Karen Ballew had it made. After high school, she attended Palm Beach (Fla.) Community College on a softball scholarship, where her team won the state championship twice. After college, Ballew rose in the ranks at Publix, where for 15 years she was a manager for the well-regarded grocery chain.
But when her mother became ill, priorities quickly shifted, and she retired from Publix to become a caregiver. One of the last things Ballew’s mom told her was, “This is what you are destined to do.”
What’s amazing about this sacrifice is that when Ballew was 10 years old, her mother abandoned her. After her parents’ divorce, Ballew was raised by her father. The situation was loving but left a void. “Growing up without a mother, I always felt like the odd one out. It was just me and my dad,” she remembers.
From that young age, she had learned how to motivate herself to reach her goals. She completed a Georgia college’s certified nursing assistant (CNA) program because it was affordable and short.
“I had no idea about medical careers, but after becoming a caregiver, I learned quickly what it means. After Mom passed, I enrolled at Lanier Technical College, because I wanted to follow through with the idea,” she explains.
“I worked as a CNA in a hospital for a couple of years after graduation, but it wasn’t enough,” she adds. One day, Ballew found herself talking with the college’s emergency medical services (EMS) instructor, who told her, “We need you.”
To become an EMS, Ballew first had to conquer a fear of math, thinking, “It’s been 30 years since high school, and I don’t know if I can do that.” But she challenged herself and succeeded.
Likewise, she became involved in SkillsUSA and was elected as her chapter’s vice president. Ballew says she wasn’t always a leader and remembers being “very shy, very introverted” back in high school. “I wouldn’t call and order a pizza on the phone. I had zero confidence,” she points out.
Student activities built the confidence she lacked and helped her shine. “Once I found out about SkillsUSA, I was enthralled,” she says. “I loved it.”
Ballew was soon a five-time SkillsUSA medalist. She earned three state gold medals, in Job Skill Demonstration (2018), American Spirit Award (2017, team event) and Nurse Assisting (2016), as well as two national bronze medals in American Spirit (2017) and Nurse Assisting (2016). Her college team for American Spirit Award “knocked it out of the park,” she says.
‘Surround yourself with greatness’
Ballew has also reinvented herself physically, losing 95 pounds over five years. “I started eating clean and exercising, and in 2012, I ran my first 5K,” she says.
Three 5K races and one 10K followed in 2013, leading to the Fort Lauderdale Marathon in February 2014 — 26.2 long miles of focus and commitment. She intended only to run the half marathon but ended up completing the full race with her stepsister and stepmother.
Ballew lives in Winder, Ga., and works for Motorsport Emergency Services and Community Health Care as an advanced emergency medical technician. She is also a lab assistant for the CNA dual enrollment program at Lanier Tech. Always an achiever, Ballew has earned three technical certificates and may return to school to get a degree in emergency management.
“I am so proud she represents Lanier Technical College,” says lead SkillsUSA advisor Kari Register. Ballew received the college’s Georgia Occupational Award of Leadership (GOAL) in 2016 and was runner-up for the state.
Ballew, 48, advises other students, “Find your passion and what drives you. Your journey begins at the end of your comfort zone, so don’t let fears keep you from greatness. We all have undeveloped potential, no matter what our age or education.
“When you surround yourself with greatness, you become part of that greatness,” she adds. “I would say my SkillsUSA experience has done just that for me.”