Oct. 10, 2017

Class of 2017: Convocation a death-defying act for Ashley Richards

Graduate of Social Work's Learning Circle overcame crack addiction, homelessness, abuse and even kidnapping to walk the stage
Ashley Richards had a long journey to get to this graduation selfie. The Bachelor of Social Work grad was a member of Social Work's Grande Prairie Learning Circle.

Ashley Richards had a long journey to get to this graduation selfie.

Ashley Richards

Let’s get one thing straight, right from the start. Ashley Richards isn’t afraid of telling her life story, as difficult as it might be to hear. In fact, she’s determined to tell her ultimately inspiring story, for one important reason: “For people who are struggling with addiction, there's a lot of shame,” says Richards. “I just try to tell people that you can come out on the other side and you are valuable as a person. That you deserve to fight for yourself. If my story could save just one person's life I will tell it to anybody who will listen.” 

On the phone Richards's voice is incredibly bright and bubbly, a cheerfulness that belies more pain than most of us will ever experience. However, when Richards graduates on Nov. 10 from the Faculty of Social Work's Grande Prairie Learning Circle, it will officially mark the epic finish to a staggering journey that few people survive.

Abuse and an early exit from school

It’s probably more accurate to describe Ashley Richards's life as a parabola than a journey. It began with a steep drop of despair that Richards traces back to childhood sexual abuse that began when she was a baby, shortly after her parents divorced.

“It was definitely no fault of my parents,” says Richards quickly. “You can never know. But it kind of really misconstrued what love or affection is supposed to look like for me, and abuse really shapes the value that you see in yourself as a person.”

It’s likely that the bottled-up emotion around the abuse contributed to early drinking and drug use, though at the time it was mostly confined to smoking pot. However, in the eighth grade she was expelled for pot possession, which Richards feels was the first intervention opportunity missed — to help her family alter the course of her life. 

The world is a dangerous place for a young girl at loose ends. Richards became pregnant and lost a daughter when she was just 16, and became an easy target for predators, including a group of older men who used to hang around the mall looking for younger girls who were obviously not in school.

“It was the day that I got out of the hospital after losing my baby,” recalls Richards. “They thought all I needed was to go to a party and I would feel better. So they ended up getting me to go and then I never left. The older guys just fed us booze until we said yes to the drugs and the drugs are not ones that you just walk away from.”

Addiction and despair 

Crack cocaine is one of those drugs that few people ever successfully walk away from. Like most addicts, Richards says she tried it just once and was instantly hooked, beginning a cycle of dependence with the predatory man who lured her in the mall and became her “boyfriend.” At first he was primarily emotionally and psychologically abusive, but even worse he began selling her sexually to pay for his addiction. This reality has taken Richards several years and a great deal of counselling to understand and come to grips with.

“I had been clean for three years before I even realized that my previous boyfriend had been selling me. So I had a whole lot of work to do,” says Richards with obvious emotion. “Just a lot of shame and a kind of disgust with yourself as a person. It took me a really long time to realize that I didn't voluntarily make that choice to be with all those people, and that I was forced to." 

Like many addicts, Richards made several attempts to get clean, followed by relapses and even a kidnapping, where she was forcibly taken to a remote house in the country, in -30 C weather, without a coat or shoes. However, it was really only after the “boyfriend” became physically abusive that Richards knew she had to get out. “I faced a lot of abuse at his hands for a lot of years,” she says. “One day I just realized that that wasn't the life that I wanted to live. It took a long time. It took a lot of hurt.”

She literally escaped her former life by going to stay with her grandparents where she says she “switched addictions” and began drinking heavily. Somehow, she gradually came out the other side of addiction stronger and ready to chart a new course in her life.

A new start and a new direction

She made the decision to go back to school, she had remarried and had a son, so it was time for something different. Given her previous school experience she was understandably nervous about school, and her first assignment in an English upgrade class, was a pivotal moment: Write an essay on the “story of your life” which, not surprisingly, Richards aced.

The “A” she received was the first of many A's in what has became a distinguished academic career. Besides learning that she was, in fact, a good student, she also learned that there was something called social work — a profession focused on helping people, and advocating for social justice. Richards says she was hooked, this time on something positive.

“I just always wanted to help people who are, maybe the ones who are being picked on, to stand up for them,” says Richards. “Lord knows I challenged social norms when I was in school and fought back against the authority of the school just seeing injustice, even though I wasn't able to recognize it at that age. I just wanted to fight it.”

She enrolled in the Faculty of Social Work’s Learning Circle based in Grande Prairie, and even though her marriage was falling apart, she remained focused on school and maintained her grades. Richards remarried and found herself in yet another abusive relationship. Despite finding herself in an abusive relationship, Richards still manages to find a positive note.

“I think I learned in a very different way,” she says. “I  grew from it even more than I would if I would have, had I been single or in a normal healthy relationship.”

A new career and the best day of her life

At the same time as she started school Richards began public speaking to students, to addicts — to anyone who would listen, spreading her message of hope and the reminder that people have to find and hold onto their self-worth. Public speaking became a kind of therapy and she combined that with a new holistic approach to healing, since she says she still has PTSD about her former life.  

In the future she says she’s become really interested in the therapeutic potential of combining social work with yoga. However, for right now she’s happy working in the position she’s held for over two years as the LGBTQ youth program co-ordinator for HIV North. Excitingly, Richards recently received funding to begin a new drug education and prevention program for youth.

On the other side of the parabola, Richards is getting ready for another happy milestone in her life. What will she be thinking as she gets ready to cross the stage to shake the hand of the president and the dean?

“Don’t fall!” She says with a laugh. “I’ll be trying not to cry, but seriously, my last day of practicum might have been the greatest day of my life. I just feel super grateful. I couldn’t imagine how much this program would change my life.”