CLEMSON — Patrice Cleveland used to shy away from telling her story, admitting that she was ashamed of the details about those “lost” years — the decade between high school and her mid-20’s when she often didn’t recognize herself, a former honor roll student.
It began with skipping school and running with the wrong crowd, behavior that led to dropping out of high school at age 16, using and selling drugs on the street and consequently, multiple incarcerations.
“But you never know whom your story will touch,” said Cleveland, now 34 and proudly clean and sober.
Just a few years ago, she began to open up and bravely chronicled those painful events via a Power Point presentation as part of a class project at Tri-County Technical College. The assignment was to present an oral life story to her classmates in the Administrative Office Technology program.
“It took years for me to be able to talk about it without crying. That day, everyone in class was in tears, including me,” she said.
It is a healing experience to share her struggles and her strengths, she admits.
“People said, ‘I can’t believe this. You are always smiling and happy.’ But you never know what a person is going through,” Cleveland said.
Cleveland continues to tell it, with a focus on how she climbed out of the deep hole of despair to emerge as the proud single parent who earned a college degree, was named to the dean’s list at Tri-County, was asked to join the National Society of Leadership and Success and has become, as she calls herself, determined and phenomenal.
“If you know where you are going in life, you won’t get lost,” she says. “I’m not the same person I was — I have worked for a clean record and I have proven myself. Poor decisions caused me heartache, but that part of me is gone,” she said.
Today she is a college graduate – she earned an Administrative Office Technology degree from Tri-County in 2016 and was offered a full-time position at Littlejohn Community Center as its administrative and data specialist. She currently is taking an online Medical Terminology course.
She credits Ripple of One with helping her to earn her GED and Tri-County instructors, counselors and coaches with helping her to remain in school and stay the course.
Her biggest regret is losing custody of her two oldest children. Her goal is to one day reclaim custody.
Cleveland’s troubles began after she dropped out of high school and began to sell drugs on the street when she wasn’t working in fast food restaurants and production jobs in manufacturing. When she was laid off or lost her job due to plant closures, “then I was back on the streets,” she said.
She had her first child in 2005 at age 23 and another son in 2006. The Department of Social Services intervened after her son, who was born prematurely, tested positive for marijuana in the hospital. She lost custody of both children.
“I didn’t know what to do. I continued to use.” She saw the children on supervised visits.
In 2007, pregnant with her third child, and released from a detention center, she checked into Serenity Place Treatment Center where she learned coping mechanisms and was able to see her kids on court-ordered visits.
“I stayed one year and two weeks and graduated from the program,” she said.
She lived in Greenville to distance herself from her former life and to start over – she has remained clean and sober. Another son was born in 2011.
After working several years, she headed back to Seneca and got her own apartment where she has been for the last nine years. She engaged in self reflection and learned to manage mishaps and circumstances that could trigger a relapse.
“I always wanted an education,” she said, and set out to study for her GED which she earned.
In Seneca, she found Ripple of One, a non-profit organization in Oconee County, through which she secured an internship at United Way and later a work study position as an administrative assistant with the Littlejohn Community Center in Clemson.
Ripple of One helps single mothers set goals and values that help establish a better way of life. By creating stability through a family success plan, they move toward the ultimate goal of self sufficiency. Participants learn how to set goals and how to manage and save money – in essence how to get back on their feet.
Ripple of One Executive Director Stephanie Enders says she noticed a definite change in Cleveland when she began to work with a mentor, a financial coach and other team members.
Initially Cleveland didn’t have a plan to be self sufficient but once she passed her GED and enrolled at Tri-County, she really excelled and became a master at staying on budget, said Enders. As Cleveland surrounded herself with this support system, “she went from participant to leader,” said Enders.
“She excelled in her paid internship with United Way and the Littlejohn Community Center — and she succeeded in staying on track financially and paying off her debt. Patrice showed persistence and consistency in her decisions and actions,” Enders said.
Ripple of One teaches participants how to set goals and how to manage and save money. There are financial incentives geared toward saving money, such as a matching savings program (the organization will match an individual’s savings up to $200 a month.)
Enders says Cleveland has flourished since she first met her.
“She was lost and defeated but now the words perseverance, consistency and drive come to mind when describing Patrice. Over a 24-month period, she went from one end of the spectrum to the other. It has been amazing to watch. She truly is focused on being successful for her kids; she wants to be a role model for them.”
“Ripple of One is an organization that helps you go from single mom to self sufficiency,” said Cleveland. “I received encouragement from a team of women who wanted to see me flourish.”
In 2013 she enrolled in Tri-County’s Administrative Office Technology program. “I loved it and I loved learning,” she said. She earned a 3.5 GPA the first semester and a place on the Dean’s List.
But she had one more hurdle to overcome — to apply for and earn a pardon from the state’s Probation, Pardon and Parole Board before graduation.
Emma Robinson, coordinator of Student Resources in Tri-County’s Student Development unit and Cleveland’s mentor, traveled to Columbia with her where Cleveland addressed a panel.
“I told them how I had transformed my life — how I keep my sanity by building a relationship with God and how He gives me strength. I said I am a Tri-County graduate and a single parent. I am not that same person as on the paper before them. I wanted a clean record. I had proven myself.”
Three days before graduation, she received that pardon.
“My record was wiped clean,” she said.
“Patrice amazed me from the moment that I met her with her determination to succeed,” said Robinson. “I am not surprised that she finally decided to share her story because she is always saying ‘if my struggles or story can help someone, then I will share it when God leads me to do so.’
“Being Patrice’s mentor is something I take seriously and I am thankful that she has let me be a part of her journey and her life. Sometimes it is hard to tell who is mentoring whom,” she added. “She has made me a better person and encourages me to continue to help others in hopes that I can help others to realize their potential.”
Cleveland’s plan was to work and later further her education at Clemson. But the Littlejohn Community Center offered her a full-time job and she accepted it. In addition to running the office, she supervises the Tri-County work study at the Center.
“I needed a fresh start and a different perspective to excel. I learned how to see things in a different way. I used to beat myself up about my past mistakes,” she said. “My counselor at Serenity told me if I continued doing so, I would continue to need something to ease that pain. So I began to forgive myself and to move forward.”
Today, she is always planning and setting goals. Her deepest wound is not being able to know and raise her two oldest boys and hopes to one day be reunited with them.
“As I accomplish something, I scratch it off and make a new list,” she said. “Nothing can stop me now.”