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What we don't know
Anne-Michelle taught me that we can't assume we know who a person is until they tell us.
I hired Anne-Michelle in the early 2000s to work as a Community Resource Manager at Third Level Crisis Center in Traverse City, Michigan, where I served as Executive Director. At the time, Anne-Michelle was in her mid-twenties, and this was only her second professional position. I felt confident I had a lot to teach her and looked forward to molding her into a strong administrator in my image. Little did I know, she came pre-molded!
Even to this day, I have an immediate fondness for people who are competent tech users, and, quite frankly, they are few and far between in the human services field. Anne-Michelle demonstrated her skills right away.
“Do you want me to research an online fundraising database for us to use?” she casually asked one day. “It’ll make tracking donations and communicating with donors so much easier,” she said.
“Sure,” I replied, but I didn’t have too much faith that she’d find anything that could beat the Microsoft Excel spreadsheet I had designed. She quickly proved me wrong. She made a recommendation and, after seeing her demonstrate it, we soon adopted it. Anne-Michelle took full control of implementing and managing the complex database, something that in the early days of the Internet took a lot of effort.
For her genuinely cheerful spirit, her openness to trying new things, her work ethic, and many other reasons, I was thrilled to work with Anne-Michelle. I looked forward to seeing her each day and knew we could accomplish important things together.
Despite my years working in substance abuse and chemical dependency, it stunned me when, a few months after hiring her, she told me she was celebrating her anniversary as a recovering drug addict. “Today is my anniversary in NA (Narcotics Anonymous),” she said to me as I greeted her that morning. My eyes widened.
I had no idea. The fact that she was in recovery was shocking enough, but she said NA, not AA, right? Anne-Michelle’s bright smile and bubbly personality did not fit my image of a narcotics addict—stereotypes I no longer should have had after working in the field but were, obviously, still present to me.
“That’s why this job is so important to me and why I’ve worked so hard to prove myself,” she said.
“Well, you’ve certainly done that,” I replied, as I walked on past, trying to remain as cool as I could to conceal the extent of my surprise. “Congratulations! Keep up the good work—on both fronts.”
Her revelation caused me to re-evaluate my own stereotypes and acknowledge that long before today’s pervasive opioid crisis, narcotics addiction impacted far more people than I ever imagined.
A couple years later, Anne-Michelle told me she was leaving Traverse City for Southern California. I could have cried, and maybe I did. I felt like we had only just begun the work we could do together. But she had fallen in love and had bigger plans than what Northern Michigan could afford her, so she left me, something I took as a personal loss.
From a distance, I watched Anne-Michelle raise a family, complete her Master of Social Work degree, and develop her career, including holding a position as a county-wide coordinator of a coalition against sexual exploitation. She now works as a clinical therapist in substance abuse treatment.
Several years ago, she sent me a link to a news interview she had done for a California news show. As I sat down to watch, I thought about her days at Third Level and knew that had she stayed, she would have soon been running the place. Her poise and clarity in front of the cameras as she discussed sex trafficking and exploitation showed an innate skill that I had never mastered. I knew then that Anne-Michelle had far exceeded any mentoring I could have given her. In fact, she has been my teacher—a teacher who has shown me the true meaning of perseverance, grit, and grace in the face of incredible personal adversity.
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