The leader she was meant to be

She’s clear-eyed and focused — she’s confident she knows what she’s doing and where she’s going. I suspect this quality characterizes most aspects of her life, from her long-term personal goals to her daily work ethic.

She’s a born leader, the type of manager who’s affable and easygoing but focused on doing her work right. People naturally look to her for guidance because she knows what she’s doing and others recognize this quality instinctively. She’s the sort of person you’d want nearby if there was an emergency — she’d take charge and take decisive action without panic or indecision.

If she’d been on the Titanic, she’d undoubtedly have taken charge of a lifeboat, organizing cold and scared passengers and crew into a cohesive group, focused on survival and rescue.

That’s Tierney Ferguson.

I’m not the only one who recognizes Tierney’s talents and natural abilities. Less than three months after starting a job at McDonald’s, General Manager Kayla Planck recognized Tierney’s leadership qualities and promoted her to a management position. When Tierney’s on duty, she’s the boss.

Robin Miguel was wary of Tierney, at first. Robin serves as operations manager and chef for the Soup Kitchen at St. Barnabas, a popular feeding ministry in McMinnville, Oregon. Robin runs a very tight ship — she has high standards and she’s not exactly easy to please. When Tierney started volunteering regularly at the soup kitchen in October 2018, Robin kept a close eye on her. After she’d demonstrated her commitment and reliability, Tierney’s talents were eventually noted by Robin. A serious testament to Tierney’s nature, she was put in charge of the soup kitchen on Robin’s day off. Robin doesn’t assign such responsibility lightly.

Three years ago, Tierney wouldn’t have been given this trust. Three years ago, Tierney was getting high and digging her way to hell.

Paradoxically, it took jail for Tierney to taste freedom.

“I was sentenced to 30 days in the Yamhill County Jail for a failure to appear charge,” said Tierney. “It was weird because no one ever gets 30 days for a low-level charge like that.”

The date was Sept. 11, 2018, a day Tierney will never forget. Even if it ever somehow slipped her mind, the date is tattooed on Tierney’s forearm.

It’s the date Tierney gave up drugs and never looked back.

“That 30-day sentence was a literal godsend,” said Tierney. “The time in jail allowed me to get clean and stay clean.”

The way she describes it, she was almost giddy with relief. She made up her mind, never once doubting her decision. Her suddenly sunny outlook did not go unnoticed by her fellow inmates. “They were mean to me because I was happy,” laughed Tierney. “They were resentful — they wanted me to be miserable like they were.”

Tierney’s childhood was a disturbing blend of religious strictures and sexual abuse. A parental prohibition on “worldly friends” was at least partial motivation for Tierney to run away from home at age 13, the first of many such attempts. A year later, she found comfort in the numbing effects of drugs for the first time.

Dropping out of school in the ninth grade, Tierney earned her G.E.D. in 1998. In 2000, her first son, Justin, was born followed by his brother, Austin, one year later.

In the bizarre way that addicts sometimes experience, Tierney met a man who was an addict but became a father figure for her boys. Hector Martinez was lost in his own addictions but stepped into his role. “Hector accepted my sons as his own,” said Tierney. Clearly, the situation was far from ideal but it hinted at events to come. Tierney got lost in her own addictions to marijuana and methamphetamine in the time that followed.

Tierney gave birth to daughter Emily in 2004 and Izabell in 2006.

In 2014, the family experienced tremendous turmoil when they lost their home. In short order, Hector went to prison and Tierney was forced to surrender her kids to state custody. Her behavior spiraled — she turned to intravenous drug use.

Then came Sept. 11, 2018 and Tierney’s 30-day sentence — or 30-day saving, depending on how you look at it.

“I didn’t see the blessing of having my kids in foster care until I got sober,” Tierney said. “After I cleaned up, I thanked God he’d protected my children from me.”

Today, Tierney is enrolled in classes to become a social worker. “I want to use the nightmare of my own experience to shepherd others,” she said. Among other things, Tierney credits the time she spent volunteering for the Soup Kitchen at St. Barnabas to keeping her focused and occupied, not allowing her time to relapse.

Plus, if you ask me, nobody who has their sobriety date tattooed on their body wants to screw that date up.

Tierney has successfully completed rehabilitation therapy along with the Rethinking Barriers to Employment workshop, a Willamette Workforce Partnership (WWP) program encouraging addicted, homeless or incarcerated women to think “I have something to offer” rather than the self-defeating “nobody wants me anyway, so why try?”

Tierney is working on repairing her relationships with her children and — possibly heading toward the realm of fairy-tale happy endings — Hector. “I give Hector tremendous credit, too,” said Tierney. “He kept me accountable.” It should be noted that Hector used his prison time well — he has more clean time now than Tierney. The two live next door to each other and Hector has become a model father.

What’s the point of telling Tierney’s story? In addition to a remarkable story of redemption, the next time you see a charitable ministry or organization that operates in your area mentioned in the news or on social media, consider the people like Tierney who are able to atone and repair, to find freedom and triumph. Real people find real redemption with the assistance of these ministries. Unfortunately, such organizations are often misunderstood or looked down on by neighbors and townsfolk, because “they’re enabling ‘those people’ by giving handouts” or some such uncharitable — and inaccurate — characterization.

I have lived next door to the Soup Kitchen at St. Barnabas in McMinnville for 25 years. You could probably consider me an expert on the topic of living adjacent to a charity that ministers to people struggling with addiction and mental illness, people down on their luck, homeless people. I can attest that the good such a ministry accomplishes far outweighs any problems it causes.

Granted, I have a longstanding affiliation with the Soup Kitchen at St. Barnabas — at one point, I occupied a non-voting seat on its board and I’ve been associated with the organization in one way or another ever since.

If you have doubts or concerns about charities or ministries in your area, think about Tierney. By any account, Tierney’s story is one of triumph. She stands for countless people who’ve succeeded in exorcising their demons to turn their lives around.

Best of all, Tierney plans to combine the painful experience of her addiction with her talents in leadership to serve her community — my community. I have no doubt Tierney will help change local lives. I have no doubt Tierney will have a quantifiable impact on this community.

I am grateful for talented and focused people like Tierney. And I am thankful for the organizations dedicated to helping Tierney become the effective and dedicated leader she is — the leader she was meant to be.

This essay originally appeared in the Jan. 7, 2022 edition of the News-Register, McMinnville, Oregon.

Photographs courtesy of Rusty Rae © 2022 News-Register, McMinnville, Oregon

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