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Finding Joy In New Life, Community

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By Bonnie Darves

Patty Williams is making up for lost time. Time lost to alcohol and drugs. Years spent on the wrong path. Decades under the dark cloud of an unfulfilling life.

Today Williams, a graduate of PCC this last June and the ceremony’s student speaker, is brightness and light. She exudes that kind of energy that radiates that inner peace sometimes seen in people who, through loss or adversity or suffering, have learned something very important. In her case, it is this: that a life can be turned around and, once that happens, barriers fall away.

Williams, 36, who grew up in Missouri, is the first member of her family — which by extension includes 16 siblings — to go to college. "I never thought about college because it just wasn’t something that happened in our family. All of my family were drunks," she says. "When I consider that I started drinking in the sixth grade, it’s amazing I ever graduated from high school."

But then Williams is an amazing woman. Since she chose sobriety six years ago, she’s been tireless in her determination to make her own life better and to improve the lives of others. Her typical week while at PCC was daunting: a full-time school schedule, two jobs and myriad volunteer commitments — at her church, in the community and at PCC. Williams has been very active in student government, serving as a board director for the Community Colleges of Oregon Student Association and Commissions, and as a member of PCC’s Council of Presidents. She held "close to a 4.0 GPA," at PCC and was 1998 PCC chapter president of Phi Theta Kappa, the national community college honor society.

"When I received a Need Grant to go to PCC, I decided that I wasn’t going to just ‘get through school.’ I wanted to be part of a community,’" says Williams, who has lobbied in Salem and Washington, D.C., on behalf of college students, and who recently was named student commissioner to the Oregon State Scholarship Commission by Gov. Kitzhaber. In the process, she has learned more than the power of persuasion, Williams says. "I have discovered that I have a voice and that it matters."

In the fall, Williams is headed to Reed College, where she will study "some mixture of philosophy, religion and political science" en route to her goal of becoming a minister, possibly in the Unity Church that has figured so positively in her life in recent years.

Despite her achievements and finding her true voice, Williams shudders when she remembers her days before sobriety and that other voice — the small, desperate voice of her "direction-less" years. She remembers a day 10 years ago when she was leaving the cemetery after the burial of her ex-husband, who had committed suicide two years after their divorce during a particularly "horrific time of drinking and drugging," Williams says. "I will never forget the terrible sadness I felt. I remember saying, ‘I’m not going to go there.’"

But for all of her resolve and sadness that dark afternoon, Williams was not yet ready to turn her life around. It would take a "rock-bottom" night four years later — New Year’s Eve 1992 — for Williams to reach her personal low. "I realized that I’d been in Portland 13 months and that all the money I’d arrived with was gone and I couldn’t pay my rent. I was drunk and out of control," Williams recalls. Even in her stupor, Williams says, she knew that she had two choices: "get sober or be on the street. I spent 36 hours crying and then walked into an AA meeting."

In recovery Williams has made a number of discoveries, chief among them that living a happy, fulfilling life is far easer than she ever imagined. "It’s a matter," Williams says, "of creating a community, and being involved in that community, and acknowledging one’s reason for being here." Hers, she says, is simple "My purpose here is to experience life in all it’s joy and glory. We’re here to love — that’s really all that matters."

About James Hill

James G. Hill, an award-winning journalist and public relations writer, has been the Communications Specialist for the Office of Public Affairs at Portland Community College since November of 1999. A graduate of Portland State University, J... more »