Andrea was always good at writing. She planned to be a reporter to pay the bills and then travel and write books. Today she uses her writing skills and the compassion learned in her own life for the express purpose of helping people “with things that I have been through.” She has joined a peer program in mental health where workers and clients have similar experiences. Andrea is a peer advocate at Behavioral Health of Butte County and a peer assistant at North Valley Catholic Social Services. Her life of thirty-eight years has prepared her for this work.
Dunsmuir is Andrea’s hometown. Her father died when she was twelve and her mother was forty-two when she was born. Her family consists of several half brothers and sisters from her mother’s previous marriages. The closest sibling in age to Andrea is a brother seven years older, and he was the only sibling in the house when she was growing up. By the time Andrea was in high school her mother was suffering from early onset Alzheimer’s disease and they fought constantly. Andrea used school and school activities as an escape. In 1995, at the end of her senior year, her mother moved out and left her alone.
After high school Andrea moved to Chico and attended three semesters at the university. During her fourth semester she was part of the CSU, Chico Study Abroad program. She was immersed in the French language in Pau, France. Her experiences abroad made it difficult to return to the student life she left behind in Chico. So she decided to drop out of school and try life on her own. As she says, “I was young.”
She worked at different jobs in different places. During her migration she met her ex-husband. She was attracted to his traveling ways – his free way of getting around. They had little money and were homeless often, but they enjoyed hopping on freight trains. Smoking and doing drugs appealed to neither Andrea nor her husband. This vagabond life ended in 1999 with the birth of her son, Byron.
But trouble laid ahead. Her husband struggled with mental illness. He was emotionally controlling and at times physically abusive. He went to prison for two years for abuse; they divorced when he was released from prison. His incarceration was followed by two years at Atascadero Hospital. During these years Andrea worked, cared for her son, and went to Shasta Community College. She had to be persistent; it took her three years to get her Associate Degree. It was 2003.
Andrea’s attraction to her ex-husband remained strong and her co-dependency brought them back together again. Another son, Edward, was born. By this time Andrea had lost her desire for travel, and she wanted to settle down. She returned to Chico and to the university. Again she was tenacious. After much starting and stopping her studies (she also worked to support and care for her two children) she graduated in 2010 with a B.A. Degree in Journalism. Immediately she became an intern for Chico News and Review and later a reporter for the Red Bluff Daily News. While in Red Bluff, she covered stories for all the offices of the city (supervisors, city police, and sheriff) as well as crime. In addition, she was the weekend person reporting events like rodeos and carnivals. Her work included photography.
After a year and a half she moved with her two sons to Buffalo to be with her children’s family. While there, her oldest son was diagnosed with brain cancer. After his surgery he wanted to return to Chico, and this they did as soon as possible. He had seven weeks of radiation and chemotherapy. Several months later the cancer returned. During his treatment Andrea cared for him and was not able to work. On Christmas morning in 2013 her fourteen year-old son Byron died.
Andrea lost a son, had no job, and no other means of support for herself and for Edward. All the donations given for the treatment of Byron’s cancer and her money reserves had been spent. By June she was two months behind in her rent and became homeless. A friend took them in, but that lasted only a month. Home now was their van. In a helpless voice Andrea described the last straw that sent her over the edge. A man entered the van and “stole my backpack right in front of me.” Andrea was taken to the psychiatric hospital for seven days, and her son stayed with a friend.
Upon her release from the hospital Andrea received help from Butte County Behavioral Health. The hospital sent Andrea and her son to the Torres Shelter where they stayed for three months during the fall of 2014. Both liked having a set bedtime and a set mealtime. Andrea expressed how valuable it was to have “just a good meal every night — that took the burden off my back.” She had food stamps, but cooking a warm meal in a van was almost impossible.
The happiest part of their stay at Torres Shelter was when Pat Macias, president of MONCA (Museum of Northern California Art), came with supplies for them to paint once a week. Andrea and Edward could just simply be together and do something creative. During their stay at the Shelter , Service Coordinator Melanie quickly noted, and commented to Andrea, that she was truly working hard to get out of homelessness. To have someone notice and then give encouragement helped Andrea push forward even harder.
While Edward was at school during the day Andrea had appointments at Behavioral Health. There she saw an ad for an advocate position. Soon Andrea was on a path to a new career. As she says “I could not go back to reporting.” Interviewing people, getting all the information, then leaving to write about their experiences was not enough. She felt she had more to give. She wanted to get the information in order to help someone. The abuse in her marriage, the struggle to survive, and the death of her son made social work more valuable to Andrea than reporting the news. Today she brings those experiences to her work as a peer provider and her clients see her as someone who knows what they are going through.