Sarasota Schools instructor with dreams of art juggles crushing family health bills

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Through the worries over her son’s health, the concern for her elderly parents and crushing financial stress, Athena Cook could always turn to one thing to make the world slow down – her art.

For Cook, 60, an instructor for Sarasota County Schools, life has moved in fifth gear the last two decades.

At first, she was a psychologist in her native Peru. But deciding to follow a passion for art, she left to study design in Brazil, where she met a fellow student who would become her husband.

The married couple returned to her country, had a son and worked for many years in design.

But with the economy stagnating, opportunities were limited. They wanted a better life for their young son, who endured health challenges and was eventually diagnosed with Asperger syndrome.

With friends near Orlando, the three moved to Kissimmee in 2003, as Cook dreamed of someday working in art and design at Disney World.

But everyday reality in the United States played out differently. With recertification programs costly and time-consuming, the two couldn’t fall back on their professional credentials. Instead, they each labored in two to three menial jobs to pay the bills.

Cook worked industrial cleaning jobs, catering, and food deliveries.

“In one year to me it was like I lived 10 years,” Cook said. “There is no holiday.”

After a few years, her husband could no longer take the grinding pace and low pay.

“We are professionals. What kind of life is this?” she remembered him saying. He returned to his native Brazil and the pair separated and eventually divorced.

A few years later, she met an American man.

“He treated us like a family,” she said about herself and her son. Cook married again, and soon she and her second husband bought a house in Venice.

By now, added to her other jobs, Cook had been volunteering in schools as a teacher’s aide in Exceptional Student Education, or ESE, and continued to do the same in the Sarasota County Public School system.

Not giving up on art, she hoped one day to study at Ringling College of Art and Design. In the meantime, she visited garage sales, with a trained eye for good deals, thanks to the influence of her parents, who had run a furniture business in Peru.

She worked on the pieces in their home garage, surrounded by her tools – planning to build up her own art business. But she also increasingly found the space to be a respite from growing marital troubles and her husband’s drinking.

With her son by her side to help keep her company, she would strip and sand down the mirrors or furniture pieces and paint them, fashioning them with decorative new handles, sea shells and metal mermaids she had collected.

“This is my therapy,” she said.

Read the full story in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune