Elena Padilla’s story is one that defies statistics and stereotypes. Growing up in Reading, she experienced what she calls a “pretty much normal” childhood living with her mom, dad, and grandmother. At age 12, her parents got divorced and shortly after that, her grandmother passed away. It was then, Elena says, that her life went on a rapid downward spiral.
“Dad wasn’t there, so things got more lenient,” she explains, “I got involved with the wrong crowd. I started using drugs. My mother started actively using as well. I became pregnant at 14, and had my son when I was 15. I was a child raising a child. I had my second one when I was 19.”
From the age of 15 to the age of 37, Elena existed in an endless cycle of drug addiction, abusive relationships, job losses, and apartment evictions. She narrowly escaped criminal charges stemming from an automobile accident, after which her license was suspended. Two daughters eventually followed Elena’s two sons, and with them came interventions from Children and Youth Services due to Elena’s negligent parenting.
“I was living in fear. I was isolated. I would sleep all day, come out at night, go use, and then I’d come back home. It was a vicious cycle. On days that I had appointments with Children and Youth, I’d try to get myself together, but some days… I couldn’t make it.”
Elena vividly remembers the day that Child Protective Services came to take her two daughters, who were still living at home: “One was taken from her school, and someone came to the door and said I had to bring out the other one.” It was then that she hit her low point.
“I found myself alone in my apartment, and I didn’t have to take the kids to school, I had lost my job… I was drinking, I was smoking, I was doing other kinds of drugs that took me to a point where I just didn’t want to be there anymore. I had to do something… I was tired of being tired. I knew that I could do better, but I was so used to what I was doing, and I needed a way out.”
Her salvation came in a combination of help from Lancaster County services as well as a healthy dose of fear, motivation, and resilience. After 22 years of drug use, Elena entered a six-month rehabilitation program at Gaudenzia Vantage, a residential drug and alcohol rehabilitation program for pregnant and parenting women in Lancaster. She attended parenting classes, domestic violence classes, and Narcotics Anonymous meetings. When the program ended, she transitioned to Claire House in Lancaster for four months. While at Claire House, she maintained a job, helped with the household, and continued attending classes stipulated by Child Protective Services as she worked towards earning visitation rights with her daughters.
Elena also applied and was accepted into a Certified Nursing Assistant certification program. “I had always been interested in nursing,” she says. “I was tired of working factory jobs, and my goal was to find a position where I could help people and then have job security at the same time.” Despite the demanding hours, for two years Elena was able to stay clean, maintain her apartment, graduate from the program, and find stable employment. Most importantly, she was able to meet the requirements to take back guardianship of her children.
Her determination didn’t stop there. “Once I became a CNA,” she laughs, “I honestly would see the nurses and think, ‘I can do that.’ I was interested in it, in human anatomy, so I decided to go to nursing school. I took the test and I passed, and I was like, ‘Okay, here we go! Back to school.’” While in school, Elena worked 12-hour and weekend shifts at both Conestoga View and Luther Acres nursing homes, while still supporting her two daughters and attending recovery meetings.
“I graduated, and I am now an LPN. I still participate in my recovery, and I’m coming up on nine years clean,” she beams. Everything has come full circle as she is back where she started at Gaudenzia Vantage, except that now, instead of being a patient, she is a staff nurse who provides inspiration to her patients: “I’m giving back to them now.”
With the assistance of Tabor Community Services, Elena purchased a home for her family in Manheim Township, and she is also taking classes to become an RN. When asked about defying the odds and overcoming her past, Elena responds emphatically, “I wouldn’t change my life for anything. I really wouldn’t. I wake up in the morning and even on a cloudy day, it’s a beautiful day. Before, I was just existing. Today, I have a life.”