Sandra Timberlake

Stepping out of her comfort zone has led Sandra Timberlake into a whole new world of wonder. Wanting the same for others who’ve been in her shoes, she says her mission is to help underserved populations reach beyond cultural norms. It’s a tall order, but Timberlake’s done it.

The Tennessee mother of four began changing her life through a welfare-to-work program. She graduated and took a job at its family health center, a clinic serving uninsured patients. After more than 17 years there, Timberlake realized she needed more skills to advance.

When she enrolled in administrative office technology at Tennessee College of Applied Technology (TCAT) in Nashville, Timberlake was blown away by the program. “It teaches you to have that responsibility,” she says.

The program also “teaches the whole person,” she adds. “Not just the rigorous, rock-solid academics, but effective communication soft skills. You know when you get an email, and you’re thinking, ‘What is she really trying to say?’ You get an email from me, you know where I’m coming from.”

Timberlake graduated from TCAT–Nashville in August with numerous honors, including Outstanding Student of the Year, for which she was awarded a new car, a Chevy Spark.

Before graduating, Timberlake decided to meet with influential decision-makers and share what the school system had to offer. By writing letters, she and fellow students made appointments to meet the state officials.

“I learned a valuable lesson from Sen. [Jeff] Yarbro,” she says. “During the time he agreed to meet with me, the [state Senate was in session], and his bill was coming up. … So I’m thinking, ‘Hey, I’ve got a meeting with him, so I’m going to go tell him A, B and C.’ ”

The senator took the lead and asked Timberlake about herself. With the clock ticking, she missed her opportunity to discuss A, B and C — and to discuss the TCAT system.

Not wanting that to happen again, she came up with a mnemonic to keep her on point: “TCAT — Technology education that is Current, Affordable and Timely for all adult learners.”

When she registered at the college, Timberlake learned about SkillsUSA. She eventually competed in Extemporaneous Speaking at the local and regional levels. The student was impressed by these opportunities, but the national conference in Louisville, Ky., was a true eye-opener.

A new frame of mind

“I met Donald J. Hermanek Sr., vice president and chief client officer with Insurance Auto Auctions, during SkillsUSA TAG Tuesday,” a training and networking event, Timberlake explains.

“He motivated me,” she adds emphatically. “His words of encouragement to me were, ‘You are the best of the best and an upcoming future leader.’ This is a memory I will carry the rest of my life.”

Hermanek offered her a job, but another opportunity surfaced back in Nashville, one that felt right. Timberlake is now an administrative program assistant with Christian Community Services.

“I’ve always said I want to reach back and mentor,” she notes. “I want to learn my job well enough that I can bring somebody else forward, and maybe develop a program. … So [at] whatever company, that’s what I want to do. I want to keep it going forward.”

Education and work helped Timberlake move beyond the projects into a Habitat for Humanity home. In meeting the requirements, she worked on her own house and others in her neighborhood.

Changing her lifestyle included getting healthy. Weighing more than 230 pounds, wobbling and taking five medications, she learned about nutrition and joined a program that helped her lose weight and run a half-marathon.

Timberlake’s now in a happy marriage, working at a job she loves, living in her own home and healthy — and showing others how to break the cycle.

How her obstacles became opportunities

When Sandra Timberlake’s first husband left, she had to move into public housing with four children. Because of the unsafe environment, she came up with these house rules:

  1. I am Mama.
  2. Tough times do not last; tough people do.
  3. If you cannot see the front porch, you have gone too far, get back: Refer to rules No. 1 and 2.

Living in the projects, Timberlake says, she noticed things that did not sit well.

“What caught my attention more than anything else was the realization that in my row of 12 units, seven [families] were related. Then I heard a mother tell her 17-year-old daughter, who was 6 months pregnant and two months shy of her 18th birthday, ‘When you turn 18, you can have your own project.’ It was at that moment I decided, ‘I have to break this generational cycle.’

“Being a woman of faith, I know that with God, nothing is impossible. Despite obstacles, I knew even then that with opportunities, I could overcome these obstacles and become self-sufficient,” she explains.

Using this “obstacles turned into opportunities” formula, what follows is how Timberlake chose to break her own generational cycle:

  • Obstacle: no job.
    Opportunity: graduating in 1999 from St. Thomas Health Services’ Jobs in Health Care welfare-to-work program.
  • Obstacle: no vision for the future.
    Opportunity: graduating from Christian Community Services Inc. (CCSI).Timberlake says the latter helped her start leaving a legacy of self-sufficiency for her children and others.
  • Obstacle: lack of money.
    Opportunity: graduating in 2001 from Dave Ramsey’s Financial Peace University.
  • Obstacle: living in projects.
    Opportunity: In 2004, purchasing a family home through Habitat for Humanity.
  • Obstacle: overweight and in poor health.
    Opportunity: being one of four in the pilot group of Nashville’s New Beginnings program. She lost weight and completed the St. Jude Rock ‘N’ Roll Nashville half-marathon.
  • Obstacle: not able to advance on the job without learning more skills.
    Opportunity: entering TCAT–Nashville via the Reconnect program.

Now Timberlake’s personal mission is to help other underserved people break these cycles. This can be done, she says, by peeling back the blinders that have become the norm, and by offering confirmed practical and spiritual solutions to life’s toughest and most challenging circumstances.