By Steven Mihailovich
Angie Elsbury is the vibrant meat department manager at the La Jolla Vons. She dons a dazzling smile whenever possible and exudes enough energy to seemingly end the country’s dependence on foreign sources if it could be tapped. The 40-year-old Elsbury is the perennial “good” person; as jolly as old St. Nick and as sympathetic as a loving sister. Even her peccadilloes are inviting and adorable.
The ringtone on her cell phone blares a bubbly calypso rhythm. She can’t recall the store manager’s name because, as she explains it, she calls him “sir” so often that she’s forgotten it.
“I have a zest,” Elsbury said. “I have excitement all the time. Sometimes you can’t say I’m 40, but only four.”
But Elsbury wasn’t always this way. She’s living her Second Chance, as this story will reveal.
The Vons store manager, Jim Luft in case you’re wondering, dubs Elsbury one of his most-prized employees. Luft said that when he arrived at the La Jolla store eight months ago, he was ready to reassign a couple of meat department employees because of their lousy work ethic.
Instead, at Elsbury’s behest, Luft gave her a chance to improve the situation before taking sterner measures. “She turned around that whole department,” Luft said. “It’s upbeat now. She goes after a challenge with a positive, can-do, smile-on-the-face attitude. Her attitude is contagious.”
While Elsbury’s attributes are rare enough to be praiseworthy, they’re not so uncommon as to be newsworthy. Even Elsbury admits being an ordinary person, one of millions making her way through life, working her job and trying to help.
What makes Elsbury extraordinary is not where she is in life but how she got there. She was a runaway from a broken home with a drug addict as a mother until becoming one herself and spending almost two decades in and out of the prison system, losing custody of her only daughter in the process.
Elsbury acknowledges that her transformation is due in part to the recognition of the deleterious conditions under which she was raised in Pacific Beach. Yet Elsbury noted that it wasn’t obvious for a long time.
“It’s not that it was a traumatic experience,” she said. “It was just all I knew. I never had aspirations or dreams or anything like that. I just figured that was what life was about.”
In August 2007, Elsbury completed a three-year sentence for narcotics possession. While incarcerated, she said a religious epiphany provided the first necessary lesson, which was as simple as opening her eyes to see that she wanted out. Not just prison, but the whole mess.
Elsbury said she hasn’t used drugs, alcohol and cigarettes in the five years since the experience. To stay out, however, Elsbury said she required a bit more. She needed a second chance and she got one in part by keeping an eye on the original mistakes.
“My parole officer said, ‘You’re not going to make it. Only two percent make it,’ ” Elsbury recalled. “If someone says that to me, what am I going to say? FU? That’s how I was before. I told him somebody has to make it.”
In fact, Elsbury enrolled in Second Chance, a non-profit organization in National City that teaches basic skills for landing and holding a job not just to parolees, but veterans, homeless and just about anyone that needs them, according to executive director Robert Coleman.
“Angie knew that she wanted something different,” Coleman said. “Her life was falling apart. She knew she had to be different to get something different. She took the risk to open herself up, but the risk was to learn. Second Chance showed her how to be different. You’re on a search for the Holy Grail but no one tells you what it looks like. Second Chance showed her, and to her credit, she used it. She learned the humbleness to do the little things.”
Second Chance’s four-week course teaches participants how to fashion resumes, fill out applications, and give winning interviews, Coleman said, as well as how to make eye contact, shake hands and dress properly.
“It was very disciplined,” Elsbury said. “I had never had that.”
The final lesson was to apply the training. Success had to come from Elsbury herself, said Debra Scheufler, a lawyer who supported Elsbury through the VIP Mentor program at which Scheufler volunteers.
Having mentored 10 other parolees, Scheufler said Elsbury succeeded so well that she taught a lesson in return.
“Her success is due to herself and her strength of character,” Scheufler said. “Angie made the choice to connect to the goodness inside and ask for help. She worked it. She didn’t sit on the pity pot. She embraces her success; the most minor things. I haven’t been in prison and on the fringes, so I don’t know about the little things. To walk into an office and sit down without a parole officer. To have a business card. It was so cute. She was so excited. She taught me about appreciating the small things we take for granted every day.”
Within a month, Elsbury said she was hired as a bagger at Vons; three days later, she was made a meat clerk, and subsequently, took two more successive leaps to her present position.
Her reintegration into society has opened more doors. Elsbury is still climbing the corporate ladder. She sits on Second Chance’s board of directors. She starts school at San Diego City College in January. Above all, she’s been allowed to reconnect with her daughter through visits and on Facebook.
Luft credits her hard work for her success. Coleman credits her attention to detail. Scheufler credits her exuberance for her new life.
However, Elsbury credits all of them, and others, for lending a hand when she needed it most. That appreciation has unfurled the best lesson of all, one that so many have yet to learn.
“I am a success if I help someone else,” she said. “Every day you get tested. Once you get that, you can make change. My personal goal is to touch as many lives as I can. And to live. I mean live! Not just get up and go to work, but find beauty.”
About Second Chance
• 6145 Imperial Ave., National City
• (619) 234-8888•
• Founded in 1993, the non-profit provides support to help people find a job and get back on their feet.
• Although it targets groups such as former convicts, the homeless and troubled veterans, anyone in the county can receive assistance if they qualify.
• It furnishes temporary housing in its nine buildings, food, clothing, counseling, transportation costs to and from work, and even helps people regain their drivers licenses or visitation rights with their children if possible.
• The pillar is a four-week course where participants are taught skills for getting and keeping a job; 10 courses are conducted annually; 400-500 students graduate every year, that’s about half of the total enrollees.
• Aside from a few grants tied to specific categories of people, it operates on donations.
• Needed are clothing, food, fundraisers, tax-deductible contributions, and volunteers to help in numerous operations, like conducting mock interviews.
A sidebar: Angie Elsbury shares some words of wisdom
By Steven Mihailovich
When Angie Elsbury was sentenced to a three-year prison term for narcotics possession, she said she was initially excited. She expected five years.
Prison is a lot of things. It’s punishment, it’s rehabilitation, it’s a breeding ground for more crime, it’s a hard, hard life. But most of all, prison is a mirror. It’s a reflection of the society it serves and its failures.
Some prisoners are vicious, cruel, scheming, evil people. However, when Angie looked in the mirror, she saw someone who was paying for the mistakes she had made.
In other words, she’s really just one of us.
She grew up in a broken home, partaking in the drugs that were all around her. There are those who don’t partake, those who did while growing up in a good home, and those who didn’t because drugs weren’t any part of growing up, nowhere near. And so on.
Like most people as much as Elsbury, growing up shares one universal feature, physically speaking, anyway. It happens during the bewildering period of childhood and the teen-age years.
“When we’re born and raised, we have a general sense of right and wrong, but it gets skewered by the environment,” Elsbury said. “You are where you are. I never was a person to make things worse, but to make the best of it. I think I had fun. Even when I was in addiction, I was told I was fun.”
Like so many teenagers and young adults, like anyone really, like dogs and dolphins and gazelles even, Elsbury didn’t question her environment and paid for it in a way in which all people can relate. At least anyone who has had to start over again.
She had to find a job and she went to Second Chance, a non-profit organization in National City that teaches fundamental job skills, to learn how.
“I’d get depressed thinking no one’s going to hire me,” said Elsbury. “I was 36 years old and I had no skills and no experience. I couldn’t bartend again and all I knew was to waitress. At 36, I was hired as a bagger. You know, at 36.”
It was a humbling experience, but one everybody has to learn eventually. There’s three ways to do it. You can hear the story with your ears, see the example with your eyes, or like Elsbury, you bear the lesson on your skin.
“Here I am, 36, and someone has to teach me how to dress,” Elsbury said. “I get embarrassed by my lack of knowledge. (When given instructions), I say that sounds great even though I don’t know what it is. That’s where I learned to laugh at myself. If you don’t get it, you don’t get it. But if you don’t try, you never know.”
Almost everyone stumbles, falls, and has to get up along the way. The best and easiest method for getting back on your feet is a helping hand, whether it’s from family or friends, an inspirational message, non-profit organizations and mentors, or God in a locked prison cell.
For Elsbury, it was all of the above. There’s always someone or something to help, we just have to locate them. But sometimes, that can take a long time.
“I had no clue where I was going to go and what I was going to do, I just knew I didn’t have to go back to that life,” Elsbury said. “But I never knew that there were people out there giving up their free time to try to change the world. They were all in one room. All the time you’re thinking, no one wants to help. No one out there cares. And that’s just one room. Can you imagine how many other rooms there are out there?”
Elsbury found them.
What she discovered was that a lot of people have a lot of information, but the answer comes from inside. Everyone who learns understands that.
“I think people will just tell you to do this, this and this, but if you don’t know how, it sounds like a foreign language,” Elsbury said. “So you start with the smallest things and change them. You set a goal, but it’s the little things that lead you to success. Everyone can learn a skill. It’s attitude that sets you apart from the person next to you.”
So if Elsbury merely experienced a perilous, exaggerated version of what everyone experiences, what sets her apart? The difference is she can talk about it intelligently and honestly. That’s not just part of the cure, that’s the best part of anything, especially listening. It’s even made her a voice for Second Chance at various functions.
“I tell people all the time that I don’t think my story is different than anyone else’s,” Elsbury said. “There are a million people with stories like mine, but they don’t get to tell it.”
Because Elsbury still lives in the same Pacific Beach neighborhood in which she was raised, she said old friends appear and when they do, she is prepared to help them if they’re ready for it. But she can’t join them if they aren’t, “because if I go back, then I can’t help them or myself.”
As for her new friends, Elsbury said she doesn’t hide her past but she doesn’t broadcast it either. By being different, Elsbury has learned how much people share in common when they do learn of her past.
“Later they come to me and they say, almost in a whisper, that my cousin or coworker or neighbor is experiencing the same problems,” she said. “Then they ask for help. I have a plethora of resources.”
What Elsbury tells people is what they already suspect but are afraid to admit. There’s no time to regret not knowing something when you’re busy celebrating what you’ve learned.
“I learned that I’m strongest when I ask for help,” Elsbury said. “When people are afraid to ask, they slip back into what they know. You, anyone, no matter where they are in life can make a decision to ask for help and go down a new path.”
Elsbury realized it was fear that had led her down the path of desolation, just like everyone else. The solution, she said, is not to eliminate fear, but to confront it, accept it, and use it effectively.
“Some people say they want to get it back,” Elsbury said. “But you don’t get some things back. You make some choices in life. I have a second chance at life, at everything. If I take it for granted, I won’t get a third chance.”