'I'm a fighter': Bradenton welder gets help from Season of Sharing amid a life of recovery

Categories: Stories of Impact, COMMUNITY CARE: Placemaking: Housing, Transportation & Economic Support, Season of Sharing,

Kimberly Jackson remembers the powerful calm that settled over her the first time she manipulated metal.

She was 18 and giving welding a try in Job Corps.

It was her auntie who had sent her there, to Kentucky – the same strong-willed, big-hearted woman who had pulled Kim out of a troubled home and raised her since she was 3.

For a while, Kim thrived under her aunt's loving care. But by 16, Kim wanted to live with her own mom, who had long struggled with a drug habit. In that world, in New Jersey, Kim's life went downhill, she'd recall. She started using drugs too, and ran with a rough crowd.

That's when her aunt rescued her again – and put her on the bus for Job Corps.

"She's the only one I know who will set me straight."

At first, in her training, Kim was tasked with sanding down cars. But she was far more fascinated with the work being done by the guys in fatigues.

When Kim tried on one of their helmets, it was the greatest sensation in the world. And then she started the torch, which felt even better.

All the turbulence and noise inside her seemed to come to a halt, replaced by a quiet calm.

"Once I knew you could join two metals together," she said, trailing off, shaking her head at the wonder of it. "It's amazing, I'd never seen it being done."

After two years in the Job Corps, she moved to Bradenton to be with her aunt. For years she got good welding jobs at the shipyards or on railcars.

But through her 20s, she continued to be stalked by addiction.

Her aunt prodded her to get help. Kim had endured something traumatic as a child, her aunt told her. It was best she discover it herself.

"You need to go to therapy and see what happened to you," her aunt would say.

By then Kim was a mother of two toddlers – a girl and a boy – and tried 12-step programs but backed away from counseling anytime it got too deep. She relapsed over and over until her aunt showed up on her doorstep again. This time she was there to rescue Kim's kids. And Kim, beaten down by her addictions, let her – both ashamed and relieved for her children, given her state.

"I love her," she said of her aunt. "She raised me and for her to take in my kids – that's the biggest blessing there is."

By then her aunt had moved to Apopka and Kim would drive there to visit the kids, playing with them on the local bike trails. It broke her heart. She felt she failed them and feared what they must think of her. But she was happy to see them doing so well in the structure of her aunt's home, raised with the help of her cousin and attending private schools – something they didn't have with her.

Back in Bradenton, her life remained a constant struggle with addiction into her 30s. She held down jobs, but on Fridays she would blow through much of her paycheck for weekend binges – leaving her bouncing between housing.

"I was living pillar to post," she said.

In her mid-30s, she hit rock bottom. She was tired of waking up to a life in shambles. With the help of Metropolitan Ministries, she got completely clean and remained that way for more than two years.

"I had to stay away from old contacts," she said.

She attended meetings and worked her jobs.

As always, welding was the one place she could slip into a zone of concentration and relax. It was a reprieve from the torment swirling inside.

"My mind is always going a mile a minute," she said.

Then 18 years ago, when she was 36, she had another son. With him, she vowed not to make the same mistakes.

As he grew older, several times she tripped up, but each time she clawed her way back to sobriety.

Then four and a half years ago, she landed a job at Sarasota's Artistic Metal Works, which made spiral staircases and gates for million-dollar homes.

Her boss and tight-knit work crew became like a second family to her. They teased her for the loud and festive holiday music she played at her station and gave her rides home when she lost her license due to a DUI.

She could be having the worst day, but as soon as she crossed through those work doors, a smile graced her face.

"I'd just be happy."

But the decades of drug use had taken a toll on her health. Hospitalized with chronic pancreatitis and missing work, she fell behind on her rent.

The last thing she wanted was for her youngest son, by now a teen, to experience life on the streets.

She reached out to Step Up Suncoast, which turned to Season of Sharing to help her last year with a little more than $1,300 to catch up on back rent.

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Since then, Kim saved to buy a mobile home. She and her youngest son moved in during the summer. There is a special added space for him so he feels like he has an apartment all his own.

She pays $650 in lot rent. Little by little, she plans to decorate.

"I love it," she said.

Her housing and work both stable now, she is trying to find the same peace in her personal life.

Recently, when her mother died of a heart attack, Kim was comforted by a dream in which she visited and told Kim she loved her before driving off.

Kim, long at war with her mom, has come to realize the shame and pain she must have felt to watch her daughter go down the same path. Kim still carried her own pain, regarding her two oldest kids.

But when her older son graduated from the Army basic training, it was Kim – not her aunt, as she assumed it would be – who he chose to "tap" him out as part of the traditional release from formation at the ceremony when graduates are touched or embraced by a loved one.

Standing before the young man in his uniform – his face locked in stony composure – Kim could see the tears welling in his eyes.

"I just hugged him," she said.

She is grateful to her aunt and cousin for the vibrant lives her oldest two children lead: her older son, 25, now a sergeant in the military, and her daughter, 27, a chef and cosmetologist.

Kim won't rest until her youngest son, now 18, graduates high school and also lands on solid ground.

Recently troubled by the crowd of friends around him, Kim talked to her boss at Artistic Metal Works, who agreed to take her youngest under his wing as an apprentice.

This month, Kim started showing her son the ropes – and he loved it. On his second day, he was up first, rousing her long before the start of their 7 a.m. shift:

"Mom, wake up! We gotta get to work."

Kim, now 54, doesn't know what's next for her.

For the moment, she attends 12-step meetings online when she can and leans heavily on her faith in God.

"He's the reason I'm still here."

Many days she feels tired, after the life that she's led, but she thinks there's a lot more God wants her to do. As many times as she has fallen, she has no plans of giving up.

"I'm a fighter."