the chicken coop and praying. “It dawned on me, I had gotten into a cage: the chicken’s cage. The chickens couldn’t get out, but I wasn’t like those chickens. I could get out. I went to bed and said to myself, tomorrow will come and tomorrow will be a better day.”

Despite her family’s extreme poverty and the rough, forbidding neighborhood she called home, Consuelo recalls being blessed in other ways: “My family was rich in culture, identity and values.” She credits her parents with giving her the ability to look beyond the world she knew to a better life. “I never once heard them complain about their circumstances. I never once heard them express hate or bitterness. On the contrary. They always preached love and forgiveness. I would always see my mother and father work to solve their problems; take an extra job, whatever it took. And they loved this country.” Spirituality has also been a fundamental part of Consuelo’s life. “From early on, I learned there was a power much greater than me,” she says. “I embraced that spirituality. It is something that is embedded in me. I know in my heart that I am one with my God, and I share my relationship with my God.” And this spirituality helped get her through the most difficult times in her childhood. After graduating from high school (“just barely,” she laughs), Consuelo began attending a local junior college, where she was befriended by one of the college recruiters. “Mr. Cooper introduced me to the library. It was the tipping point for me. I found answers to so many of my questions. I became addicted to reading.” Hardin Simmons University, “my second saving grace,” says Consuelo, came next, where she met another man who would be instrumental in changing her life. “Dr. Bridges is the second person I owe my life to. He helped me to know more about myself. He would not accept mediocrity. He would say, ‘I’m not going to let you be another statistic.’” At Hardin Simmons, Consuelo was first introduced to the military. “I thought I was joining a little social group called the ROTC,” she laughs.

Following graduation from HSU, Consuelo entered the U.S. Army as an officer. “The Army was a great fit for me,” she says proudly. “It was high-energy and based on merit. I didn’t only want to be looked at as a Mexican and a woman. I wanted to be looked at for what I worked hard at. I wanted to be judged on my performance, on my commitment, on my knowledge. The Army is the greatest example of diversity in America.” For the next 20 years, Consuelo served in the military, where she became the highest-ranking Hispanic woman in the Combat Support Field of the U.S. Army. In 1996, she was offered a position for a Battalion Command, an eight-year commitment that would put her on the path to the higher-ranking world of the Army. Instead, to the dismay of many, she chose to retire and fulfill her mother’s dying wish of returning to her roots and becoming a community leader. “My mother was deeply hurt by the lack of human respect she saw in our old neighborhood, the shift toward violence in our community,” Consuelo recalls. “She told me ‘You have been so blessed and so fortunate to be educated, worldly, to have what many in the community are still struggling to find. You are a leader, a voice. So what have you done for the voiceless?’ She told me ‘You are on a journey, but you will always be that little girl from Devil’s Den. How dare you focus on yourself and improving your life when others are dying?’”

Consuelo took her mother’s dying words to heart. From that time forward, she dedicated her life to telling her story and helping other children that come from similar backgrounds to see the potential their lives hold. She began humbly by speaking to an auditorium filled with elementary school students. Word of her incredible story of triumph quickly spread. “I have never advertised,” she says. “It is all word-of-mouth.” She began her business, Educational Achievement Services, Inc., a human development company dedicated to helping at-risk children succeed in school and in life, and at-risk families stay together. Speaker, author, Army veteran and educator, Consuelo now shares her message globally and continues to mentor the youth of America through educational programs, motivational speaking engagements, books and CDs that highlight her message of leadership and education. Her reward? Watching countless young people who have heard her message turn their lives around and find a meaningful purpose in their lives. “For me, giving back to environments like I grew up in is a blessing,” she says proudly. “I want to be part of the change. I love this great nation because change begins with me, and then change has to be passed on.” Consuelo’s message is simple: This too shall pass. “People who are hurting want to know ‘when will this end?’ They recognize first and foremost their biggest enemy is within them. So I tell them, ‘If you think you can’t, then you won’t. But if you know that you want to, then you will.’ I remind them to laugh because it’s important to laugh and smile. Don’t carry the hate and bitterness.”

Married to retired Lt. Col. David Allen Kickbusch for 20 years, Consuelo is the mother of five daughters and grandmother to two grandchildren with one on the way.

Dr. Maria Hernandez Ferrier

Like many little girls before her, Maria Hernandez Ferrier dreamed of being a good wife and mother when she grew up. Born and raised in a barrio on San Antonio’s West Side, Maria had loving parents who raised her with the traditional values and expectations of many young Mexican girls in the ‘50s. “I was blessed with parents who, though poor in financial resources, were rich in faith and love,” she recalls. “High school was thought to be the terminal degree and a reason for great celebration. I was not encouraged to think about college. In fact, young girls were expected to marry, have children (in that order) and become good wives and mothers, period.” Maria did just that. But life has a way of changing even the best laid plans, and at the age of 30, Maria found herself divorced, without income, and with two young children, ages 7 and 9, to support. To top it off, she had never learned to drive. Drawing from the foundation of love and faith her parents had instilled in her, Maria looked bravely toward an uncertain future. Her first job was a position as an aide at the 24th Street Mental Health and Mental Retardation (MHMR) Center, making minimum wage, approximately $1.60 per hour. The center was for children with severe retardation, many nonambulatory and most nonverbal. It was here at MHMR where she met Carol Tuell, a speech pathologist and director of the center, who would become pivotal in her life. “After I had been working at MHMR for several months, Carol asked me why I was not in college. I told her, without even hesitating, that I was not college material,” she recalls. But Carol did not give up, continuing to encourage Maria to enroll in the local community college. “Finally, she said to me, ‘Maria, if I find a way to pay for your first semester at SAC, would you at least give college a try?’ Years later, I learned that even though she was struggling financially, she paid for that semester for me out of her own pocket. Carol’s faith in me made me begin to believe in myself, and I was motivated to work hard and prove that I was worthy of the sacrifice she had made,” she says. Making the decision to go to college, to try to better her life and her children’s lives, was not easy. “After the divorce I felt worthless and totally inadequate,” she recalls. “I had to overcome the mindset that I was not college material. I remember how in high school I was grateful for the poodle skirt my mom had made me that hid my shaking knees as I walked into math class!” she laughs. But overcome it she did. Maria went on to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree in speech and a Master of Education in guidance and counseling from Our Lady of the Lake University, then a Doctorate of Education Administration from Texas A&M University. Maria attributes her ability to overcome her difficult start to “a firm belief in and personal relationship with God and surrendering my life to His purpose.” One of her favorite books is Rick Warren’s Purpose Driven Life. “I know that many of the obstacles I have overcome have actually worked to my advantage, and that when we turn our lives to His purpose and for His honor and glory, all things work together for good,” she says.

Maria first received national attention while serving as a school counselor at Windcrest Elementary on the north side of San Antonio. During her tenure there, two significant incidents occurred that set in motion a series of events that would pave Maria’s road to Washington, D.C. During her first week at Windcrest, a young girl was kidnapped while waiting for her parents to pick her up after school. Luckily, the girl was returned unharmed the next day, but Maria saw a need and set out to fulfill it: “I started a program called Safety Kids — fifth-graders were paired up as mentors for kindergarteners and first-graders for after-school pick-up. The fifth-graders were introduced to the parents of the younger children and knew who each child was allowed to go home with. Safety Kids received a lot of media attention.” The second incident involved a third-grade student at Windcrest Elementary who was hit and killed by a drunk driver while getting into the family van in front of her aunt’s house. “My office was flooded with children needing counseling, and nothing was working,” Maria recalls. “These kids felt helpless. That is when grief and depression set in. So we started doing research on drunk drivers in Texas and found that our laws were very lax. These third-graders started writing to our legislators. We had a huge assembly and started the very first Students Against Drunk Drivers (SADD) chapter in the nation.” The assembly was attended by the governor and ended up on the cover of USA Today. Maria’s pattern of seeing a need, then setting out to fulfill it, is what eventually took her from the counselor’s office at an elementary school in San Antonio all the way to director of the Office of English Language Acquisition, Language Enhancement and Academic Achievement for Limited English Proficient Students in the U.S. Department of Education during the George W. Bush administration. Though it wasn’t a straight shot, each step of her career affected the next, opening doors and providing her with opportunities to make changes and affect people’s lives.

It seems that wherever she goes, Maria leaves a legacy of accomplishments in her wake, including the creation, development and implementation of many highly successful programs, including City Year, Partners in Pride, the Southwest ISD/Kelly AFB Mentoring Partnership, Helping Academic Leadership through Theater, and the multi-district Partnership School for expelled and adjudicated youngsters, just to name a few. According to Maria, it’s all about faith and attitude: “As Charles Swindoll once said, ‘The longer I live, the more I realize the impact of attitude on life.’ I’m convinced that my attitude toward life has a direct impact on life’s attitude toward me. We cannot change our past or the fact that people will act in a certain way. We cannot change the inevitable. I am convinced that life is 10 percent what happens to me and 90 percent how I react to it.” In 2010, Maria was named the inaugural president of Texas A&M University-San Antonio, and with this endeavor, she has set her goals high. “I want to grow Texas A&M University-San Antonio into a world-class university that graduates experts in their chosen fields,” she states proudly. “The majority of our students mirror my own life experience. They are nontraditional, many with families. It is critical that their time and effort in earning a college degree meet their expectations to prepare them for the work force and take them to a higher level of economic success.”

And she takes these goals very seriously. Despite her numerous honors, national positions and appointments, Maria’s values remain firmly rooted in her convictions and following God’s plan for her life. She explains, “I want to be worthy of the trust that the wonderful TAMU System Board of Regents have afforded me in this position. To be faithful to our students and to be a good steward of the tax dollars that support us. To be a good daughter, mom and grandmother and to be a good friend. To never forget that all that I am and all that I have comes from my Creator and that at the end of each day, to be able to look in the mirror and know that I have given it my all.”

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