Making an impact: Winnie Washington

Published 3:24 pm Friday, January 27, 2017

The draw of community college is not always about finding a job.

Many students attending Beaufort County Community College left a career that may have paid the bills, but was not fulfilling. Inspired by her family and personal struggle, Winnie Washington returned to college to start a career where she can make an impact.

“These two jobs are not going to cut it,” Washington recalls herself thinking before enrolling in college two years ago. “I can’t do this the rest of my life. I want to be stable. I want my benefits back.”

The mother of three will graduate from BCCC with an associate of arts in human services technology. She plans to continue at East Carolina University, her goal being a master’s degree in substance abuse counseling, a choice inspired by her father’s struggle with drug addiction.

Before Washington was born, her father was in a severe accident resulting in constant pain and a prescription to painkillers. An early victim of what has become an epidemic, he became addicted to his painkillers and eventually turned to street drugs.

Washington’s mother left New York for North Carolina shortly after Winnie was born, knowing that she needed to find a new setting to raise her daughters.

“I heard it from his sister when I was about 9 years old,” Washington said. With her father’s addiction a secret, she never knew why he did not come to visit.

After high school graduation, Washington started at Pitt Community College while holding down jobs at Food Lion and Burger King. At 19, she had her son Jah Shawn.

The new mother could not justify continuing with classes.

As a new partner came into her life and she had her daughters Christiana and Trinity, she returned to Pitt for a certificate in EKG telemetry, resulting in a part-time position at Vidant Hospital. She worked this alongside her position at Food Lion.

In 2009, Washington experienced a tragedy that would affect her life for years to come. Her maternal grandmother, with whom she had a strong bond, passed away.

Washington became depressed and her doctor recommended medication, but she resisted.

“I don’t like to take pills,” she said firmly. “Because my father was addicted to pills, I want to stay away.”

Turning to food instead, her weight shot up, and soon her doctor informed her that she had diabetes. Her grandmother’s lifelong struggle with diabetes, including the loss of a leg, added a personal dimension to the diagnosis.

Her doctor mentioned gastric bypass surgery, but Washington resisted, having heard horror stories. This changed when she realized the gravity of her situation.

“I got on that scale and realized I was 20 pounds from 400,” she said. “I cried and cried. I knew it had to come off. I had three children. I knew I had to be there for a long time. I had to be there.”

She had to learn a new way of eating. During the first weeks, she could only drink a Nyquil cup full of liquids. This struggle was for a good cause. She dropped more than 130 pounds and her diabetes completely disappeared.

During this time, she was still working at the hospital. Rumors of the hospital closing her department were circulating.

She then found a job with A Small Miracle, an agency that works with children and adults with autism and disabilities. She was once again juggling two jobs. She felt motivated to finish up her degree at Pitt.

Her family told her the medical field will always be there, but that was not enough for her.

“I’m a compassionate person. I want to advocate for someone. I want to be their go-to person. I was close to finishing, but I knew this is not for me. Seeing someone else happy, knowing that I helped someone; I sleep better,” Washington said.

Determined to finish, she enrolled at Pitt, but a mix-up meant that she would have to wait a semester. She also looked at Edgecombe Community College and BCCC.

“It was something about this (BCCC) campus. When I walked in, something about the way they talked to me. They were so friendly,” she recalled.

Her advisor Ann Barnes helped her get past her nerves and seamlessly signed up for classes.

She now imparts her experience with college to her kids.

“Don’t ever think you’re not capable because you are. You may not understand me now, but in the long run you will understand me,” she tells them.

Her children just met her father last year. It was the first time Washington and her father had taken a picture together in 32 years.

BCCC is there to help fulfill lifelong passions that may have been postponed for more immediate concerns. With the memory of her grandmother as a guide and her personal struggles behind her, Washington is ready to make an impact in the lives of others.