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Debby Sowell is thankful she is able to buy food... she has a home... she is a teacher.
Sowell, the art teacher at East Middle School, overcame obstacles to achieve her goal and is proud to share her story.
“I grew up poor,” she said. “My Mom had her GED. My Dad had a high school diploma. He wanted me to go to college and harped, ‘Medicine is the way to go’ because he wanted me to have money...something we never had.”
A native of Carroll County, she earned a scholarship to Berea College, where she studied nursing in 1983. “I hated it,” she recalls. “So I quit, got married in 1985 and had children.”
Her dream had been to pursue art, “something I was drawn to since I was a child. I would take aluminum foil and make sculptures. I could also play the piano. But art was off limits in our house. Dad vetoed anything that had to do with it, telling me, ‘Art doesn’t make money,’” she said.
She took up typing. “I was skilled at it because I was such a good piano player,” she said.
As a medical transcriptionist, Sowell ended up working 60 hours a week for $10 an hour and raising three children alone, after getting a divorce when she was 35. “I had no financial support. I lived in government housing. I was on food stamps...there is nothing more humbling,” she said, trying to control her emotions.
When her middle daughter graduated from high school in 2007, Sowell had a 5-year-old, which depressed her because “there was no way I could let her play outside. It just wasn’t the place for a child. I had never been so unhappy.”
Then she heard about K-TAP, the Kentucky Transitional Assistance Program, which assists single mothers who don’t receive child support payments in going to college.
Sowell enrolled in Northern Kentucky University as a college freshman alongside her daughter. “At age 41, I figured out what I wanted to be. I knew I had to make a change...get out of the system,” she said. “I loved it!”
Graduating four years later, she bought a house, got off food stamps and got a job, “A wonderful lesson for my own kids...and other kids. I turned ‘can’ts’ into ‘cans’ and dreams into plans.”
Her dream of art started off being a photographer. “My horizon was so open, I wanted to do it all,” she said with a smile, “even pottery with an emphasis in ceramics and eventually teaching.”
She created her own expression of art, a ceramic piece that she sketched on the board: “a heart vessel,” carved delicately with smoke residue and holes at the bottom (showing her beginnings) and pristine colors at the top (to emphasize her success).
Sowell is not finished, though. “My next goal is my master’s this coming summer!” she said with almost a shout. “I love the middle school setting. That is when students are trying to gain independence and find themselves....What better way than through art?”
Duanne B. Puckett is public relations coordinator for Shelby County Public Schools.