Of all the things Pensola Parsons has been through, from abuse to rape to drugs and jail, it was something that didn’t happen to her that turned her life around.
How she fought her way back from that low point to a good job and now owning a home is astounding and inspiring to those who meet her.
Parsons was literally on the edge of throwing her life away Oct. 17, 2001, her daughter’s birthday, while deep in the throes of nearly 20 years of drug and alcohol abuse. She had left her daughter, Charlene, with her mother as she roamed the streets of Augusta, toting her belongings in a green garbage bag, but she always tried to make it back for that one day.
“That was the only time she knew she was going to see me,” Parsons said, tears welling in her eyes and her voice choking nearly 12 years later. “Everybody in my family knew that’s the one time we’re going to see Penny, you’re going to see your mama. This particular birthday I never made it. I couldn’t make it. I just couldn’t make it.”
Her daughter had been calling her beeper throughout the day. As Parsons stood on the edge of an empty motel swimming pool, consumed with killing herself, it suddenly hit her: The beeper had gone silent.
“My thought was, ‘Oh my gosh, she’s given up.’ Not on me. But on her,” Parsons said. “Then I thought about, well, I know when I gave up on me. What is going to happen to her?”
It was then that things changed.
“For a minute I got this clarity,” she said. “God gave me this clarity at my most undeserving moment. He came and got me.”
She went into detox and for the first time was treated for depression and for the lingering effects of childhood abuse and rape. She was able to get into the residential treatment program at Hope House and has been clean and sober since. But it also meant she would have to get a job, and for that she was able to go to The Job Connection at Goodwill.
“Goodwill gave me a chance,” Parsons said. She started as a cook at an alcohol and drug rehabilitation facility.
“Yeah, I know how to cook,” Parsons said she told them. “They didn’t say, ‘Do you know how to cook well?’ ”
From there she used her experiences, informally counseling some of the residents, and moved up to a direct care position and then assistant unit director.
“Nobody gave me these jobs,” Parsons said. “I got training for them and got promoted. They kept coming to me for the promotion. Each time I was scared.”
In every job, people have been seeking her out, said Meredith Stiff, a former executive director of Goodwill Works Foundation. Parsons was the Augusta 2005 Graduate of the Year for Goodwill and the International Graduate of the Year for all of Goodwill, she said.
Of all the graduates, “Pensola inspires me the most,” Stiff said. “If she sets her mind to something, she accomplishes it.”
Parsons gives back to the agency by volunteering and has pledged $10,000 to its campaigns, making her one of the largest individual donors, Stiff said, even though that amount is “extremely sacrificial” for her.
But it is very important to Parsons to go, in her words, “from a taker to a giver.”
Now 50 and with a good job at Bridgestone, there was one thing missing.
Stiff told her about Turn Back the Block, an effort to revitalize and rehabilitate historic homes in Harrisburg and connect them with deserving families. Families can qualify for interest-free mortgages, along with a lot of sweat equity, to help rebuild Harrisburg.
Parsons put in the time, closed on a home Thursday and started moving in Friday.
There is a sweet arc to that story for Stiff.
“From homelessness to homeowner,” she said. “I believe she will be instrumental in building up Harrisburg.”
It is more than just a home to Parsons.
“Just like my life, I’m coming full circle in this,” she said. “They want me in that neighborhood. They want me to build the neighborhood up, to show people the pride in that area. When they want someone like you to build up a neighborhood, it says a lot about how God can turn your whole life around.”