Tragedies to triumphs
Five amazing women stood before a crowd last week to talk about the struggles they have faced in life.
Collectively, the women had overcome child and domestic abuse, addiction, the loss of loved ones, challenging living conditions, a lack of food on the table, poverty, language barriers, moving to a new country and dropping out of high school.
Despite circumstances that could cripple the best of others, the women were not only able to survive the trauma, but thrive, and are now energetically pursuing career and education goals. Soroptimist International of Gresham honored them during an award and sponsor gratitude luncheon Thursday afternoon, Feb. 21, at the Gresham Elks Lodge.
"This is a very special day for us," said Soroptimist President Patricia Smith. "Today is our signature event."
The Soroptimist Live Your Dream awards go to women who provide the primary source of financial support for their families. The recipients are given the resources they need to improve their education, skills and employment prospects. This year the group awarded $11,500.
Recipients this year include Carolina Barbosa Bello, Ali Swetland, Jhossahandy Orbe Ramos, and Danielle Tindol. In addition to the Live Your Dream Awards, the group also gave Lelah Beckerle the June Jacobs Memorial award — named after the former president who passed away in March 2018.
The money received doesn't have to be used on books or school tuition. Instead, the recipients can use the funds to offset any costs preventing them from succeeding in school, including child care, transportation and electricity bills.
The ceremony makes for an emotional afternoon as the recipients share their powerful stories. The room is filled with members of the Soroptimists and sponsors, without whom the ceremony would not be possible. The presenting sponsors were Riverview Community Bank, Mt. Hood Community College (MHCC) and Weston Kia. Families and friends of the winners were also present to cheer on their loved ones.
Carolina Barbosa Bello
When Barbosa Bello was growing up in Mexico, she was always drawn to animals. She felt a special bond with all of them, but especially her grandfather's black puppy. The dog loved to follow her grandfather around everywhere he went, which ended up causing an accident one afternoon when he was working in the fields with a machete.
Her grandfather rushed back to his house, where Barbosa Bello saw the bloody cut on the dog. Together they took the dog to a local clinic where the doctor treated the animal with stiches and pain medication.
"That is when I knew I wanted to help animals as well," Barbosa Bello said.
But that dream was put on hold. Her mother moved the family to the United States when Barbosa Bello was 13-years-old. The language barrier was difficult for Barbosa Bello to overcome. In Mexico she was a fantastic student, but here her education suffered because she didn't understand what her teachers were saying.
Things got better in high school as her English improved, but she said some bad decisions derailed things further.
Barbosa Bello became pregnant at 17 and had to drop out of school. She then became pregnant with a second child. She made a tough decision to leave her abusive marriage, raising her two young kids as a single mother.
"I wanted to change my life and do better for myself," she said. "My life felt incomplete and I wanted to go back to school."
Barbosa Bello learned about and joined the Transiciones Program at Mt. Hood Community College. Now she is finally working to finally become a veterinarian. She also encouraged her younger sister to also attend MHCC.
"Everything is possible if you work hard and believe in yourself," she said. "I have no words to explain how grateful I am to be here."
Swetland is a single mother who has overcome childhood abuse, domestic violence, homelessness and drug addiction. Now she has a dream of helping other women who find themselves in the same situations.
"I am a survivor of many adversities throughout my life," she said. "I have come out on the other side with great strength and resilience."
Swetland completed her degree in Mental Health, Social Services and Addiction Counseling at MHCC, and was excited to announce at the ceremony that she had been accepted into Portland State University. Her ultimate goal is to become a certified alcohol and drug counselor.
"I want to heal other women," Swetland said. "I am living my dream of working with women in addiction."
Jhossahandy Orbe Ramos
Orbe Ramos suffered abuse and trauma as a young girl in Mexico, so she made the tough decision to leave her family and move to the United States in search of an education and safety for herself and her sister.
Now she is attending MHCC and is focused on improving her English. She is also in a Certified Nursing Assistant program, which will help her reach her goal of becoming a nurse.
"Thank you everyone," Orbe Ramos said.
While raising four kids, Tindol has never let anything deter her from achieving her dreams. And now, she is closer than ever to becoming a surgical technician after recently graduating from the Transitions Program at MHCC.
"Life is so precious, and even though struggles remain the same, I have taken my trauma to be something I can teach my kids," Tindol said.
As a single mom, she had to overcome depression and anxiety to focus on her education while pursuing the health and happiness of both her and her children and herself.
Tindol is currently taking pre-requisite classes at the college. While she is enjoying them all, it is her biology course that resonates with her.
"Biology is all about bonding, connecting and growing," she said. "A lot of people don't know where to find love. We could all use more connections and love."
The June Jacobs Memorial award was given to a woman who matched its namesake's passion for helping others.
Beckerle, the recipient, is attending Warner Pacific University and studying human development with a future plan of becoming a licensed therapist. She wants to continue her education with a master's degree in psychology.
She was the first in her family to complete high school and attend college.
A single mother who overcame addiction, Beckerle is celebrating her ninth year of sobriety.
"With my struggles, I believe I can reach women and children and give hope to where they are going," she said.
June Jacobs spent eight years with the Gresham chapter of the Soroptimists, serving as the president twice. She was heavily involved with the Gresham Teddy Bear Parade, and was always willing to drop everything for a friend.
"When we lost my mother last year, we lost a woman who wanted to find goodness in everyone," said her daughter Michelle Anderson. "This (award) is exactly what she would have wanted to have carry on her name."
Early on during the awards ceremony, a small technical hiccup delayed the proceedings.
The main microphone had run out of batteries in the middle of a speech. As the group was searching for a solution, up jumped Greg Matthews. The retired chief of Gresham Fire and Emergency Services apparently wasn't quite ready to give up putting out fires — at least metaphorical ones.
"Greg has always been there to help us when we needed him," said Carol Nielsen, a member of the Soroptimists. "We appreciate all he does for us."
For his decades of support to the organization, and for finding a spare set of batteries, Matthews was named an Honorary Soroptimist.
"The Soroptimists are very near and dear to my heart," Matthews said. "I have three daughters and a strong, powerful wife. The fact you are supporting women means the world to me."
You can see the honorary member yourself this fall during the annual Gresham Teddy Bear Parade, where Matthews will once again be reprising his role of emcee alongside Nielsen. The two have vowed they will coordinate better this year to avoid donning matching outfits.
"I'll call you," Matthews said with a laugh.
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