Out of the Fire – How one woman’s story is changing lives

If there is one universal truth to childhood, it’s that there is a space under a child’s bed where secrets are stuffed like pennies in a piggybank. When Melissa Garcia-Leeper was nine years old, she kept a photo of a woman with wind-swept blonde hair safely hidden away under the weight of a twin mattress. Almost all of the woman’s face is disguised by the photographer’s angle and these long, wispy locks are splayed across her forehead.

For more than 20 years, this photo was how Garcia-Leeper knew her biological mother, Virginia – somewhere near her 16th birthday, centered in the white lines of photo matte paper. To Garcia-Leeper, this image was a saving grace from the cruelty she experienced at the hands of her father and his new wife. If it were ever found by the woman raising her, though, this same photo would have brought on an immediate jealousy over the life her husband once had.

Virginia’s memory was kept distant by Garcia-Leeper’s parents for most of her life. A mention of Virginia was like bad manners – something that wasn’t done or talked about at the dinner table. That was accepted and never disputed by a child already branded a troublemaker for her connection to a woman who had died in a car accident years before.

The story Garcia-Leeper has to tell now is like a fairytale turned on its end, where the dark plot twists get darker and the characters are unpredictable. The difference, though, between her story and the ones shared with children tucked away for the night are the true, grim details of the emotional and sporadic physical abuse she endured for close to 15 years before she was able to turn her life around.

While another person might have dwelled on the tragedies that befell him or her, Garcia-Leeper keeps the memories an arm’s length away – safe in her past – but where she can conjure them up to inspire others. In those hollowed, shadowy recesses of the soul where some people find a place to feel sorry for themselves, Garcia-Leeper has discovered an unbreakable will.

After leading the lives of a runaway, a shoplifter, a battered woman and a single mother, she somehow found it in herself to go back to school to attain a career. That path eventually led to a role as an admissions representative, helping students change their lives in the same way she did her own. What she shared of her story with potential students and now what she reveals of her past to other admissions reps is inspiring those around her to change their lives.

Storytelling

The story Melissa Garcia-Leeper tells about her life is painful to hear. It comes out broken – divided up into manageable bits and pieces she feels her listeners can acceptably take away. There are always limits to how much and what she tells. As an admissions rep, her primary role is to listen to students talk. If she found a similarity in their story with her life, she shared her experiences with them, not to close a sale or to make a bond, but to be there in the moment with them, like her mother in the withering photograph.

No one walks away unaffected. No matter what part of her story Garcia-Leeper chooses to share, no one ever forgets, especially the students who could relate to someone who understands the demanding expectations and deep disappointments of life. She shared a little of what happened to her with the students convinced they couldn’t do it – couldn’t find the time, the money or the support from family to make themselves better.

She shared more of her story with the ones who needed more – the ones at critical moments of their lives. Women locked in abusive relationships, trying to find a way out. That was her. Shoplifters who wanted to start shoving something more legitimate into their pockets. She ran away from home and shoplifted food from convenience stores when her parents refused to feed her. Single mothers with families depending on them. She knew for some
time that she was going to leave the father of her children Рher fianc̩ Рplanning a new life for her and her two babies.

At times, students found her ability to relate nearly unfathomable. It was almost as if she had been there with them when whatever it was happened. When a husband walked out. When they were behind bars. Garcia-Leeper’s story served as inspiration to them, drawing them closer to their adviser who also faced stiff challenges and never gave up.

“Thanks to her, I’m still in my marriage today,” said Vanessa Robinson, a 27-year-old graduate of United Education Institute – Chula Vista. Garcia-Leeper enrolled Robinson into the Dental Assisting program in 2001. “She listened to what I had to say and gave me advice on how to handle my situation. I was just a student looking for advice from someone older than me and I knew she had been there. She seemed like a person I could go to and vent.”

The Interview

There are hundreds of students like Robinson whom Garcia-Leeper has met with over the years. Students who came in with serious cases of self-doubt. Only after engaging in a discussion about the lowest times of their lives with someone who finally understood, did they find it in themselves to pursue an education.

For Garcia-Leeper, the process of interviewing students is very emotional. Occasionally, there are students who know exactly what they want from their educational experience. They need encouragement, just a little guidance in how to and where to fill out the appropriate paperwork. Sometimes, though, she sees more in people than they see in themselves and, given her own experiences, it can be frustrating for her when students don’t see or believe in the possibilities. It’s that self-inflicted denial that causes some potential students to turn away from the new
life they want.

So, instead of pushing too hard, Garcia-Leeper listens for an opening – a place where the student’s experiences and hers intersect. It is in those moments, when students hint at something deeply personal, that she is able to open up a broader conversation by sharing something similar that’s happened to her. Once the students believe they can do it, many times they are able to see the same opportunities for themselves.

“It’s important not to take over the interview because it becomes more about you than them,” said Garcia-Leeper. “You share a portion of your story – just enough to build that inspiration and that confidence to follow through with their goals. “Some of the students I enrolled respected that I have gone through things in my life, too. How I was ‘supposed to turn out’ is what drives me. At a young age, it made me angry. Now it just drives me. It’s like an internal flame that won’t go away. It will always be there, like I have to prove to myself, ‘Yes, I can do this.'”

Daylight

All children have at least one traumatic moment in their childhood that they remember forever: a broken arm, a spanking, maybe a parent who walked out on them. Garcia-Leeper’s childhood was woven together by many moments like these. At three years old, a car crash claimed her mother’s life. Her childhood was filled with physical abuse at the hands of her father.

At 11 years old, her family locked her in the bathroom for most of the summer and then the garage, with nothing but a bed to lay on and her mind to search through. Those might have been the worst moments – the moments
when she was left alone to think about what was happening to her. She described this feeling of isolation sometimes when visiting with students. How she would study the daylight that snuck in the door’s small cracks for hours. How she sang herself to sleep and prayed that her stepmother would lose her control over her father. How she prayed for a new life.

Her father’s abuse eventually became sexual. Out of options and given the fact that no adult had ever believed her stories in the past, she reluctantly confided in her stepmother. The next day her father was behind bars.

“This was the first time she ever believed me,” Garcia-Leeper said. “I gained a new respect for her. She had been abusive, not a good mom in any sense, but I told myself this is a person I want to stay in contact with because she believed me.”

The two moved into an apartment together, but when they still failed to see eye to eye, Garcia-Leeper turned to foster homes. Throughout her early teens, she was in and out of schools, sitting down to dinner at different tables in strange towns. She eventually ran from one abusive situation to another with the hope of finding something better. She ran away to Mexico when she was 16, got involved in an abusive relationship and gave birth to two children by the time she was 19.

Garcia-Leeper kept in touch with her fiancé’s mother, who suggested she enroll in United Education Institute and start a career in business. The advice completely changed her life.

Starting Over

For the better part of three years, Garcia-Leeper rose at 4 a.m., lugged two children across the Mexican border, waited for a bus to take the kids to daycare, and then rode a trolley into the heart of San Diego to attend classes. On Jan. 3, 1996, Garcia-Leeper graduated with a degree in Business Office Administration.

As if the dead ends in her personal life weren’t enough, more came by way of a portrait studio and a job handling legal work for an attorney. Even with a degree in her hand, a new life wasn’t entirely secured. About the time her frustration reached peak levels, Garcia-Leeper answered an employment verification phone call from UEI to clarify her employment.

She launched into a description of her hard times, prompting the caller to ask her to check into a vacant front desk position for UEI – San Diego.

Starting out at the front desk of UEI, Garcia-Leeper learned as much about the business as she could. Conversations about conversion goals, the interviewing process and the need for prompt and sincere responses she picked up on through informal discussions with her colleagues. When she felt she understood the goals of the company, she took a position in admissions – a position that she found almost catered to someone with her background.

“Even when I was a kid and all these horrible things were happening, I knew I was going to have an impact on people – a lot of people,” Garcia-Leeper said. “I thought I was going to be famous. What better way to make an impact on people than being famous? Or at least that was my interpretation at a young age. When I became involved in admissions, it become apparent to me that I was fulfilling my calling.”

Garcia-Leeper has been one of IEC’s top admissions representatives, earning her place in IEC’s Pinnacle Club for top admissions performers for three straight years. Before accomplishing those achievements, though, she literally had to start at square one of the IEC organization. Garcia-Leeper’s position at the front desk turned into one in admissions for UEI’s San Diego campus. She followed this move by becoming the first admissions rep to start classes for the Chula Vista campus. She was promoted to senior rep soon after moving to Chula Vista and, with a little more than three years in admissions, she applied for a brand new pilot position with IEC, Community Affairs Manager. In this role, she helped develop a successful CAD program designed to build business relationships with IEC’s sponsoring agencies, such as WIA, TRA and Vocational Rehab.

By 2003, Garcia-Leeper had earned professional recognition for her performance, as she was nominated for IEC’s CAD rep of the year. The same year, she became Director of Admissions for IEC, then moved on to a spot as Regional Manager of Admissions before finally, in July of 2006, she was promoted to Corporate Director of Admissions.

New Challenges

Part of Garcia-Leeper’s rise can also be attributed to a new organizational approach to admissions adopted by IEC. IEC executives hired Jim Mathis as its new CEO to bail the company out of monetary trouble last spring. One of his first priorities was to put more emphasis on admissions. A similar strategy worked for Mathis when he was President and CEO of Wyo-Tech before selling it to Corinthian Colleges, Inc. in 2002. When Mathis came on board, only a dozen or so of the company’s 430 employees were graduates of its colleges, but promoting Garcia-Leeper was an immediate decision.

“I knew when I interviewed her that I wanted her to be my corporate director of admissions,” said Mathis. “You just have to listen to the way she manages.”

Before Garcia-Leeper came on board, IEC’s previous management hired “more polished” professionals, as Mathis says. They didn’t buy into the school’s programs and philosophy, which made them more difficult to sell. When we analyzed the top performers, we found most of them were graduates of our schools.

IEC’s new mentality is the cornerstone of Mathis’ management style: hire some former students who have personally experienced the schools and believe in them. This sort of approach takes the wonder out of how education can change a life. In that sense, Mathis struck gold with Garcia-Leeper.

“She’s the perfect embodiment of what our schools can do for students who have faced unbelievable challenges,” Mathis said. “This is a person who is very determined and dedicated. She wanted to truly change her life and circumstances and get out of the rut she was in.”

The rut runs deep through Garcia-Leeper’s memory. Yet, when she recounts the stories from 20-some years ago, she speaks about it distantly, knowing that the events shaped her into who she is, and she is now confident in her ability to use them in empowering potential students.

“As I start to remember everything, I feel such a tremendous sadness for that little girl and am unbelievably amazed as to how I got through it,” Garcia-Leeper said. “I wonder about how any parent could do what my parents had done and treat your own child the way they did. It’s hard to remember how I did it or what I was thinking because I don’t really know or remember. I think I zoned out a lot and jumped into my own little world in my head where I was someone and I mattered and was loved.”

Family Life


The last time Garcia-Leeper saw her extended family was at her birthday party at Disneyland in 1983. That thought revisited her in the summer of 2001 when she came across the dated photograph of her mother – the one she once pushed under her bed. After seeing the photo, it began to wear on her mind that she needed to find out where her mother was buried. Suddenly determined, Garcia-Leeper began searching the Internet for that or any other bits of information she could find about her family.

Garcia-Leeper conducted about two months of research before coming upon a web site that could help her search for lost relatives. Six months later, she found her mother’s family in Texas after more than two decades apart. She traveled to Amarillo to participate in a family reunion. She sat in the living room of her grandmother’s house, surrounded by aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces and nephews – some of whom could fill in the backstory of her mother.

“They gave me many pictures of both my mother and myself when I was little, as well as stories of my early childhood and my mother growing up – what she felt about me and so on,” Garcia-Leeper said. “I also discovered that I had a family that had loved me and had spent years looking for me, which was an amazing feeling and filled an emptiness I never knew I had.”

Her newly found extended family attended her wedding to her husband, Omar, which she refers to as one of the happiest days of her life.

“Ever since our wedding, I’ve had this sense of peace I never knew I had within myself. Now my family brings that to me everyday. If my mother was still alive, I know she would be proud.”

Along with snapshots of her newly discovered family, photos of her mother hang in the hall of her home where her children shout and chase one another. The unknown woman who was once her “biological” mother is now real: Virginia, a warm, sweet woman who held Garcia-Leeper in her arms as a baby and wished the world for her. Another photo sits on her desk at work. This too is of her mother, her face fully in focus and her hair pulled neatly
behind her. For the first time in Garcia-Leeper’s life, the images of Virginia are a reminder of all she’s found, not of what she’d lost.

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