Unsinkable Virginia Young returns to Columbia College at age 64.It was time to move back to Missouri.
Virginia Young was originally from the Kansas City, Mo., area but raised in New Jersey. She and her family had returned to Missouri each summer to visit her dad's side of the family, and she realized the Show-Me State felt more like home than crowded, impersonal New Jersey.
"My dad's family was very close, all Christians, and my mom's family wasn't," she says. "I missed that closeness; that more unhurried lifestyle."
A divorce in 1988 was the trigger to pack her three kids and move to tiny Downing in northwest Missouri. The town is close to the Iowa border and she had plenty of relatives nearby.
Two of these children were her ex-husband's.
"They had never known a mommy," laughs the perennially upbeat, smiling mother, now a grandmother. "I became mommy. Even when we divorced, they didn't want to stay with their dad, so they moved with me."
Virginia and her children eventually moved to a 150-year-old farmhouse next to her grandparents' property. Virginia thinks the house served as a Union army hospital and the kids joked, half-seriously, that it was haunted. But they loved the house and their less-stressed lifestyle.
Then the rug was pulled out from under her again as the automotive parts manufacturer she worked for in Kirksville, Mo., shut down and sent its jobs overseas.
"I cried when I had to sell that house," she says.
Back to school
But just as with her divorce, Virginia was determined not to let this trauma pull her down. She was eligible for a year's schooling under the Job Training Partnership Act, and decided to pursue her dream of becoming a nurse. In 1992, she signed up at Kirksville Area Vocational Technical School. Admissions saw the fire in her; of 125 applicants for the nursing program, Virginia was one of just 25 accepted.
Virginia had meanwhile remarried and was very busy with a bevy of kids, full-time school and full-time work at a nursing home. But she was happy.
It happened again in 1993: Her new husband ran off with a blonde.
A week after he left, she came home to find a family of five from her church on her doorstep, suitcases and all. 1993 was a very tough year in Missouri, with catastrophic floods followed by sub-zero temperatures. The family had been living in a machine shed with no heat or water.
"It turned out to be wonderful; a real blessing," she laughs. "She [the other mother] watched all the kids until I was home from school. At mealtime, they would all do their homework together, and their grades went up. God blessed me."
Virginia went on to earn a registered nursing (RN) degree, equivalent to an associate degree, from Indian Hills Community College in Ottumwa, Iowa.
On graduation, she was offered and accepted a job as assistant director of a Columbia nursing home– on condition that she be able to take a European vacation she'd planned for years. When vacation time approached, the facility denied her vacation.
She quit and went anyway.
The next step
Back in the States, Virginia quickly found a nursing job first with a hospice then with a Boonville drug and alcohol treatment center. But her health began to suffer. She had been stricken with diabetes, a heart condition and osteoarthritis, among other issues.
Worse was to come.
In 2004, she was stricken with cancer. Surgery was successful, but the incision developed a methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) infection and she was forced to quit the job she loved. She literally lay in bed for years, and when she was finally cleared to get up, she couldn't walk. She would be wheelchair-bound for life, she was told.
Again she didn't give up. At the tender age of 63, she returned to Columbia College for a bachelor's degree in psychology which she hopes to use teaching special-needs children. It's a job she can do from a chair, she says.
Virginia is the latest recipient of the Stedem Family Endowment, the first scholarship at Columbia College targeted for handicapped students. Its founders, Marty '92 and Jill '96 Stedem, are parents to a handicapped daughter and were determined to provide opportunities for other handicapped students to receive the same excellent Columbia College education they received.
"My age is sort of a standing joke in the classroom," says Virginia, who attends Evening classes with students in their 20s. "Even the instructors are younger than I am!"
Of the scholarship, Columbia College and another chance for renewal, she says more soberly, "I like learning. I needed this. When you're literally housebound for five years you do forget, and the mind starts to go … I needed to go on, get out, meet people, get the gray cells working again."
As to how she kept going through crises that would bring most people to their knees, Virginia says, "I believe that everything you go through, God has put in your path for a reason, to prepare you for the next step. When I worked at the hospice, I was in touch with a lot people who had cancer, for instance. That prepared me for the next step."
In her spare time – it's hard to believe she has any at all—Virginia helps seniors at her church and delivers meals to rural elderly and disabled on a 100-plus-mile route in her wheelchair-accessible van.
"I volunteered to do this not knowing they'd pay for gas," she says, "which they did. That was a real blessing."
"There's always a job for me somewhere."