It wasn't so long ago that Tanya Misterka sat in a circle of people she didn't want to know, in a program she distrusted, fresh out of prison where she gave birth to her second child and received counseling for her drug and alcohol addictions.
Behind Misterka's tough-talking exterior and before her felony conviction, she was a girl who graduated at the top of her class in 1991, attended Hiram College on a scholarship and fell in love with her longtime high school sweetheart, who had a pitching arm that allowed him to play professional baseball.
Much had happened in the middle of these two stark realities - a story Misterka tells often, usually with the help of visual aids - but the candid 37-year-old says her most profound, life-changing events began as a grudging participant of First Step, an aptly named partnership program of Common Ground and the Lorain County Department of Job and Family Services developed to help men and women transitioning from government assistance to gainful employment.
The program's main focus is identifying and reducing personal barriers that can prevent people from finding, maintaining and enjoying employment, said Colleen Sayers, program manager of First Step.
Sayers works in tandem with colleague Denise Eacott, program facilitator, to offer intense group and individual counseling on topics that include physical, mental and emotional health, parenting skills, coping with stress, relationships, substance abuse and physical abuse, self-esteem, budget management and life skills.
"It's preparing them for job readiness or helping them deal with whatever life obstacles are getting in their way," Sayers said. "We can have somebody with their master's degree that's been displaced from their job, or we can have somebody who has been in the system for years that has never been able to hold a job because they have never learned basic social skills."
The program is two weeks long - it started as a monthlong endeavor - and includes a day at Common Ground in Oberlin, where participants enjoy the center's 21 wooded acres. In this natural setting, the men and women take part in team-building activities and counseling sessions that allow them to zero in on obstacles and roadblocks that have been holding them back in life, Sayers said.
"It's like a fresh start," she said. "It's about doing a self evaluation and moving forward in a positive way. They really, really enjoy that and it works wonders. Many of them have not been in a nature setting in their lives, let alone all day."
Misterka, who went through First Step in January 2007, is now the program's most outspoken success story, and she comes back to Lorain County twice a month to share her experiences - the good, bad and ugly - with other participants on their first day.
She starts her talk by passing around a picture of her and her longtime boyfriend, Tony Fuduric, who played in the minor leagues for five years before an injury ended his career.
The next picture is Misterka, 12 years later, in a booking photo from Willoughby jail. And the in between? Drugs, alcohol - life just fell apart, she said. She ended up serving seven months behind bars after being convicted of receiving stolen property, a fifth-degree felony, for possessing stolen credit cards.
"I gave Tony his ring back on the Fourth of July 1995 and I went off and lived my life, and that turned out to be one of the worst decisions I'd ever made because from then on, it was a downward spiral until 2005 - 10 years later is when I'm a felon," said Misterka.
She had a daughter in 2003, whom her mother has raised. She also had a son in 2006 while in prison. She has regained custody of her son and is working to get custody of her daughter.
She credits First Step with helping her get her life back on track. She got a job at Friendly's in Elyria and worked her way into management. She started to pay back college loans and child support. She started supporting herself and her son on her own.
And in 2008, Misterka reconnected with Fuduric and they rekindled their romance and are engaged again, living together in Hartsgrove with his four children and her son and anxiously awaiting her daughter to join them.
"The facilitators (with First Step) were so patient with each and every one of us, and gave us our chance to have a voice, not like we were some number in the system. That's what made a difference between this and anything else than I had been in the past as far as family services programs go," she said. "I felt so special and so like I mattered and I just hope that someone else gets to feel that way."
Four years clean and sober, Misterka is now a manager at an upscale restaurant in Hudson and a true inspiration, Sayers said.
"Tanya came into this program with an attitude a mile high and mile wide. She was just daring us to help her, but she was also daring herself," Sayers said, adding that Misterka's turnaround since being in the program offers hope to new participants. "Her story still speaks to being in a rough spot in your life - the pit of the pit and pulling yourself out of it and being a better you. People think I have to have a million dollars and this and this and this to succeed, when in reality it really is about hard work, believing in yourself and not giving up when things get rough."
There is credibility that comes with her history of going to prison, being a major drug addict and alcoholic, and losing her children, Misterka said.
"I hope that I can give them a shred of hope, that I can share a bit of inspiration and maybe enlighten them about what kind of potential this program has," she said. "I struggled, fought and worked and it doesn't come so fast. These things aren't entitlements; they're earnings. And there were just a lot of lessons that I had to learn the hard way."
Contact Chrissy Kadleck at 329-7155 or firstname.lastname@example.org.