Tawanda Campbell, Debra Hancock, Diana Lopez, Margaret Mosher, Teresa Slack, Sandy Uffelman

After losing four different jobs due to the economic downturn in Florida, single mother Debra Hancock decided it was time to do something to make herself more marketable. She enrolled in the medical administrative assisting program at Manatee Technical Institute (MTI) in Bradenton.

Each of her former employers had cut staff or closed, and when Hancock lost the fourth job, she was one month away from qualifying for health insurance. The timing couldn’t have been worse — she discovered she had breast cancer.

“I immediately went and asked for assistance from the health department,” Hancock says. “I just dove in and concentrated on dealing with the cancer. I’ve been in remission now, officially, since February 2010.”

The month before, she started at MTI. By happy coincidence, she ended up interning for Florida Cancer Specialists, the group who did her chemotherapy.

Another hopeful sign came when MTI director Mary Cantrell, who often roams the campus promoting SkillsUSA and seeking champions (see Page 14), visited one of Hancock’s classes. Cantrell asked if anyone had any background in parliamentary procedure, and Hancock raised her hand. That move landed her on a Chapter Business Procedure contest team.

Hancock already knew another student on the team, Teresa Slack, who’d faced her own challenging path before joining. Slack returned to Florida from North Carolina when her father became terminally ill. In the process, she reunited with her estranged husband and took a job at a restaurant. She also started helping care for her husband’s elderly grandmother. Needing a more flexible schedule, she enrolled in the accounting operations program at MTI.

Cantrell, her husband and Slack had started a campus Lions Club chapter, with Slack as its president. The student’s connection was personal: the Lions donated the corneas for her brother’s transplant after he lost his eyesight, and her niece was legally blind. The organization is known for its help with sight, hearing and diabetes issues. Slack asked Hancock, whose father was diabetic and on dialysis, to serve as the Lions chapter vice president, and she agreed.

Slack immersed herself in SkillsUSA as well, recognizing that both organizations share leadership and community service tenets. But she didn’t know how close she and Hancock would become with the other Chapter Business Procedure team members in the process of defending MTI’s long record of SkillsUSA medals.

The youngest, Diana Lopez, accepted Slack’s offer to join with reservations. A fellow student in accounting operations, Lopez lived 25 minutes from the campus and worked nights at a restaurant. Getting up early, she had classes until 11:15 a.m., then went home to study and deal with personal responsibilities before starting her job at 4 p.m. During the tourist season, she often worked past midnight.

Lopez learned a lot from her more seasoned teammates. “Sometimes I don’t want to go to school,” she explains. “I’m tired. I’m so busy. I ask myself, ‘How can they do it, and I can’t?’ I’m younger. They’re having a hard time, and I’m just making excuses. They keep me going.”

Another team member, Tawanda Campbell, says she learned the patience to be a team player despite a hectic schedule. Her mother, who doesn’t drive and who’s raising two grandchildren, lives with her. “So I’m their chauffeur,” she says. “I take them everywhere they need to go.”

Campbell had worked for Tropicana in Bradenton since 1997, but finding comparable work during seasonal layoffs was a challenge.

During one layoff, she worked for a county library. With only a GED diploma, she didn’t have the education to move up. Campbell eventually enrolled at MTI to study business administration and was offered a full-time position with Tropicana. But by the time she gave notice with the county and returned, the department had been dissolved.

Returning to seasonal shift work, Campbell often suffered sleepless nights to attend classes. “Pepsi products and chocolate” helped keep her going when sleep wasn’t an option, she laughs. Fortunately, Tropicana has begun paying her tuition.

Team member Sandy Uffelman left her own job as a dental assistant after 13 years. When her husband opened a plumbing and drain-cleaning company, she ran the office — until the housing boom went bust, that is, and plumbing companies that had been doing new construction moved into the service industry. The couple went to work for another plumbing business, but they lost their jobs within three weeks of each other.

Reading about MTI and SkillsUSA in the newspaper, Uffelman was drawn to the campus and its medical administrative specialist program. She and classmate Margaret Mosher were recruited into the Lions chapter by Slack, and Cantrell urged them to join the SkillsUSA team.

Mosher had worked in retail for more than 20 years. She’d been a store manager for 13 of them when the economy and personal crises forced her to leave.

“I had to have my knee replaced, twice. I lost my son during that time,” Mosher says. “It’s been a couple of years that have been really dark.”

Her son had a problem with prescription drug abuse and died at home.

“It was about a week before I was to get my knee operated on. He wasn’t feeling good one night. The next day, we went in and checked on him at 6:30 a.m., and he was gone.” Mosher talks openly about the loss. “I share my story. I want kids to know what this can do to you.”

For years, she’d also taken care of her husband, who was disabled in 1984. “He had a high-voltage electrical shock and got 7,600 volts of electricity,” Mosher explains.

More than ready for a fresh start, she started classes at MTI.

“You gotta pick yourself up,” she says. “It’s been such a positive experience out at MTI. I’ve grown by leaps and bounds. I’m not too old to start a second life.”

‘An incredible journey’

Putting the competition team together was easy compared to the six women finding a time to practice that worked for everyone.

“It was a little bit hard because of the schedule, because we’d meet after lunch at 2 p.m.,” Lopez says. “So, I’d leave campus and then come back two days a week.”

“When we tried to get our practices together,” Hancock adds, “sometimes Tawanda would be coming in late, bless her heart, and have to get up early and go to work because she worked the night shift. It was a struggle for each one of us in our own certain way.”

Their different life experiences made them a stronger team. “We’re constantly feeding off each other,” Mosher explains.

Slack agrees. “We bounce ideas back and forth, off each other, of ways to make things run smoothly. Whatever it takes, we want to give it our all.”

Some stepped easily into their chapter business roles. “Sandy is the ultimate in organization. She’s the perfect secretary,” Hancock says. “Teresa’s our big research person. If there’s a question she’s not really quite sure about, she’s digging in the library or finding a book and making copies for everyone … so we have tons of information on parliamentary procedure, special orders, you name it.”

And, Uffelman laughs, “between Tawanda and Margaret, you never know what’s going to happen.”

“I thought, ‘Where do I fit in so I can be productive and useful?’ It wasn’t easy, because the first meeting, I didn’t speak, because I wasn’t sure and I wasn’t comfortable,” the usually talkative Campbell remembers. “I wanted to be part of the group, and I wanted to have input. I did eventually make a little niche for myself.”

As for Lopez, who calls herself the “baby” of the group, the team members saw a big change in her. “She’s blossomed,” Hancock says. “She gives excellent input. She studies. She has excellent questions.”

Because they only started practicing in March, the pressure was on. But on the eve of the June national competition, all found the experience worth their time.

“We’ve all pulled together, and it’s been an incredible journey,” Hancock says.

Campbell, who’d just taken her first flight, adds, “It’s a great opportunity.”

“It looks wonderful on your résumé,” Slack points out.

“And we’re having fun!” Mosher exclaims.

Their team succeeded with a bronze medal at the SkillsUSA Championships. But these six women gained much more.

“We’re not just friends, we’re family,” Slack explains.

“We all jumped in. We all helped each other. We’ve all learned from each other,” Hancock says. “I think that’s been the main thread through all of this. We know we’re not alone.”