There are people you come across in your life who are meant to be a part of it. People who, down in some cellular level of your body, you feel you already know or were meant to know for some greater reason. You might see in them a facet of yourself, or even a greater piece of humanity. You might see a part of their story written across their demeanor or actions; you might sense something much deeper bubbling under the surface. But, for whatever reason, here they are in front of you. Just waiting for the timing to be right. And goosebumps crawl across your skin.
She walked into my life at the local YMCA, of all places, this brown-haired, brown-eyed beauty. Ashley Kate, or AK to the people who know her. An instructor for a class in which I was a relative newbie. She came as a replacement, perhaps temporary, I was told. But she stayed. And our class somehow became a family.
Because of her.
AK was adopted as a newborn. Her seventeen-year-old birth mother wasn’t capable of raising her. Her new mother and father were. Just like other parents, they loved their wee one from the moment they heard about her. And life lined up just so. And she was theirs. When AK was two and a half, they had another—one who arrived in a yellow plane. A little boy named Jacob, whose birth mama was involved in the drug scene. Jacob was born an addict. He faced close to three months of hospital care before he was strong enough to come home. Young AK didn’t know there was anything different about him. All she knew was there was a new baby taking her place and she wasn’t pleased. On the way home from the hospital, she asked if she could please throw the new baby into the river so a different family could find him, just like in the Moses story.
Obviously, her wishes were denied. But AK’s feelings of sibling grief did not waver for years. It wasn’t until he was in fifth grade that it hit her: Something was different about her brother. He still couldn’t read. He was behind in other things. A fierce protectiveness grew inside of her. She taught her baby brother how to spell his first word: A-P-P-L-E. When he read his first full book at the age of fifteen, she was right there with him. Though life was a challenge for Jacob, AK excelled at all things. She could sing; she could play instruments ranging from the violin to the piano; sports were a piece of cake. School was easy. In fact, she took summer school to get PE out of the way in order to have room in her regular school schedule for more educational classes.
Here, she met a girl named Jennifer, a girl who absolutely drew AK in with her rebel attitude—all the while showing respect towards her teachers and never being caught doing anything bad. Jenn was the coolest girl AK had ever met; she was charismatic, tall, beautiful. She wore clothes that AK’s mother would never have approved of, and even cussed a little bit. Looking back, AK says she had felt insecure as a youth. Maybe that played into what happened later. With a year of friendship behind them, Jenn asked AK to get high with her. AK had known the things that Jenn was involved with but didn’t want to do drugs. She just liked sneaking clothes that her mom wouldn’t let her wear to Jenn’s house, where she could put them on without getting into trouble. She even tried smoking cigarettes, but she drew the line at alcohol and drugs … until Jenn’s sixteenth birthday.
Jenn asked AK to stay up all night with her and promised AK that she would still have enough energy for her “Candy Striper” hospital volunteer shift the next day. Because it was her friend’s birthday, AK agreed. And took the first step down a very different path from what she had ever expected of herself.
Almost every day of her senior year of high school, she used, hiding it with ease. Graduating at the top of her class, with a weighted GPA of 4.2, AK had scholarship offers from various colleges, in various states. But, everything began to spin out of control—including her home life when her father left the family, walking out when AK was eighteen. Now a drug addict, she was at the beginning of a nightmarish, seven-year journey, compounding one poor choice with another.
In and out of jail, AK was given chances she could not yet own, blowing through the opportunities and landing back behind bars. One day, she received crushing news; her mother had been stricken immobile while typing in her journal. When sensation returned, AK's mom drove herself to the hospital, where a tumor was discovered in her brain. Cancer was eventually found in various locations throughout her body. When she died, AK was devastated; still in jail, she’d never had the chance to say goodbye.
When AK was released, she was faced with her mother’s household of belongings, untouched by anyone for nine months. Clothing, keepsakes, rotten foodstuffs. Memories. A tough situation for anyone to deal with—AK couldn’t move forward. She slipped up, was given more chances. She dated a man. Someone who ended up being a human trafficker, someone who was wanted as a part of a crime ring that ran between Idaho and Oregon and then down across the Mexico border of California.
AK had hit bottom. By the time the law approached her, AK knew two things: She wanted her family to be safe, and she needed out of her life situation. She went to prison for five years on charges of forgery, possession, and grand theft. It was in prison that AK decided it was up to her to turn her life around. She was the one who had made the choices that landed her where she was; now, it was the time to make the right choices to get herself out.
And that’s how she discovered running.
Have you ever run to save your life? The concept puts a whole new perspective on a simple act of moving one’s legs forward. Running gave her a focus; it gave her structure; it set her apart from the other inmates. And, while keeping her away from bad influences, it set her up to be groomed by a predatory guard. Starting with candy under her pillow—treats from the outside world: small, simple. Devastating. Things got messy, and were stopped just in time. Physical evidence, plainly left on the floor, was brushed to the wayside because it was an inmate-versus-guard confrontation. AK, at her lawyer’s advice, accepted a gag order and was not permitted at the trial. Convicted only of a misdemeanor for disorderly conduct, the guard was removed from that particular prison location. But he had been a loyal guard at the site for fifteen years, and what he attempted with AK was a way of life he’d established with other prisoners, other guards. AK was sent to the solitary block. For two years. Her neighbor was a female murderer—the only woman in Idaho on death row. From that point on, anything AK did could be cause for reprimand or considered an infraction.
Determined to never again repeat her mistakes, AK made a promise to herself. Everything she did, no matter how difficult, would be the right thing to do. She would be honest and build trust through hard work and proving herself. Over and over again, for as long as it took. For forever. Eventually, this got her noticed in a positive way. Transferred to a medium security prison, she was allowed work detail, was allowed to sing and play piano in the chapel. She became a driver. A recreation coordinator. Taught some informal exercise classes. With a friend, she did Billy Blanks workouts and ran, building herself up one step at a time. She competed in her first race, the Susan G. Komen Relay. Running in her mother’s honor as a way to show her love, AK completed fifty-two miles around the prison track in roughly eleven hours. Fifty-two miles. For her first race. Interviewed for a Pocatello newspaper, AK shared the story of her mother and the significance the race held for her. Shortly afterward, AK was moved to a minimum-security work center, where, again, she worked as a driver. And then she was released.
And was literally on her own.
Her grandparents blamed her for their daughter’s death; her brother lived out of state. She wanted nothing to do with anyone from her past. Alone, she stuck to her guns about doing the right thing at all costs. Alone, she looked for a job. At twenty-six years old, AK walked into a fitness center and bared her soul, sharing her dream of becoming a fitness instructor—the one thought that brought her joy and hope. She was told she’d be fit only for working the membership desk and, with her record, would never amount to anything more.
Falling into a deep depression, she fell also into an abusive relationship, merely existing for two years until she chose to face herself. Did she want to continue along this path, or was she ready for a different journey? Hopping onto her bicycle, she pedaled to the house of the woman who, for all intents and purposes, was her grannie. A woman who loved her and stood by her through it all. A woman who took her in and, when AK was ready to hear the words, said, “Why don’t you go back to school? You are so smart.” AK thought about it. Thought, “Why don’t I try?”
Just before college was about to begin, seven years clean, two years out of prison, AK discovered that she was pregnant. Grannie looked right at her and, with pure joy in her eyes, said, “This baby will change your life.”
Bringing a little one into the world would require a steady income. AK dropped off an application at a local Sizzler restaurant and was stopped before she even left the building. The job was hers. Seven years had passed since her felony conviction, and she no longer had a legal obligation to report it on applications. She was starting with a clean slate, working every day to prove that her past did not define her. To prove to herself and others that she was a trustworthy, worthwhile human being. It took two years to feel brave enough to share her history with her superiors at work. They looked beyond her record and believed in the real her.
AK climbed her way through the ranks of the restaurant, moving out of her grannie’s home, attending school (majoring in pre-law and business), getting her name on the waiting list for a more habitable home, and raising her baby. Receiving help through the Baby Haven Ministry, she met just the right people to guide her further up in her life. She got into the better apartment, up three flights of concrete stairs. On moving day, while climbing those stairs, she tripped over the laces she’d been too tired to tie, almost dropping her baby in his carrier. It was an eye-opener: Exhausted to the core, she needed to make a change in her physical life; a change for the good of her body; a change that would benefit her child’s life as well.
With her fifteen-month-old son, a pillowcase for a diaper bag, and a little more than nine dollars in her pocket, AK entered the Caldwell YMCA building. Her story spilled from her lips, and instead of being turned away or looked at any differently, she was welcomed. When asked about covering gym fees, AK didn’t know how to respond. She had the money in her pocket to go towards the one-day pass, but she wasn’t sure how much she’d be able to budget for membership between paying for school, her car, home, and baby. She mentioned that in three months’ time she’d be receiving some financial credits that should cover the fees. They got the baby tucked away in the childcare center and set AK loose. A full hour to herself to focus on her body and mind. She ran until her legs quaked, then stretched her calves and went to pay what she could. The girl at the desk looked up her account and said, “There’s no charge. You’re taken care of for the next three months.” AK figured she’d been the recipient of the Y’s financial aid program. Later, she would find out that the first woman she had spoken to—a woman destined to become a dear friend, a mentor, and a member of AK’s growing, hand-picked family—had covered all further costs from her own pocket.
After weeks of working out on her own, around the fringes of the gym, AK was ready to participate in group classes, and something clicked. Eight months later, she had earned her first fitness certification. She was also participating in motivational speaking, extending bits of her story to help youngsters make the right choices in their own lives. She was asked by the Y staff to become a volunteer instructor. Volunteers needed to have the proper background checks in place, their character approved. AK went for it, and a process usually taking two weeks took eight instead. But, she was accepted. Then a floor position opened—no more volunteer-status if she were to land this job. She put in her application and her team rallied around her. Her character again passed muster; she was officially beginning her dream. Law classes were left behind, replaced by classes on topics covering physiology, nutrition, and health and fitness.
Three years ago, AK received her Training Degree and now has eight specialization certificates added to that, including Olympic Weight Lifting and Youth Fitness. She feels so honored to receive an education in classes that are furthering her dream that she makes sure to participate in continuing education classes every two to six months. On the horizon is the goal of becoming a bilingual nutritionist. First up, however, is an amazing opportunity to be flown to New York City, where she will be a consultant to an investment group, responsible for presenting healthier food and fitness ideas. And she’ll be taking a run along the Coney Island Boardwalk and through Central Park, just because she can. Not only that, but she has reached a point in her life where she feels she can share her story to help others, her story that is now coming full circle. A woman has recently entered her life, a woman who has spent time behind bars and is looking to build both inner and outer strength to keep from turning back the way she came. AK is just the right person to understand this client’s drive, her need, her fear, and her hope.
So, here stands this incredible woman. Humble beyond belief, stronger than words can describe. Living a life that is of her own creation. Her defining quote is Mahatma Gandhi's: “Be the change you want to see in the world.” She lives it every day. For herself, for her son. She shares this strength with her friends, her clients, her students. The youth she ministers to. Her coworkers. She made choices in her life, and though she doesn’t allow her past to define her, it is because of those choices that she has become who she is, has gotten as far as she has already. And she can focus on where she wants to go. She has come into her own, living by unfiltered honesty, maintaining a balance of self and service, and never taking a thing for granted. Earning every bit of her blessings by working her way to them. She is my instructor, my trainer, my friend. And I claim her now as my family.
You see, family isn’t always something you’re born into. Sometimes it’s made up of the people who offer us their hearts. People we choose to surround ourselves with because they make us stronger. Make us better. Make us aim for more than we think we are. Sometimes we even know where we’re aiming, but just need that gentle hand (or firm shove) of support in order to make that first step. To be able to climb those stairs with our laces tied, our legs strong, our hands ready to reach for more. Those people who cheer you on, every step of the way? They’re family. Blood isn’t necessary. Heart is.
I walk into my local YMCA facility, find my class and think, “Welcome home.”