Oprah's chosen Area woman will share how Safe Passage Home changed her life. Press-Telegram Long Beach, California
By Karen Robes Meeks Staff Writer
Long Beach - There's more to Terria Cooley than her pinstripe suit and sleek hair-style. Cooley radiates a confidence you wouldn't expect from a woman who had thought she'd never emerge from a 20-year marriage with an abusive alcoholic. Or recover from the humiliation of serving time in prison. Or survive two bouts of cancer. But she did, and she did it with poise and the support of others.
There's a lot of things I'm grateful for, said Cooley, 40, a Long Beach-area resident and mother of two. "I thank God for putting the people in my life to help me through this."
Cooley was selected by the program for a makeover, complete with work clothes, furniture and an eyelift to erase the black marks on her face and veneers to cover the gap from a missing tooth.
"It's life-changing," said Patty Repka, Cooley's friend and job developer for Pacific Gateway Workforce Investment Network, a program administered by the city of Long Beach. "It's madder her feel different as a person. I think it's also helped build her confidence."
Originally from Pascagoula, Miss., Cooley moved to Long Beach at 17 with dreams of being a writer. She met a man she would marry six months later.
The abuse happened two years into the marriage, around the time their first son was born.
"When he's intoxicated, he was a very different guy," she said.
He beat her three to four times a week, Cooley said. She would stay with friends or lock him out of the house to protect herself from the abuse.
She said she often reported the abuse but never felt safe.
"I felt that nothing would ever happen," she said.
She was caught up in his drug-selling and drug use and ended up serving 11 months in prison.
"I was like a little puppet," she said, "I felt like I had nowhere to go."
After serving time, Cooley met Repka, who was then stationed at the parole office.'
"When I first met her, she was just released and out on parole and she just wanted to have a job," Repka said. "She didn't care what it was - just something to put some money in her pockets.
"It was hard to convince her that she had the ability to do something for herself. I don't think she gave much confidence in herself."
With the encouragement of others, Cooley completed the Women in Non-Traditional Employment Roles (WINTER) course in 2007 and earned training and certifications in Hazardous Waste Site Worker Protection and Emergency Response, CPR, and first aid, occupational safety, traffic control, and trenching and shoring.
Within two weeks, she was working at the Conoco Phillips Refinery in Carson. But 18 months later, the recession prompted the company to lay off workers, including Cooley.
She returned to Pacific Gateway and completed training and certifications in office administration and Quick-Books accounting software.
Cooley went back to her husband, convinced that things would work out.
"We got married at 17 and 21. He was all I knew and brainwashed me to think that no one else wanted me," she said.
But the abuse resumed. Then one day, while the couple went to pick up food, her ex-husband was so drunk that he hit her with the car door, then ran over her foot.
"That let me know it was either life or death with him," she said.
She found Safe Passage Home and the couple divorced in 2009.
She also discovered she had cancer - first breast cancer, then cervical cancer. She went through chemotherapy. She had to have a hysterectomy.
She was in the hospital for much of December last year. Her lungs collapsed and filled up with fluid. Her blood pressure fell.
But Cooley stayed positive and was able to recover. Once again, Repka came though and visited her in the hospital.
"At that darkest moment of my life, it was just making me be thankful," she said. "I was so grateful to have a lady that cares so much about people that want to start their lives over again, and without judgment, without doubt. She has helped me build faith even more in myself,"
In August, Cooley and seven others from Pacific Gateway found temporary positions to assist in the Louisiana BP Oil cleanup on the Gulf Coast. Within a week, Cooley was promoted to supervisor and worked there for nearly three months.
Repka is impressed with Cooley.
"She has brought herself up and she's become a strong woman," Repka said. "She's very determined. She doesn't (have) anything to stand in her way now and she wants to better her life. And she'll do whatever it takes to get there."
These days, the future is looking bright for Cooley. She's preparing to move into a new home and is interviewing with potential employers.
Cooley is also sharing her story. Earlier this month, she addressed recent graduates of Pacific Gateway's Construction Apprenticeship Pathways program, of which Cooley is an alumna.
"I saw a very poised woman and a mentor for our graduates," said Cecile Walters, who manages the Construction Apprenticeship program. "She truly commanded their attention. Her story was one that is a journey that some have also had to follow and she truly offered them a sense of hope."
Cooley said she is happy to open up about her experiences.
"It's very exciting that I can share my story and challenges in life and how I can constantly keep on going no matter what obstacle comes my way," she said. "It's given me a chance to open up, that it may help someone else."