published Tuesday, February 28th, 2012

Person to Watch: Diantha Sprouse has template for second career

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    Diantha Sprouse works in her office Friday at the Juvenile Court Child Support building on Main Street.
    Photo by Angela Lewis /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

ABOUT DIANTHA SPROUSE

Family: Father, deceased. Mother, now in her 80s, lives in Virginia. Three brothers, three nieces, one nephew, one grand-nephew and one grand-niece.

Diantha is a science fiction enthusiast. Each year, she meets friends at WisCon, a feminist science fiction convention in Madison, Wisc. She is a member of the Carl Brandon Society to encourage persons of color in their writing and reading of science ficton.

She would like to become certified as a geneaologist. She can trace her family lineage back to the Jamestown colonies. She wants to find her great-great-grandfather’s grave in Richmond, Va.

Jeffrey Dahmer was an inmate at Racine Correctional Institute for a short time while Diantha was employed there.

Her freshman year of college, at age 35, she beat out 1200 other entrants to win a writing contest.

There are 483 miles between Amherst, Virginia and Chattanooga, Tennessee, but for Diantha Sprouse, the journey has been far longer.

"Where to begin," she said. "That's the question."

Born Dec. 6, 1950, she grew up with a homemaker mother and a father who worked in the timber industry. Neither of her parents had graduated high school. She was the oldest of four children, the only girl, in a family that often struggled with, she said, "the difficulties of the working poor."

She wanted to go to study, to go to college, to see what the world had to offer her. The world had other ideas 

"The time and place in which I grew up was not a place that was extremely forward thinking," she said. "The fact that I graduated high school was considered quite an achievement. When I went to the guidance counselor and told her I wanted to go to college, her advice to me was to marry a farmer and forget about college."

Her mother told her to become a secretary. She got a job for a milling company, making $50 a week. 

She worked for landscaping companies in Virginia, New Orleans and Black Lick, Ohio, until 1985, when, one morning on her way to work, a car ran a red light and hit her at 80 miles an hour. 

The bruises took 18 months to heal.

No longer able to work in landscaping, Diantha was at a crossroads. She was in an unfamiliar town, unsure of what to do.

"I'd made a friend," she said, "and she got together with a couple of her friends, and they came to get me one day. They bundled me up, helped me down the stairs, trundled me out to the car and they took me to Ohio State University."

She graduated college at 38 and got her masters degree in counseling education at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville. She wanted to help people who wanted to go to college and didn't have a way to get there. 

Unfortunately, Wisconsin state government cut adult education counseling positions, making it impossible for Diantha to make her living doing what she'd worked so hard to do.

Another stumbling block. Another crossroads.

She went to work at Racine Correctional Institution as a guidance counselor.

"Ehhh." She shuddered, remembering. It was a "burn out" position, she said, and she lasted three years, working in a stressful environment for a temperamental boss.

After, she made jewelry and sold it at craft fairs, worked as a merchandiser for a floral company, and worked for Williams-Sonoma in Olive Branch, Miss.

In 2000, she was laid off. She had odd jobs, worked for furniture companies and when her company folded, she went to the employment commission and was told she could be trained as an electrician, a welder or a truck driver. 

She chose truck driver. 

And so, at 55 years old, Diantha began driving long haul routes. Thirty or forty-five days on, a week off to come home and sleep in her shared apartment in Huntsville, Ala. before heading out on the road again.

"It's not only physically taxing, but it's mentally and emotionally quite taxing," she said of the job. 

The hours were long and grinding. Eleven to drive, ten to sleep, if she could sleep in the back of a moving truck while her partner drove. No chance for exercise. No chance for a decent meal. She barely saw her family. Her father, with whom she’d been close, died in 2009.

Her health suffered. Her doctor had told her to quit her job, but it simply wasn't possible.

"When the economy's in a downturn and people aren't hiring, you don't quit your job."

On May 17, 2010, she drove her last haul.

"I got out of my truck at a truck stop outside Reno, Nevada and could not get back in it. My legs were so swollen that they had broken open and were weeping and stuck to my pants legs. I had gained so much weight I was over 300 pounds. I was just wiped. Totally fried."

She was admitted to the hospital. The company sent her partner on and left her without a way to get home. Her brother made arrangements for her to get back across the country.

By that time, the woman with whom she'd shared an apartment in Huntsville had moved to Chattanooga, taking all of Diantha's belongings as well, so that's where she went. 

She had no job. Short-term disability took six months to kick in. There was no unemployment insurance available to her.

Then her roommate lost her job as well. And then, they lost the apartment.

By a stroke of luck, the roommate found another job at a senior facility, which provided housing, and the company agreed to let Diantha come and live with her.

She was referred to at Alexian Brothers Senior Neighbors and the Senior Community Service Employment Program, a U.S. Department of Labor federal grant program under Title V of the Older Americans Act.

“I had no idea what to expect,” she said, “but when I went, I was welcomed.”

There was a holistic approach to helping her. She wasn’t just asked about employment, but about housing and clothing. She was told how to get food stamps and clothing, how to apply for federal housing, given the locations of Goodwills and free clinics, referred to churches and temples.

“They asked all the questions,” she said, “not just ‘oh, you need job training, well, here.’ It was more about (I) was a person, who needed a lot of different things.”

She was placed at the Hamilton County Juvenile Court Child Support Division as a docket clerk.

Finally, she had space and time in which to heal. She had been so hypervigilant, driving the truck, she needed to be able to let her mind relax. She needed to readjust her vision, both figurative and literal.

“Right after I quit driving the truck, I really had trouble reading,” she said. “I could sit in a car and I could read a traffic sign at a very far distance. But if I looked (at a book) I had trouble seeing.”

She was promoted to Juvenile Court Clerk in January 2012. She does data entry, helps people file motions, maintains files, responds to case inquiries and does research.

Her work, she said, is very worthwhile. Finally, she is in a position to help others, a place she always wanted to be.

“Having been vulnerable, I know how vulnerable children are. And in some small way, I think what I do helps some of our most vulnerable children.”

For now, Diantha’s priority is to continue to get healthy, to take care of herself. She wants to expand her circle of friends in Chattanooga. She wants to retire from the Juvenile Court when she reaches retirement age and not before. She finally has time to do things she enjoys, rather than just focusing on life’s struggles.

“I’m in the process of getting my feet back under me. That’s going to take awhile. The crisis is passed. The fire has been put out and I have started to rebuild.”


Working in a prison — “One of the things that I'm most gratified by in working there is that I helped a man get his bachelor's degree through correspondence long distance learning. It's the last one that was ever given because the program was shut down.”

On the American workplace — "The American workplace can not be nice. I worked for some people who were very nice, but things happen that are not nice, are not good, that aren't humane. American workers really have no  protection. You can be let go for any reason or no reason at all. 

How trucking affects relationships — "You lose track of friends. You lose track of your family. It's almost like you're in prison. You are gone from everybody you know for 30 days at a time, or 45 days at a time. You're usually so exhausted by the time you come home that you sleep two or three days. Then you've got to get up, make sure all your laundry's done and you've got stock for the truck to go out on the road. You get to spend two days with your family and you're gone again.”

Close calls — On one terrifying occasion, she came inches away from hitting a car with three children in it when the intoxicated woman driving the vehicle cut her off and then stopped in the road. 

"I just stood on the brakes. Tires screaming, metal screaming, black smoke rolling. When I got stopped, you couldn't put notepaper between the side of that car and the bumper of my truck."

Those kinds of close calls, she said, happen a lot to truck drivers. Stopping distance is long and people don't respect the weight and gravity of trucks. 

On feeling hopeless — “It seemed like I'd been running into walls, and every time I would hit a wall, (someone) would say, "you can't go ahead, you have to shuttle off to the side." You shuttle off to the side and you hit another wall, then you go sideways and you hit another wall.”

The lessons — “There seems to be a lesson that I have to keep learning over and over again. That is to really learn how to, and be present for, and cherish those people that are your friends and family. I think it’s too easily for all of us to start taking people for granted, that they’re always going to be there. I don’t think any of us pays as much attention as we ought to.”

On gratitude — “I am truly grateful for the friends in my life. The bad experiences with employment have made me truly grateful for the good ones. I’m truly grateful that my friends encouraged me and helped make it possible for me to get the college education I always wanted. I think when you grow up not having a lot that you appreciate the smaller things in life. It’s like if you had to use an outdoor privy, you know that anyone who would destroy an indoor bathroom has got to be insane, and that anyone who has a bathtub and doesn’t use it has to be nuts. It’s those kinds of things, you know?”

about Holly Leber ...

Holly Leber is a reporter and columnist for the Life section. She has worked at the Times Free Press since March 2008. Holly covers “everything but the kitchen sink" when it comes to features: the arts, young adults, classical music, art, fitness, home, gardening and food. She writes the popular and sometimes-controversial column Love and Other Indoor Sports. Holly calls both New York City and Saratoga Springs, NY home. She earned a bachelor of arts ...

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