Inspiring Okeechobee: Local woman overcomes many obstacles to earn degree

“Hello Leah, I hope you are doing well. First, I want to thank you, because you have been a big part of my success. You have been my inspirational piece in my long journey. I will finally graduate with my Bachelor of Science degree and will be walking on May 6. I just want you to know that I am truly blessed that God has placed you in my life. Thank you again. I would love for you to join me on this very important day if your schedule permits. If you can make it, let me know, and again thank you.” Well, I received this message on Facebook March 29th; after I teared up a bit, it just brought to me the importance of a Dalai Lama quote. “Just as ripples spread out when a single pebble is dropped into water, the actions of individuals can have far-reaching effects.”

You never know what you say or do that inspires another person. As excited as I am for our son (Brandon Hargrave) who is receiving his A.S. degree this weekend (and that’s a story to tell as well), I am just incredibly proud to have the honor to sit through Pomp and Circumstance, awaiting the moment when I see Alice Maria Watson walk across the stage to be recognized for her achievement.

The funny part is that she tells me, she ONLY had a 3.77 GPA. Really? I think she barely made it! Of course, I am being completely facetious. When you read this story of triumph over tragedy, abuse, and loss, you too will come to know and appreciate the mountains this woman has moved in her life!
Alice’s story begins, in her own words:

“As a child, I suffered physical and emotional abuse by the people that were supposed to love me and take care of me. Education was never a priority in our home; rather, something that was pushed aside and unimportant. I am the first person in my family to attend and complete college.”
She continues, “As an adolescent, I basically lived on the streets and when I was 17 years old, my mom passed away in a horrible car accident. This left me to take care of my 15 year old sister and my 16 year old brother. Somehow God brought me out of all that.

“As I started to get older, I had a lot of problems. I struggled with addictions, but the biggest problem was that I struggled with my weight. I had become so obese I wasn’t living – I was just merely surviving. At the age of 28, after a failed marriage and a struggle with infertility, it broke me. I couldn’t take it anymore, and wanted to end my life, the end. I was almost 500 pounds, “ Alice recalled.

“Addiction was weighing me down. I was alone. Or so I thought. Funny thing is, I never realized it until now, but God had been with me the whole time. He had brought me through some horrible times and horrible things and it made me stronger. After contemplating suicide, I decided that I needed help, so I ended up going to therapy. At therapy, my therapist encouraged me to make the decision to have surgery to lose weight. It is now five years later and I am a person. I have more energy and am more confident. I also tended to my spiritual side and ended up going to church. Many people might say that graduating is the biggest accomplishment that I might ever do in life, but to me, the biggest accomplishment is my relationship with the God.

“So, after two years of therapy I started going to school. I enrolled and got my GED which took me about a year. After getting my GED, it seemed like I was on a roll, so I continued to go to the college. I obtained my A.A. degree and this weekend, I will receive my Bachelor’s Degree.

“Some of my inspiration for the field that I’m working in is actually from my therapist as she helped me through so much. I love my life. I love the people in it. I’ve come from living on the streets to living in a trailer park, and now I am a home owner. I have two beautiful boys that I love and adore. They are my life. All these things I asked God for and all these things I now have. I’m not saying it doesn’t take hard work. It was a lot of hard work. I cried a lot, but it’s possible. All you have to do is believe, have faith that there are good things out there for you and work for them.”
Alice and I met several years ago, when we worked together at Florida Community Health Center’s Dr. Brown Children’s Health Center. I had never met anyone that I was more convinced had a passion to do outreach in our community until the day I met her, and this was her first “real job” as she put it. When I knew her “story,” it made me understand where that passion and love of service came from. It is amazing how you cross paths but for a moment, and have such deep admiration for someone.

Molly Ferguson, Director of Program Development at Florida Community Health Centers had this to say about Alice, “It’s funny, I have probably seen Alice face-to-face maybe a dozen times (which in this day and age, really isn’t a lot); however, I thought I knew her.  I met Alice through our mutual work, and she always (and I mean always) has a smile on her face, a kind word for others and makes you feel important.  Now that I know her ‘story’, I am inspired that someone who went through so much adversity and barriers, has risen above and made a beautiful life for her and her family.  To say that I am proud to know Alice Watson is a gross understatement, I am honored and humbled to know Alice Watson.”

Alice inspires me to continue to serve others, for we do not know their path or their story, and it is our job to be kind and caring, letting God work out the details. As much as she says I inspire her, she inspires me! The sky’s the limit for you; and Alice, feel free to send me the next message, “Hello Leah. I hope you’re doing well. I will be graduating with my Master’s degree and if your schedule permits, I’d love for you to come.”

Job well done, Alice Maria Watson.

Leah Suarez is a freelance writer.

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