During the Opening of the SOAR program in Rome, Georgia, participants were asked what they expected to learn from the training and to tell the group one “Wow moment” they’d like to share. Earl Gourdine introduced himself. He worked at Highland Rivers CSB. His wow moment, “I filed my taxes yesterday for the first time after never working before.”

Prior to his employment, Earl Gourdine applied for disability himself. He was denied.  He worked with an attorney and was denied initially but approved at the hearing. Now, he works as a CPS/Wellness Coach for the AIMS program (a SAMHSA funded Integrated Health Care Systems grant). Before he received benefits, Earl’s life was affected by experiences of homelessness, mental illness and jail.

I asked him what work meant to him. Here’s what he said:

“There was a long period of my life where I was not able to make decisions for myself. I was dependent on family for everything.  I couldn’t make choices for myself.  Benefits helped but working opened a whole world of independence for me. I never had an interest in driving but the job required that I had a license. I got my driver’s license in February 2012. My mentor left me a car in his will.  I used the back pay from my disability to fix it.”

I asked him to share the biggest challenges to work.  He stated, “Getting over the fear of going to work. There is a lot of fear with working and what happens to benefits. For me, working with the Social Security office, I had to navigate how to work and understand the Red Book. I enjoyed navigating the system. From my experience and looking at what happened to my check, work seems to be a better situation because you make enough to actually support yourself.  I live on my own for the first time!  It made me feel like I had learned something and that I was provided the opportunity to make choices for myself as well as prepare me to advocate for others.”

Attaining benefits were a welcomed resource for Earl but it was not enough to sustain him. I imagine that while he was applying, Earl’s experience was much like the wind and rain pounding on the tin roof of the building that stormy day in Georgia, creating a feeling of constant uncertainty and fear. But his illness made him eligible for benefits. If not for his benefits, he would not have gained the information about work incentives.  His knowledge of these incentives gave him the confidence to try. That was his blessing. His story reminded me that, just like him, every single solitary adversity in my life promoted a career choice for me. Each career choice has prepared me for the next. And finally, I know that at PRA, I am exactly where I am supposed to be at the time that I am supposed to be here. I am so thankful.

Earl’s story is my blessing…in the middle of a storm.