A year later, woman has new 'date' on her calendar

From left, EMCC West Point Training Center Director Mitzi Thompson, Theresa Celestine, and medial coding instructor Tshurah Dismuke.Theresa Celestine talks about how her studies at EMCC's work force center in West Point held her "stand up and walk again."
Staff Writer

Before last year, the date May 5 held little significance for Theresa Celestine. Now, it's etched on her calendar forever, along with important birthdays and anniversaries.

May 5, 2017 is the day Celestine, who was 49 at the time, and her Starkville employer of 18 months parted ways. Unsure of her rights, she drove to what she thought was the WIN Job Center on Highway 82 between Starkville and Columbus only to find it closed and empty.

All she got was a phone number on the door. As she drove back toward her home in Starkville, she called it. The number rang to the East Mississippi Community College training center and satellite WIN Center there, just north of West Point.

She headed that way.

When she arrived, the door was locked and everyone was at lunch, everyone except Mitzi Thompson, the center director.

The rest is history.

"I call it divine intervention," Celestine says. "She talked to me. I had been in a daze and hadn't shed a tear until she told me I might be down, but I would get up and walk again. I cried.

"I came back the next day and she said something in her told her to help me. I cried again."

Almost a year to the day later -- May 10, 2018 -- Celestine and eight other women, many looking for new opportunities in their lives, graduated from a medical coding class offered through the West Point center. She takes her certification test this summer and looks forward to a new career, especially one that meets what are rapidly becoming her new goals in life -- her mother and grandmother.

Dressed in a bright pink with a necklace and matching earrings sparkling, Celestine almost bubbles when she tells the story of her last year. Listeners would never know she might have been down just a year ago.

One, she's not that type of person. She gets that from her father.

Two, her faith wouldn't allow it.

And three, figuratively she is walking again.

It started with that conversation with Thompson. Celestine learned about programs offered at the center and some of the career and job opportunities out there. Celestine moved to Starkville from Chicago in 2014 after HSBC -- an international banking company -- eliminated her department and laid off 375 people. It was a good opportunity to move South to help take care of her mother, who is now 73, and her aging grandmother, who is now 96.

She thought with her work experience, getting a job here would be easy. She looked hard for three or four months but didn't have enough local connections to get in the door. She started volunteering at OCH Regional Medical Center and that led to a part-time job there through people she met and then the full-time job she started in November 2015, the job that ended May 5, 2017.

All that said, her introduction to the EMCC Center in West Point brought some harsh realities.

"It had been a long time since I'd been in anything like school. My daughter is 27 so it had been a long time since school. They told me about the Work Keys and how I needed to take it and then go into some programs. I wanted to burn the math books," she said of the prep courses she took three days a week to sharpen her skills for Work Keys, the test that measures math, reading comprehension and critical thinking, all important skills in today's work force.

Her refreshers out of the way, she "scored high" on the test.

Along the way, some of the jobs she'd considered, especially at manufacturing facilities, became less appealing because they required long periods of standing. Fortunately, EMCC offers a number of training and skills programs, from GED for those who need something basic to high-tech programs.

"I had a revelation. I looked at medical coding as something I thought I could do and it would give me the flexibility to take care of my mom and grandmom, especially once I got to the point where I could work from home," Celestine explained.

She graduated from that nine-month training program on May 10 and while waiting to take the certification exam, is working part-time as a dispatcher at the Starkville Police Department.

"I am in a better place now than if I had stayed at that other job. God works in mysterious ways, but he sent me for a reason," she said.

Her coding classes came with another benefit. She and the other women in the class became their own sorority.

"It's a bond that will never go away. We all looked out for each other. All of us were trying to get a second chance. We were all older ladies looking for a chance in life," said Celestine, who turned 50 in March.

Once she passes her certification, she can go to work for a hospital, doctors, dentists or other health professionals. Medical coding has become one of the most in-demand fields as the health care and insurance industries, along with government, try to reduce errors and get a handle on health costs.

"I now have options, I can make choices now. That makes me feel empowered to put myself in a better place. I walked out that door a year ago and said 'God, what next?' God has granted me this and I will continue down this journey," she stated, sliding forward slightly to emphasize her happiness.

When she was in Chicago, she thought she would retire from HSBC. Little did she know the person from India she trained would be replacing her in a year when HSBC transferred her processing center overseas.

"Bam, the company was gone," she recalled.

After experiencing some frustrations in her job search when she first arrived in the region and then the experience last year, Celestine could have thrown up her hands in frustration.

"If I got discouraged, it's when it got hard. But God didn't let that last long, God didn't let me get depressed or feel sorry for myself. The folks at EMCC didn't let me stop. I would get frustrated with the math and they just said 'we are going to do it.' My dad always let me know I could not stop, could not give up. Failing was not an option. I wasn't going to roll over. That is not an example for my daughter," Celestine said of her only child, who lives in San Antonio, Texas.

When her unemployment was running out, she started worrying a little about finances while she was completing the medical coding program. At about the same time, her mom started having difficulty taking care of the grandmother. Nursing home seemed like the only recourse.

But other relatives stepped in, giving up "a hamburger a week" to help pay some of Celestine's bills in exchange for her taking on more of a role in the care of her grandmother.

"My mother promised her mother she'd do everything she could to never put her in a nursing home. It is important. It's been part of her passion, part of my passion," she said. "That's why all of this has been so important. If I'd gone somewhere else, I might never have been able to do this, to have the options, the possibility to work from home one day. I already have my office set up there."

She started the part-time job with Starkville Police at the end of April. That's another bit of stability.

"When I finished the class, it was almost the anniversary. It freaked me out a little, the timing. God will test you to put you in a better position. That makes me emotional."
Her advice to others starting over is simple.

"Set your goals, stay positive, don't lose your focus or your purpose. And it's truly knowing where your strength is, who your source of strength is. When I became weary, I didn't stop. That's the bottom line, He is my source," she concluded, referring to her faith.