Potential Delayed, Not Denied
Betty Mills-Robinson’s story is not one of potential denied, but of potential delayed.
At 14, Mills-Robinson left her mother’s warm home, situated as it was in an otherwise difficult North Philadelphia neighborhood, and moved in with an aunt who could offer a safer environment in which to live and go to school. She took full advantage of the opportunity, zipping through high school and steadily moving up the ranks in her career with the City of Philadelphia. Not even an unexpected diagnosis of bipolar disorder, it seemed, could derail the 23-year-old’s upward trajectory.
Mills-Robinson still cannot articulate why the life she had so assiduously built fell apart so completely, but she does have a handle on how it happened. After her 1987 bipolar diagnosis, Mills-Robinson and her doctors had struggled to find a medication that did its job without burdensome side effects. After nearly 15 years of searching, a thought occurred to her: Maybe I don’t have to be on medication“I was feeling good, thinking ‘Oh, I don’t need this medication anymore’, not realizing the reason why I was feeling good was because I was taking medication and doing what I was supposed to do,” she said. “I didn’t realize the seriousness of not taking my medication.”In 2001, she quit taking her medication. Shortly thereafter, she quit her job with the city. It wasn’t long before she found herself living on the street, without medication, and reluctant to accept help. “I don’t know where I thought I was going or what I was going to do without income,” Mills-Robinson said.
While Mills-Robinson found herself lost – however metaphorically – on the streets, she never lost her sense of self. She refused to ask for money, but did cultivate relationships with familiar faces that lived or worked in her regular haunts. Staffers at a local Marriott Hotel were particularly kind, providing food and allowing her to use a bathroom during off hours so she could clean up.
“They didn’t do that for everyone,” she remembered. But there was a limit to what she would accept from someone; even her then-friend and current husband, Lawrence Robinson, couldn’t convince her to seek help; she regularly rebuffed offers of support from family, friends, even former colleagues. Mills-Robinson insisted that she had to “help [herself] and get through this on [her] own.”But she also acknowledges that going off her medication severely impeded her ability to accept help. "I wasn't in my right mind," she said.
As the indignities piled up, Mills-Robinson knew two years was long enough to wander the streets of Philadelphia. In the spring of 2003, a former supervisor introduced her to a community liaison officer with the police department – Mills-Robinson knew quite a few police officers from her time working for the city – who convinced her to allow him to call our Outreach Department.
The year would prove a good one as Mills-Robinson was placed at Project HOME’s Women of Change (WoC) safe haven, where staff helped her attain emergency Social Security benefits, allowing her to finally get medication that felt right. The next step for Mills-Robinson was finding long-term housing. Once her medical care was situated, WoC staff helped her get an opening in Project HOME’s In Community program (a permanent supportive housing program formerly in Adelphia House in Center City), where she took up residence for nearly three years.
Finally feeling stable and secure, Mills-Robinson turned her focus to her interrupted career. Taking classes at the Honickman Learning Center Comcast Technology Labs whetted her appetite for the technology sciences, and that desire compelled her to enroll in classes at the Community College of Philadelphia. She would later transfer to Peirce College, where she earned an associate degree in Desktop Applications for Business in 2008.
Just last month, Mills-Robinson proudly accepted her bachelor’s degree, also in Desktop Applications for Business, from Peirce College.
Mills-Robinson’s renewed focus was not merely limited to her education, however; while excelling academically, she also set her sights on re-acclimating herself to the working world. Initially, she was placed at Women of Change working the reception desk, and later Project HOME’s Employment Services department helped place her with our Development Department part time where she filled a crucial administrative role. The re-acclimation period – coupled with her academic achievements – earned Mills-Robinson a renewed shot at the career with the City she had lost years before. And just last month Mills-Robinson celebrated her promotion to Computer User Support Specialist, a position that requires that she travel to government offices all over Philadelphia helping workers familiarize themselves with upgraded hardware and software packages. It is a position she thoroughly enjoys.
Lawrence – never far away – re-entered her life in 2003, further bolstering Mills-Robinson’s hopes for the future. The two were married in April 2009, and purchased a home in Northeast Philadelphia a few months later.
While her years on the street are long behind her, Mills-Robinson will never forget the help she received while successfully rebuilding her life. She has since become a Project HOME donor – she particularly likes donating electronics, in keeping with her profession – and still maintains contact with Project HOME staff.
“So many good things have happened to me since I got involved with Project HOME; they just brought my life back together,” Mills-Robinson said. “I don’t think I would have been able to accomplish as much as I accomplished [without them]. They make you feel at home. Like a family.”