The realization of HOPE
Faced with dire circumstances, locals prevail to share their stories
By Michael Sullivan 11/23/2011
I find hope in the darkest of days, and focus in the brightest. I do not judge the universe.
— Dalai Lama
Stories of hardship and hopelessness have grown exponentially over the last several years. Unemployment, fatal illnesses, the growing homeless population, extreme violence, etc. — bad news seems to be spreading like the plague. But what you see and read isn’t necessarily an accurate picture.
When it seems as though all hope is lost, there are always a few people to remind us that it’s just life; and as long as you are willing to take on life’s toughest challenges with diehard perseverance, almost anything can be overcome. In this week’s VCReporter, locals share their inspirational stories of overcoming major hardships that few could endure.
Surviving Stage 3
Donna Iverson of Ventura was 41 in 2002 when she was diagnosed with stage 3 invasive breast cancer. Married, with three young children, life had hit a serious road bump. If the struggle for survival wasn’t enough, Iverson was also dealing with an unstable marriage. Though she ran her own small business and worked part time at her daughter’s school, her family’s economic situation was quickly spiraling down the drain, with her husband playing a major role in the downturn.
After having bilateral mastectomies, she did eight rounds of chemo and seven weeks of radiation. As treatment wrapped up, she made the crucial decision to end her marriage. Unfortunately, her physical body didn’t respond well to the massive amount of stress that suddenly overtook her life. Shortly after she finished cancer treatment, she developed Cushing’s syndrome, an endocrine disorder. She calls it one of the most unattractive diseases. It gave her a moon face, a buffalo hump and puffed out her stomach and groin areas so much that she had to wear maternity clothes. Appearances aside, she experienced muscle atrophy, bone degeneration, mental confusion and depression.
“It was awful,” she said. “I felt that I was never going to feel good again and resigned myself to have to push through and not be able to enjoy life and enjoy my girls.”
For three years, Iverson just kept on going, despite all the pain with Cushing’s syndrome, working and taking care of her kids. Though she would report to doctors at UCLA about her condition and symptoms, their response was that it was not severe enough for them to do anything. In the meantime, she filed for divorce, which dragged on for two years and left her and her girls with nothing. When her home life settled down, with just the four of them, she said she felt relief. One kind of stress was no longer present in her life, even without child support payments or help from the father on any kind of a regular basis.
After the Cushing’s syndrome dissipated, she went to school and got a degree as an MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) technologist. The job search was tough at first, but she ended up working for Dr. Jim Woodburn of Ventura, the surgeon who had done her mastectomies. After years of turbulent waters, things seemed to be on the upswing. In 2008, she even volunteered to participate in a breast cancer survivor cover shoot for the VCReporter and joined the handful of women brave enough to take off their shirts (while covering the area where their breasts were or once were). She looked healthy and happy, but little did she know what was brewing underneath.
A few months after beginning work for Woodburn and two months after the photo shoot, she went to Ventura County Medical Center for a routine PET scan for cancer. That is when the doctors discovered she had metastatic breast cancer that had spread to her lymph nodes in her right armpit and chest. Because Woodburn ran a small business, Iverson didn’t have insurance that would cover her, but thankfully she qualified for Medi-Cal, which saved her life and ensured economic stability for her and her girls without hefty medical bills.
She had to go through surgery to remove the lymph nodes and her ovaries as her cancer was spreading, due to estrogen, and completed her treatment with chemo and radiation therapy. Iverson said that going through treatment while working for Woodburn was a particularly interesting experience.
“I saw a lot of breast cancer patients. It was a real encouragement for them,” she said, speaking about how she wasable to relate to patients. “It’s so difficult, this feeling that you are the only one.”
At the end of 2009, she was considered to be in remission. She has done well so far, without any more bouts of cancer. She suffers from rheumatoid arthritis and lymphedema in the right quadrant of her arm, but none of that is stopping her from loving her kids and working hard to make sure they grow up right. She has also put a lot of faith in God that everything will work out the way it is supposed to. But on her journey, she is taking it one day at a time.
“I am not brave. I’m not doing anything heroic, just living. Just taking what comes and dealing with it appropriately and moving forward,” she said.
Iverson was recently hired to work for a local nonprofit child advocacy organization and lives with her three girls, who are now in junior high and high school.
Summer Gibbons, 25, of Ventura, started with nothing but two hungry mouths to feed and worked her way up in the dental industry and was recently hired on as an office manager.
Kingdom Center Victory
Summer Gibbons’ story is a familiar one with an unexpected twist. Born and raised in Ventura, Gibbons hadn’t laid out a master plan for her life. In 11th grade, she dropped out of high school and was married by the time she was 18. Within a year, she had her first child, a girl. A few years later, she gave birth to a baby boy. Like many young women, family, and especially her children, meant everything to her. But the relationship she had with her husband was less than ideal.
“He was emotionally abusive and mentally manipulative,” she said, wishing not to expand on the details of her tough marriage. “I fell in love with the wrong person.”
After the birth of her son, the relationship took a turn for the worse when she found out her husband had been cheating on her. That’s when she decided to get out — to do what was best for her kids, to do what was best for herself.
“We had no money, no food for our kids,” she said.
With nowhere else to go, she returned home to be with her parents. But that wasn’t much better. She recalled turmoil at home due to a chain of mental abuse that worked its way down from her grandfather to her own father to her. One night, talking to her daughter, she realized she had to take control of her life.
“She was talking to me and she said, ‘You looked right through me,’ ” Gibbons said. That jump-started her to take action. “I needed to have a change. My kids mean so much more to me. They deserve a better future.”
Soon thereafter she enrolled in adult education in Oxnard and completed general education development (GED). Gibbons had also applied to live at the Kingdom Center, a Christ-centered transitional living center in Downtown Ventura, so she could start rebuilding her life. Once admitted to the Kingdom Center, she enrolled in a dental assistance program and graduated several months later. She was recently hired as an office manager making a moderate income.
“I feel like this place gave me stability,” she said. “God opened doors for me to get here.”
Living on her own with her kids at the center — the father’s involvement is minimal to nonexistent — she looks back at her experience with the hope that others in her situation won’t give up when times are tough.
“I started with nothing,” she said. “You can do it. I did it, even with two small kids.”
Rock Gunter, then 49, as seen in the Ventura River bottom. He was being interviewed and filmed at the time. After years of homelessness, he is now living with his family in Minnesota.
Life after the Ventura River Bottom
Rock Gunter isn’t the average Joe. He isn’t the kind of guy to boast about accomplishments. He isn’t a person trying to steal the show. He is the kind of person who prefers living quietly and avoids being a burden on others. So when he lost his manufacturing job in the plastics industry in 2008 and, consequently, also lost his home, while living in Minneapolis, Minn., he decided to head west.
“Can’t be homeless in Minnesota,” Gunter said. “It’s just too cold.”
Without telling friends or family his plans, he left Minnesota and headed to California, specifically Los Angeles. But being homeless in the metropolitan city wasn’t what Gunter had bargained for.
“It was the first time I was homeless,” he said. “It was a learning experience but I was treated like a parasite when I was in L.A. and Santa Monica.”
Not only did he lose his job and his home, but Los Angeles was robbing him of any dignity he had left, which compelled him to move north; and that’s when he wound up in the Ventura River bottom.
“For being homeless, it was adequate. I had to deal with a lot (of) drinking and drugs,” he said, reflecting on the common problems of homelessness. Though he drank, he was never into drugs.
As time went on, he began to rely on the social services that were being offered at various local agencies, including Project Understanding. But life was hard in the river bottom. At one point, he got into a drunken fight with another occupant that left him with 21 stab wounds. Many were superficial but a few punctured his lungs and lower intestines. He ended up spending nine days in the hospital and six weeks in a recovery center in Camarillo. After a full recovery, he returned to the river bottom. But apparently he wasn’t destined to spend the rest of his days there.
Shortly after he left Minnesota, his daughter had filed a missing person’s report. When that didn’t turn up any leads, she hired a private investigator, who tracked him to Ventura and to Rob Orth, the executive director of Project Understanding. Orth confirmed that Gunter had been living in the river bottom, and when the area flooded in March this year, authorities rescued Gunter and told him there was a missing person’s report out on him. After a month or so, Gunter, now 52, got in touch with his family and returned home in June to be with his daughter, her husband and his grandkids. With his help watching the kids, his daughter and her spouse were able to buy a home, where they all live together. Gunter looks at his role with his family modestly.
“I don’t like to feel important,” he said, remarking that he enjoys helping his family but would eventually like to get back to work. “It’s going to take time. The good ol’ days — I don’t think they are ever coming back.”
Living in rural Minnesota, 60 minutes outside of Minneapolis, has been quite a change for him from Ventura. He said he misses the area, especially the weather. But he noted that he will never forget the people.
“It seemed like the general people treated me with dignity,” he said. “I know you have a real problem with the panhandlers; I was just homeless. I loved being in Ventura, the people treated me wonderful there.”
An Epiphany while Incarcerated
Frank of Oxnard asked if he could write his own story.
“I am an Oxnard College student taking Auto Tech Courses since the 2010-2011 school year. Also, I am the president of the Automotive Tech Club at the college.
“I am a lifelong resident of Oxnard. I am the second child of nine children. I grew up in East Oxnard, not having the best childhood although my family tried to provide the best they could for my siblings and me. I never thought about going to college while I was growing up. I just wanted to be like everyone else in that neighborhood. I just wanted to be ‘down for the hood.’
“I started getting into trouble and going to the local juvenile facilities. In 2004, I was sent to the California Youth Authority because I was unfit for society. I was sentenced to four years. I served two out of four years for good behavior. In 2007, I was sent to the California Department of Corrections for three years for robbery.
“While incarcerated, it was when I first seriously thought about going to college. I was tired of being just another Hispanic stat. I wanted to be somebody important I wanted to be known for something good. So I decided to make changes in my life because I wanted my family, and a wife to start a family.
“In 2010 I was released from the California Department of Corrections. I made the decision to really go to college but I didn’t know what I wanted to receive my major in. I finally decided that I was going to take auto tech courses, and that’s what I was going to major in. I enrolled in the AT courses and I am still currently enrolled. I also decided to get the Auto Tech Club going.
“I am now married to my beautiful wife, who is also the mother of my 4-month-old son. I didn’t know anything about vehicles when I started taking AT classes, but now, because of the classes, I am employed at a dealership because of the education I have received. I am proud of the education because I can provide for my family and also because it’s a positive step forward to my rehabilitation in society.”
The story of Tyrone Blackman has been removed.