About three dozen graduates, with robes of green — a color that signifies life, renewal and energy, proudly stood in front of family and friends at a conference room at the Hilton Garden Inn in Watertown on the evening of June 13. Cheers erupted as they moved their golden tassels from one side of their mortarboards to the other, symbolizing that these high school equivalency graduates were also ready to move on to the next phases and challenges of their lives.
They all came to this intimate ceremony and point in their lives on different paths. Two of the graduates, Elizabeth D. Dornford, 36, and Brian McCasland, 26, gave brief speeches about the obstacles and detours in their lives, which they and the others are turning around with the help of the Division of Continuing Education at Jefferson-Lewis Board of Cooperative Educational Services.
“Someone once told me that there are no mistakes, only lessons,” Elizabeth told the gathering. “Dreams are only dreams, without goals and without failure, there’s no success. I am living proof. I’m a 36-year-old woman, and I have overcome addiction, the loss of four beautiful daughters, institutions and jail.”
“I had a lot of help and really had to get my priorities together at a time in my life where I was so accustomed to working two full time jobs that I almost didn’t complete this program,” Brian said.
The equivalency program graduation is always a high point of the year for Stephen J. Todd, BOCES district superintendent.
“It celebrates the success of people who have overcome adversity and struggle, and who have found success in spite of those great challenges,” he said. “All student successes are wonderful, and we celebrate them all. But when folks find success after sacrifice, struggle, and enormous effort, it is especially sweet for all of us to share in their joy and celebration.”
Five days after the graduation ceremony, I met with Elizabeth and Brian at BOCES headquarters in Watertown. The excitement of the ceremony was still evident as they both eagerly looked forward to the next stages in their lives. But part of their success is how they found the strength and good sense to better themselves.
‘I needed help’
Elizabeth, now a Watertown resident who was born in Gouverneur, grew up in the Finger Lakes region and dropped out of school in 10th grade. As a school student, she could never settle in because her mom, she said, was constantly on the move. She attended several schools.
“Every time I’d make friends, we’d end up moving again,” she said. “One thing I know is that when you’re little, you need that stability, consistency and normalcy.”
She said a problem with drinking began when she moved to Fort Sill, Okla., with her now ex-husband. Elizabeth has six children total. When she moved to Fort Sill, she had three children and was pregnant with the fourth.
“It was quite overwhelming to move to a different state with no family and no friends,” Elizabeth said. “It went from zero to 60 from that point forward. I was always tired, stressed and worried.”
She moved back to this area five years ago.
“My family was all up here and I needed help,” she said. “I was trying to get into recovery and away from the drinking.”
She recalled her life’s low point:
“When I woke up in jail facing nine charges.”
Her charges eventually led to two misdemeanors, she said. A Watertown Daily Times’ police brief headline from October of 2015 starkly highlighted her situation at that time: “Police: Woman too drunk to care for her children.” Her four daughters were ages 6, 7, 9 and 11 at the time.
On Jan. 9, 2017, Elizabeth entered St. Joseph’s Addiction Treatment & Recovery Center in Saranac Lake.
“I chose that program because it had the GED program, and I have six kids,” she said.
The high school equivalency program is commonly referred to as the “GED,” but in 2014, New York state selected the Test Assessing Secondary Completion exam to replace the General Educational Development (GED). It is one of four pathways to obtaining a high school equivalency degree in the state. There are five subtests on TASC: reading, writing (grammar questions and an essay), social studies, science and math.
“More importantly, I just wanted to show my girls that no matter what, you can overcome anything,” Elizabeth said. “Education has always been really important to me when it came to my kids. You have to practice what you preach.”
Her four girls were “adopted out” of foster care last year because of her addiction.
“That was rough,” she said.
She has two other children by an ex-boyfriend. Her oldest and youngest are both boys. One son, 19, attends Finger Lakes Community College in Canandaigua. The other is age 7. He lives with an aunt and uncle, but Elizabeth expects to get custody of him before the new school year.
After nine month’s at St. Joseph’s, Elizabeth continued her high school equivalency degree preparation at BOCES. She lacked 22 points from passing the math part of her TASC testing.
“Everything else was pretty easy for me,” she said. “The math, was just, I don’t even know how to explain that. You’re 19 years out of school and all of a sudden math has done like a complete 360.”
She learned of her successful math exam results in February, which led to the June 13 ceremony at Hilton Garden Inn, where Sue Peters-Bush, BOCES Adult Literacy/Workforce Development Instructor, asked her to speak.
“She keeps working to meet her own personal challenges because she has a vision of what she wants for her and her children,” Ms. Peters-Bush said. “Remember that saying about falling down six times and getting up seven times? That’s Liz. She has the potential to help other people see the possibilities for their own lives. I guess I just really felt that she had something important to say to everyone in that room.”
This month, Elizabeth begins summer classes at Jefferson Community College and this fall, she’ll be a full-time student there. She plans on getting a degree in chemical dependency.
“Everybody tells me that everything that I’ve been through, what life has handed me, and by the choices that I’ve made, that I could definitely help people,” Elizabeth said. “Nothing is worse than having a counselor who says they understand and they don’t understand. Or a counselor who has never experienced a hangover or what it means to wake up in the morning and need something to just — make it feel better, or to keep functioning.”
She was asked whether she thought this day, a time when her future looks bright, would ever come.
“No. It’s still hard to believe. I never thought that I would have kids that were being adopted,” she said. “I never used to drink. I still wonder what made me turn that way. But there’s no point in living in the past. It’s just moving forward, making a difference, showing my girls, all my kids, that it’s not who I am. They know me better than that.”
While a junior at Indian River Central High School in Philadelphia, Brian McCasland, of Calcium, was at a crossroad. His dad was sick and his efforts at school left something to be desired.
“I was working part time at Taco Bell in Evans Mills,” Brian said. “My dad was also sick. It was kind of like, ‘Do I finish out school or do I drop out of school to work full time and help with the bills and stuff’? I chose to drop out.”
Brian said he originally lived with his mom in the Rome area and was about 12 when he moved in with his father in Calcium. He said his father suffers from a vitamin B-12 deficiency, which leads to a lack of red blood cells resulting in weakness and fatigue.
“I’ve been doing what I can for him for a long time now,” Brian said. “He wanted me to stay in school and I didn’t listen. I was a bad kid in school, always in detention and ISS (in-school suspension) for fighting and stuff. It took me a long time to figure out what my purpose in this world was.”
When he quit school in 2010, Brian said it was an easy decision.
“I was a selfish kid,” he said. “I didn’t really care about anything. I cared about my dad, obviously, but it was at the point where I just didn’t want to be in school. I just wanted to go right into the work force.”
He worked at Taco Bell for three years. He then got a job at Walmart, but was fired.
“And then I was a bum, I guess you could say, for a year-and-a-half,” Brian said. “I didn’t have a license, I had no job. I was literally waking up and playing video games all day, every day.”
The family of one of his friends invited him down to Texas, where he worked two jobs, got his license and bought his first car. But less than two years later, he moved back north.
“I missed my dad a lot,”Brian said. “Ever since then, I’ve been trying to better myself as a human being and doing things for people whenever I can. When I came back, I was kind of like on a roll, to get my stuff together, like get my diploma, GED and stuff. It was mostly my dad and just wanting to be a productive member of society.”
He began the task of earning his equivalency degree about a year ago. Like Elizabeth, he struggled at first with math.
“It was always my worst subject,” he said. “It never registered in my brain. But I can do crazy things with math now, so it’s always fun to have that knowledge.”
His father attended the June 13 ceremony.
“He was happy, but I still think there’s always that tension that I should have done it the first time,” Brian said. “The only thing he asked when he was in the hospital was, ‘I want you to finish school.’ I didn’t do that for him. I don’t really talk to my mom, so when my dad asked me to do the one thing and I didn’t do it, it was kind of like, ‘Why didn’t I do that?’ If I could go back now, I could change it, but sometimes, it just sticks with you.”
In September, Brian will begin the practical nursing program at BOCES. The 10-month course results in New York State certification. After it, students can take the National Council Licensure Examination for Practical Nurses. The activities are covered through tuition and the BOCES adult education department executes all the paperwork.
“I just want to help people,” Brian said. “I’ve been helping my dad with all his conditions.”
Brian has two part-time jobs. From 7 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., he does housekeeping work at Samaritan Medical Center. From 4 to 9 p.m., he works at Original Italian Pizza on South Massey Street. His hands are busy working, but they could also be an issue in his future. His hands, and arms, are heavily tattooed. Most apparent are the words “Rise” and “Fall” One of the words is spelled out on the four fingers of each hand, with “Rise” on the right. Inkings of flowers and vines crawl up both arms, away from the words.
“This is actually part of my darker period,” Brian said. “When I lost my job and I was doing whatever I was doing at that time, I decided to get hand tattoos. It was the stupidest thing I ever done and I don’t know why I chose my hands as my first tatoos.”
He said he originally had a grand theme planned for all his tatoos; it’d be a canvass with a statement involving life, death and more.
“It’s so dumb,” Brian said. “It doesn’t look professional and you can’t get them removed because you’re going to get really bad scar tissue. It’s going to look bad, but I live with it.”
He hopes makeup will help hide the tatoos. “My arms, I can cover up. It’s my hands I worry about.”
Brian and Elizabeth were asked if they had any advice for people who, until a few months ago, were like them: directionless and without a high school education.
“Don’t think you’re not good enough to beat your own mind,” Brian said. “Don’t let people discourage you or tell you you’re not good enough. When you’re in a dark place, it’s really hard to get out of, even if people are being supportive. They don’t know what’s going on in your mind. They don’t understand how you’re feeling as a person. Just believe in yourself.”
“Everybody has something in their past, regardless of who you are,” Elizabeth said. “Nobody’s perfect.”
She repeated what she said at graduation: “There are no mistakes, only lessons.”
“I live by that,” she said. “As long as you take ownership and quit blaming the world and move forward, it does get better. And like I said in my speech, without failure, there is no success. I mean, you can’t just give up. You just can’t. Everybody deserves to be happy. That’s why there’s second chances. You can’t let our pasts define who we are. I’m a big believer in that.”
“Sunday Portrait” is an occasional column featured in the Watertown Daily Times’ Sunday edition. If you have a suggestion for a “Portrait” subject, write to Chris Brock at firstname.lastname@example.org or at the Watertown Daily Times, 260 Washington St., Watertown, NY, 13601.