Today, I want to tell you about one of the most wonderful people I have ever had the honor of knowing. I love her to pieces and I am so thankful to call her a friend. Meet Tammy!
About a year and a half ago, I got an email from student I had never met who was asking for a letter of support from the President. I called her and asked her to come in so we could chat and figure out what she needed. Within about three minutes of her being in my office, we were both crying and hugging (which DOES NOT HAPPEN TO ME). Tammy has shared her story publicly in numerous venues, including testifying at the state capitol. I have asked her permission to talk about her here, so please know that this story is being shared with her blessing. As a warning, Tammy’s story is filled with some of the worst things that can happen to a person, but as you can see from the picture above, she has rebounded beautifully.
Tammy was born to teenage parents who struggled with drug addiction. When she was two, her father was high and unstable, and he tried to take her life. He was arrested, and that night in jail he hung himself. Tammy holds no ill will towards her dad and believes that he loved her very much. Like so many people who struggle with addiction and mental health issues, he was a different person when he was high and made terrible decisions.
As a child, Tammy experienced significant trauma and abuse from the men in her life. She spent time riding around in the back of big rigs while her mom was engaging in sex work to try and make money for them. Her mother eventually remarried to a man who was abusive. Tammy went in and out of school as they moved frequently. They lived in cars and slept on the floors of drug houses.
When she was around 10, she was in the kitchen when her stepfather stabbed her uncle during a fight. Her uncle shot her stepfather several times and he fired back. Tammy’s uncle was killed right in front of her, but sadly, that bastard stepfather survived. At 12, Tammy dropped out of school and ran away from home to escape him. She spent years in and out of foster care and psychiatric facilities, running away from the homes she was placed in, and was never returned to her mother’s custody.
Tammy loved her mom deeply, and would escape the foster homes to go do drugs with her and the stepfather – even though she hated him. She was desperate to see her mom. At 14, she went to live with her grandparents in Texas. She was allowed to marry a man much older than her and, before long, she was pregnant at 15. Shortly after the birth of her first child, she was pregnant again. She aged out of the foster care system at 18, and was no longer allowed to live with her grandparents.
At 18, she was living on the street with her babies. She started using drugs again and was in and out of jail for drug-related offenses and minor theft. When she was just 21 while pregnant for a third time, the worst happened – her stepfather murdered her mother. He was never prosecuted for her death because there was a lack of evidence, and, as Tammy suspects, nobody really cared that she had died. Tammy was devastated by her mom’s loss. The stepfather is still alive, but is currently in prison for something totally different.
Tammy continued to face homelessness and lived in cars, tents, public restrooms, and motel rooms when she could get them. Because her schooling had been so inconsistent, she was illiterate which made getting a job difficult. She starting using more and engaged in more serious crimes – grand theft auto, receiving stolen property, using and selling drugs, child endangerment, and fraud. She lost custody of her kids and slipped into severe depression. To make matters worse, she had to have open heart surgery at age 27 due to a birth defect that almost killed her.
At 28, her choices caught up to her and she faced up to 10 years in prison. Tammy believes that her time in prison saved her life. For the first time, she received drug treatment. A guard brought her an easy-to-read Bible, and she started learning to read by first pronouncing letters, then words, and then stringing together sentences. She eventually gained enough literacy to take GED courses. She passed and earned her GED while incarcerated.
While she was serving her time, the guards started telling her that she was too smart to be in prison, and that she could do more with her life. She said it was the first time in her life that anyone had ever told her that she was capable of anything. She was released early in 2007, and went straight to a residential drug treatment facility for five months. She was determined to stay clean and was diligent in her recovery. She deeply regrets the harm she caused by her actions, and has been working every day since she was released to be the good in the world.
She graduated from her treatment program in 2008, and immediately enrolled in a local community college. She has not taken a single semester (including summers) off since starting college. She graduated with highest honors for FOUR associates’ degrees, then transferred to Sacramento State in 2015. She has been kicking ass ever since.
Tammy completed her Certificate of Rehabilitation in 2016 and has worked for the Mayor of Sacramento. She testifies at the capitol and lobbies for criminal justice reform, former foster youth, and homelessness.
She served as the president of Project Rebound on campus (a program to support formerly incarcerated students) and is active in the Guardian Scholars program (a program to support former foster youth). She has earned her credentials as a California Association of Alcoholism and Drug Abuse Counselor. Most importantly, this summer she will celebrate 13 years of sobriety and a life free of crime. She is close to her grandchildren and is rebuilding her relationships with her kids. A few years ago, she was formally adopted by a family in her church, and she is thrilled to have two wonderful and loving parents in her life.
She volunteers at so many places that support people facing homelessness and other struggles that I could never list them all. She doesn’t have any money, but she once put a week’s worth of expenses on her credit card to keep an elderly woman from being kicked out of a motel. She spends her weekends working at homeless shelters and checking on elderly people. She says that she remembers what it was like to have no one, and she is determined to be “the person” for as many people as she can. She has one biggest and kindest hearts of anyone I have ever known.
The day before Thanksgiving, I drove downtown to testify on her behalf before the parole board. She was applying for a full pardon from the Governor, and I ugly cried through the whole thing. For almost two hours, person after person got up to talk about who she is today and why she deserves a new start. In December, she was granted her full pardon. We held a party for her in February, and celebrated her achievements with her friends, family, and people who have supported her along the way. It was wonderful and she deserves every bit of praise.
Yesterday, I got to watch this wonderful woman cross the stage to earn her bachelor’s degree in psychology. So many people who grow up facing the challenges and horrors that Tammy did never get a chance to do things differently. I have no idea what it is like to experience what she has, but she amazes me. She has not only survived and overcome addiction, but she had done it without a single bit of bitterness or anger. She is the most compassionate person, and she has endless joy and appreciation for her life. She is currently looking for a job and applying to graduate school. I am so proud to know her and to be a part of her life, and I know she will accomplish whatever she puts her mind to.