Tar Heel of the Week

From addiction to college: A life transformed

CorrespondentAugust 4, 2012 


As a child, Palestine Small suffered extreme neglect and abuse at the hands of her family, including being shot by one relative and being fed alcohol from the age of 9 to help her tolerate regular beatings. An addict by her early teens, by her late teens, Palestine was in the judicial system, often homeless, and sometimes suicidal. Finally, Triangle Residential Options For Substance Abusers (TROSA) helped change her life. Today, she is sober, part of a prison ministry, and a mentor to college students. Palestine will use her GSK Opportunity Scholarship at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to study religion and sociology. Eventually, she hopes to pursue a master’s degree in behavioral health and devote her life to helping addicts turn their lives from defeat to victory.

CHUCK LIDDY — cliddy@newsobserver.com

  • Palestine Small Born: Feb. 22, 1966, in Norfolk, Va. Residence: Chapel Hill Career: Student, pursuing a bachelor’s degree in sociology and religion, UNC-Chapel Hill; student advisor, Durham Technical Community College Awards: GlaxoSmithKline Opportunity Scholarship, 2012 Volunteering: In addition to her job mentoring college students and her volunteer work with recovering addicts at TROSA, Small volunteers with prison inmates through the prison ministry at her church, Orange Grove Missionary Baptist in Durham. She also works with people who are living with HIV through CAARE, Inc. in Durham.

— Palestine Small’s past has a lot of low points – from being taken from her mentally ill mother at the age of 5 to enduring beatings at the hands of her aunt to a long history of drug addiction and violence.

But at 46, she sees a future full of high points.

With the help of Durham’s TROSA substance abuse program, Small has beaten addiction and plans to devote her life to helping others. Already, she has started working with women at TROSA and volunteering in prisons and with people who have HIV.

Later this month, Small will start as a full-time student at UNC-Chapel Hill with the help of a GlaxoSmithKline Opportunity Scholarship. She already earned her associate degree from Durham Technical Community College and plans to earn a master’s degree and work to help other drug addicts recover.

It’s an amazing transformation for the woman who radiated confidence from behind the podium at GlaxoSmithKline’s Research Triangle Park offices, where she received the award in July. Small stood tall and spoke eloquently about her hopes to inspire others with her story.

“My life is proof that your past doesn’t have to decide your future,” Small said at the ceremony for this year’s four scholarship recipients, who received up to $20,000 each. “I didn’t have a very good start in life, but I intend to blaze a trail on my road to glory.”

Sandra Alger, director of women’s programs at TROSA, remembers Smalls first days at the program, when she cried every day, but then went on to work her way up to head chef in the kitchen and earned mostly A’s in her college classes.

Alger says Small’s turnaround stands out in a 25-year career in which she’s witnessed many success stories.

“She is so single-minded,” says Alger, who counseled Small throughout her stay at TROSA and remains a friend. “She came in more broken than most; she had never had a life, really. But she wanted to get a life, and she never looked back.”

Traumatic early start

Small (whose first name is pronounced Pal-es-teen’) was born in Virginia and spent much of her youth in the North Carolina town of Belhaven, near the coast in Beaufort County. Her mother was a paranoid schizophrenic, and her father was an alcoholic long-distance truck driver who was often absent.

When authorities realized her mother was unable to care for her and her older sister, Small was placed in foster care, and her mother went to a mental institution. Eventually, the girls were adopted by their aunt, from whom they endured regular beatings and cruelty.

Small says her aunt would shoot and kill the birds in their yard as a warning, to show what might happen to the girls if they were to tell their social worker of the beatings. Once, Small says, her aunt forced her to dig a hole in the backyard that was to be her grave.

Small says her uncle started giving her capfuls of vodka when she was 9 to help her tolerate the beatings – the start of a long history of substance abuse.

When their aunt died, the girls were sent to live with their grandmother, who was 85 at the time. Small says her grandmother was a kinder caretaker. But she was also frustrated with her inability to control her granddaughters, who by then were defiant and unruly.

When Small was 14, her grandmother shot her in the buttocks after she attacked her sister with a cinder block during a fight over a portable stereo.

After that incident, Small was sent to live with her father, whom she didn’t recall ever meeting before then, even though he lived only a few miles away.

Small says his home was a haven of drugs and alcohol; she resumed drinking and experimented with drugs there. She didn’t go to school, and she was expected to take care of herself. Soon, her father sent her to live with a man he said was her brother, who sexually abused her.

She ran away and moved around Belhaven for years, staying with various friends and boyfriends and going through homeless spells.

At one point, Small says, she was raped, beaten on the head, and left outside her father’s home. He simply told her to take a bath and leave.

A few years later, after being held at gunpoint by a man whom she tried to rob, she resolved to change her life. It was 2001, and she was nearly 40, addicted to crack cocaine, and working as a prostitute.

Finding victory

Change didn’t come easily. Her first step was to look for a real job, but she was still struggling with her addictions – unable to pass drug tests even when she was capable of working – and she had little experience.

She heard about the free, live-in program offered by Durham’s TROSA (Triangle Residential Options for Substance Abusers) as she was discharged from another mental health facility, and she was accepted into the program.

“My drug dealer and my boyfriend told me I was joining a cult and that they might kill me,” she says of her decision to move to Durham to enter the program. “But I didn’t feel like I had a lot to lose.”

Small stayed at TROSA four years, nearly twice the normal stay, and credits the program’s staff members, many of whom are recovering addicts themselves, with helping her escape addiction and heal her mind and heart.

“They gave me time to stop and think,” she says, “to go back to that 9-year-old girl and deal with those emotions that I had never allowed myself to deal with.”

She worked at several jobs there and then entered the organization’s scholar program, earning her associate degree at Durham Tech, where she now works as a student counselor.

She started at UNC-CH in the summer and will attend classes full-time this fall. She’s living in an on-campus apartment in Chapel Hill.

“I wanted to have that whole college experience,” she says.

The Opportunity Scholarship is given to students who have overcome adversity to find success. Small has “faced experiences most of us cannot imagine,” says Nancy Pekarek, vice president for communications at GlaxoSmithKline. Yet she has also “discovered the powerful combination of inner strength, commitment and having a dream.”

Small hopes to earn a master’s degree in either public health or social work. She’s not sure exactly what path she’ll take, but she hopes to work on creating solutions that will help the many drug addicts who never see the success she found at TROSA.

“I want to take all of that pain and turn it into power for other people,” she says.

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