Spring is here for Alfreda Moses.
She struggled for years as a victim of childhood abuse, then domestic abuse as an adult. She abused drugs. She lost her children at one point.
But for the 51-year-old mother of five and grandmother of 12, earning her high school-equivalent diploma is only the latest step she’s taken to change her life.
“The pain will always be there, but I’m OK,” she said. “I’m strong now.”
She's strong enough to work double shifts as a Certified Nursing Assistant before doing battle with her nemesis, math class; strong enough to believe that she could move up in the medical field, diploma in hand; and strong enough to want to be a role model for her family.
“I want to show my boys that no matter how old you are, you can go back and get it,” she said.
Moses earned the adult education program’s Faculty Award, and gave an accompanying speech at the graduation ceremony Wednesday evening. Her son, Carl McNeil, filmed it from the audience.
“It just makes me proud to see her triumph,” he said.
There was a lot to overcome.
Breaking a cycle
Moses surprises herself with how quickly the stories spill out.
She previously lived in California and Arizona. As a child, she was sexually abused. That trauma, which research has shown can adversely affect behavioral, academic and social skills, lingered into adulthood. She never finished high school.
“It just was hard,” she said. “My self-esteem sucked.”
Moses turned to drug use. She also had children early in life and readily admits that she struggled to raise them.
“That was my way of coping. … My kids suffered (because of) it,” she said.
At one point, she lost custody of her children. She went to rehab and got custody back, but would sometimes relapse into substance abuse.
Her children learned to keep her at "arm's length," Moses said, mired in a will-she, won’t-she cycle.
Counseling helped her battle substance abuse and to recognize toxic relationships in her life. About four years ago, she left an abusive relationship — often a difficult step for victims — and spent time in a domestic violence shelter before living on her own.
But her abuser followed — a common behavior in such relationships.
“He found me. It scared me half to death,” Moses said.
She asked a neighbor to take her to a bus station, and she fled. But she also decided to run to something.
One of her sons was living in Billings, and he suggested that Moses move there. She did, and slowly, wins started piling up. She found work in retail stores. Family support helped. She began adult education classes in 2016. Two more sons moved to the area and found steady work.
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“My life has turned completely around since I’ve been here,” she said. “This is home now, for me.”
McNeil marveled at the changes he saw in his mom, but also at the circumstances under which she made them, uprooting herself to move to a new state.
“She’s moved to a completely different environment,” he said.
For Moses, having a support system has emboldened her enough that she's comfortable sharing her story.
“I know I can get help anytime I need it,” she said.
Moses passed tests for four out of five subjects required for her diploma quickly enough. But math remained a hurdle.
She worked throughout her time taking classes. About two years ago she got a job as a CNA at St. John’s United in its network of assisted living homes.
She found the work more satisfying and invested personally in it.
“When you have a resident that you’re really close to, and they pass … to come to school is really, really hard,” she said.
But she also found strength in those connections, ties that helped her cope with her past.
“That’s one of the reasons my residents are so important to me,” she said.
Balancing work and school could be challenging; one of Moses’ attempts at a math test came after a double shift, and it didn’t go well.
So Moses changed her work schedule, and began attending an afternoon class. She credited teacher Kathy Jackson for sticking with her.
“She worked with me and she worked with me. She found different ways,” Moses said. “I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for her.”
This spring, Moses passed the math test. Educators are quick to argue that she’s more responsible for her success than anyone.
“It’s Freda. She hung in there by grit and gumption,” said counselor Char Hurd. "And guts."
In her speech at graduation Wednesday, Moses again deferred credit. She was inspired by a younger student whose car would break down constantly, and yet always found a way to be in class.
“If he can push through, so can I,” she said.
She hopes that's a lesson her own family takes away, including her grandchildren, four of whom are school-aged — that “Grandma can do it. I’ve got to stay in school. I’ve got to work hard,” Moses said.
“I just want them to be proud of me.”