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Sue Reese of Goodwill in Wilmington Turns Her Life Around

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The front desk at Wilmington’s Goodwill Center can be as chaotic as a deli counter at noon. Yet receptionist Sue Reese is unflappable. With a line of impatient visitors waiting for attention, deliveries arriving and telephone lines blinking, Reese picks up the receiver with a smile, “It’s a great day at Goodwill,”  she begins.

Since 2010, Reese, 44, a graduate of Goodwill’s computerized office skills training program, has been the first voice callers hear and the first person to greet them when they open the front door.

“Sue has a lot patience,” says friend and co-worker Kimatha Fleck, human resources specialist at Goodwill. “She has never had a complaint (from the public)—not one.” And Reese has handled some potentially volatile situations, says Fleck. “She took it in stride and it didn’t turn her day around. She’s great.”

But Reese wasn’t always so easygoing and organized. Behind her are years of emotional conflict, depression and substance abuse—things you would never suspect, says Fleck.

Only this past spring did Reese tell her life-changing story publicly for the first time, when she was named the 2011 Achiever of the Year for Goodwill of Delaware and Delaware County. The award is given annually to a graduate of a Goodwill training program who has overcome tremendous obstacles to attain success.

As far back as high school, Reese had problems. “I was a lot of trouble for my mom,” she says. “I was always getting in trouble with the police. I’d have fights with girls in school—I was suspended for that. I struggled through school with grades and friendships. I had friends, but I would switch friends. I pretty much had ups and downs a lot. I would be up—going, going, going—and then my down time, when I just wouldn’t do anything.”

Her mother worried, nagged and prayed. Even her grandmother knew something was amiss. “She has said a lot of times that I didn’t make sense. One minute I’d be fine and the other I’d be screaming and yelling,” Reese says.

She spent her senior year at Brandywine High pregnant with her first son and working two jobs: one in an insurance office mail room during the day; and the other at a grocery store cash register at night. Unsure if she would be able to finish the school year, she chose the co-op education track with only two classes in the morning and the afternoon free for work.

Married in her teens, then divorced at age 20, Reese changed jobs and friends multiple times and sought relief for depression through drugs and alcohol. “I couldn’t focus, I was disorganized,” she says, adding that she had no trouble getting jobs. “I’d hold them down for a year, and then I would be on to something else.

“My family and friends would tell me I needed to see a doctor, but I just thought, ‘they’re wrong, they’re crazy, it’s not me, it’s them.’”

She became pregnant with her second son in 2004. It was a breech delivery, and Reese was left with severe postpartum depression. “I would lie on the couch and not get up—just do the bare necessities that the baby needed,” she says. Still, she didn’t seek help.

Reese was working as an executive secretary and had just bought a house. One day, she left her job and never returned. “I never called,” she says. “Today, I [wonder] ‘what was I thinking?’ I don’t understand my train of thought then.”

Bills came and she would discard them. Eventually, her utilities were cut off. For a time, her mother paid the mortgage. When the baby was 6 months old, Reese’s mother took her children.

Reese lost her house and drifted from friend to friend, feeling sick, unmotivated, and missing her sons. It was hard to stay in touch without a phone. “I felt like they were orphans, and the baby practically didn’t know who I was,” she says. Her mother refused to take her in.

Now Reese says that that was the best thing, “I was overly dependent on my mom,” she says. “I’d fall back on her all the time.

“Finally, I thought, ‘maybe it is me,’” she says. Distraught and suicidal, she checked into the Rockford Center, a residential mental health rehabilitation facility, where she was diagnosed as bipolar and suffering postpartum depression. Through medication and counseling over the following weeks, she put aside her addictions and began to get her life back together.

She moved in with her mother and stepfather and started helping her mom around the house, trying to keep busy so she wouldn’t be tempted to return to her former addictions. “It was a struggle to get through,” she admits, but she was determined not to go back.

When a counselor at the state labor department’s Division of Vocational Rehabilitation referred her to Goodwill for training, she was surprised. “I thought Goodwill was just a store,” she says.

For most people, Goodwill is just a store. The Wilmington center oversees 17 retail outlets in Delaware and Delaware County, Pa., where donated items are sold to the public at bargain prices. But, like Goodwills across the country, the local center offers job skills training and networks with potential employers.

Reese enrolled in a 17-week computer training program. Instructor Kristin Strouss-Peyton remembers her as a “very shy,” quiet student. Reese hardly talked and rarely looked up. But, “she was very motivated and she did very well in class,” Strouss-Peyton says. “I don’t think I had a doubt that she would succeed, but I thought it would be a long road.”

Reese hadn’t worked in nearly five years, her skills needed updating, and she was still questioning whether she had made the right choice. “I didn’t feel I was ready for a job yet,” she says. “Because of my age, I was surprised I did so well. By the end of the class I was able to believe in myself more.”

Sharing a home with her parents and her mentally challenged brother, she worked on staying clear of her former dependencies and tried to be a mother to her children. Her relationship with her older son had deteriorated during the years before she sought help, and she is still working to rebuild it, she says.

As part of the course, Reese interned at the front desk under Fleck’s supervision. After a couple of days, getting to know Fleck and feeling more comfortable, “she opened up,” Fleck says. Because of her good computer skills, staff were soon asking her to do jobs for them. And, from then on, if someone was needed to cover the reception desk, she was the first choice.

When the receptionist position opened up, it was no surprise that everyone was hoping it would go to Reese. “She’s awesome,” says Strouss-Peyton. “Listening to her answer the phone and say, ‘It’s a great day at Goodwill,’—the sunshine in her voice is just incredible. It’s so inviting.” Reese has been proactive in her job, assuming more responsibilities and creating aids that make it easier for others to take over when she’s absent.

Reese’s achievement award came in the wake of losing her mother to cancer. “She was the force behind me,” Reese says. Her mother offered encouragement and drove her to and from training sessions every day. Her mother knew about the award before she passed in April, several weeks before the ceremony. It was difficult for Reese, but, she says, “Goodwill was there for me.”

Reese’s acceptance speech and the short video Goodwill produced about her life brought some in the audience of 600 close to tears. A few individuals thanked her afterward for giving them hope for family members with similar challenges.

“I didn’t think I would be that much of an inspiration,” Reese admits. “I still feel a little uncomfortable telling people, but if it helps someone, I feel better about it.”

Lisa Hartsky, Reese’s counselor at the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation, who attended the award ceremony and was interviewed for the video, attributes Reese’s success to her strong desire to change.

“You’ve got to want it and you’ve got to be motivated,” she says. And Reese “got the support she needed to make it happen. I’m proud of her achievement.”

For someone who has had many dark days, the sunshine in Reese’s phone greeting comes naturally. “I’m happy to come to work,” she says. “I love working here at Goodwill. I watch people come through and I feel really good that we help them.”

And whether visitors to the Goodwill Center are aware or not, Reese is proof that, with motivation, the right help can change a life.

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