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From tragedy to triumph

By Joel Hall

jhall@news-daily.com

As a certified peer specialist at the Clayton Center Behavioral Health Services Center, Toni Scott-Short's job is to help people get their lives back on track. In addition to managing patients with addictive and mental diseases, she helps adults learn how to cope with crises and other long-term problems, so they can be productive members of society.

During her 15 years working at the Clayton Center, however, Scott-Short's life has been filled with its own share of personal tragedies. Ten years ago, she lost several of her family members in the course of one year, including her mother, who died from complications related to diabetes.

In 2007, Scott-Short was diagnosed with breast cancer, which she battled into remission in 2009. Last July, however, after surviving breast cancer, Scott-Short lost her husband to a tragic accident, the details of which could not be discussed, due to ongoing litigation, she said.

Last month, APSE (founded in 1988 as the Association for Persons in Supported Employment, now known only as the acronym APSE) recognized Scott-Short with it's National Personal Achievement Award for her perseverance and dedication to others, despite her own setbacks.

APSE is a national organization dedicated to expanding employment opportunities for people experiencing disabilities. Scott-Short received the award during APSE's national annual conference, which took place June 8-10, at the Loews Atlanta Hotel in midtown Atlanta.

According to APSE Executive Director Laura Owens, Scott-Short -- a long-time Clayton Center employee and former WORKTEC employee -- was chosen from a pool of 14 nominees from all over the country. She said Scott-Short had, at one point, faced homelessness and unemployment, due to her battle with depression, but had pulled herself up by helping others experiencing similar trials.

"The nomination is given to someone who has had success in the area of employment," Owens said. "It could be a person with a disability, it could be a family member, it could be a care provider. However, the key is that they have overcome something. It's a very big deal to receive this award. It's a national award, and we only give it out once a year.

"We had nominations from New York to Washington state," she continued. "Her story was compelling, because she had literally gone from the bottom of the barrel ... She didn't think she could do anything and now she is a successful professional."

According to Scott-Short, she began working for the Clayton Center as a secretary in 1995 and took a similar job at WORKTEC in 2000. Only a year into the job, however, Scott-Short lost several relatives, which sent her into a deep depression.

"Since I was 23, I had dealt with depression, but it just never wiped me out like that," she said. "When I had those losses, it really broke me down all the way ... I couldn't cope."

In 2002, however, Scott-Short came back to the Clayton Center Behavioral Health Services Center, working as a case manager. In 2009, she was one of three people in a class of 20 who successfully passed a test to become a certified peer specialist at the center, and since then, has been teaching life skills, money management, creative expression, and spiritual awareness.

"I like to see people doing well," she said. "Especially with what I've experienced, I like seeing people get their life back. A lot of them [at the center], because of what they are dealing with, they lose their support system. I try to let them know that it's not over. You have to bounce back, no matter what."

Debbie Walker-Lass, Georgia APSE president and specialist manager of behavioral health/supported employment at WORKTEC, helped nominate Scott-Short for the award. She said Scott-Short's tenacity has been inspiring to others.

"She has great perseverance," Walker-Lass said. "She has been through many personal tragedies. Nothing that has happened to her has kept her from keeping on track. She just goes forward and does the best she can to be optimistic, and at the same time, she is encouraging people everyday. She has inspired a lot of people, including myself."

Scott-Short said having faith is the most important lesson she teaches to her patients. She said belief in a higher power is often the key to surviving life's setbacks.

"I think it's important because there are so many ups and downs and disappointments in life," she said. "It's important to have something to hold on to. He'll [God will] take you over it, around it, through it, or He'll carry you ... there is help."