Here is Diana Bell, approaching middle age. She and a friend are meeting a trick at the dumpiest casino hotel in downtown Las Vegas. They stop in the bathroom to get high.
When they are done, they are confronted by members of a group that gets drug addicts and gang members to clean themselves up. They leave.
Here is Diana Bell, three decades earlier, 14 or 15 years old, living with her mother and two siblings in the Bronx, New York. Fed up with Diana’s rebelliousness, her mother beats her with an extension cord. Diana fights back.
All right then, her mother says. If you’re so grown up, get the hell out of my house and go take care of yourself. Diana drops out of school in the eighth grade and moves in with her pimp.
Here is Diana Bell, 5 years old. She is still too small to fight back. She is raped by an uncle and her mother’s boyfriend. No one believes her and so it continues.
Flash forward. Here is Diana Bell at 52 years old. She is so happy she cannot contain herself. She looks like Whoopi Goldberg when she is laughing like this. She is wearing glasses and the flowing blue robe of a college graduate as she takes the stage.
From behind a lectern, Bell tells the crowd that this day in October 2010 is a milestone.
“My story is not very different from many other people,” she says.
But that cannot be true. The world is not that cruel.
A little girl who felt unloved
Bell was born and raised in the Bronx. Back then, she says, the Italians and the Jews stayed on one side of the elevated train tracks, the Puerto Ricans and the blacks on the other side.
No one ever crossed that line.
Her childhood was not all bad, she says. She remembers waiting for the ice cream man. She remembers playing jump-rope in the street with her friends.
Her mother worked as a secretary, her father a full-time member of the National Guard. She says her dad wasn’t around a whole lot, and her mom couldn’t handle things.
She does not blame the horrible parts of her life on her mother, who died three years ago. She says the woman was a product of her times. She had been raised by her father, who had been raised with former slaves. Beating was what she knew.
The sexual abuse, though. That was different. Bell felt unloved. She rebelled. She did all the things she wasn’t supposed to do. She got kicked out.
Impressionable and naive and angry, Bell took up with an older guy. She thought they were in love. She moved in. He turned her into a prostitute, and later a madam. She did not know she had become a statistic.
She got pregnant by this man. He left her.
She moved to California, where her father and mother now lived their own, separate lives. She gave birth to twin girls when she was 21 years old.
She got a job. She got married. Her new husband introduced her to crack cocaine.
She gave birth to a boy. She hid her crack habit from him as he grew up. She worked, tried to make her life as normal as possible.
She adopted a motto: “I am a mother before I am anything.”
It was working, but her addiction got worse. She knew she needed to get away. Her daughters grown, Bell fled California for Las Vegas. This was in 2002.
“I figured if I left the family and the friends and all the negativity, I’d be able to get it together,” she says.
She did not get it together.
She and her boy, now a teenager, got a small apartment downtown.
She met a neighbor who invited her to party. Bell was back on the downward spiral.
The police came and, though she avoided jail, she lost her apartment. She sent her boy to live with friends from his school.
Bell was homeless. That was in 2003.
She walked the streets. Turned tricks. Sold and used drugs.
She panhandled and slept under bridges, and in shelters that were even worse than the streets were sometimes, and she survived in any way she could.
But the truth was, she was not sure anymore that she wanted to survive. If life was this hard, why bother?
“I got tired of trying to make it with no support from anyone,” she says. “I felt very alone. Nobody cared.”
And then she went to that dumpy casino to meet the trick. She encountered the outreach workers, who were in fact looking for her friend. They tried to convince the friend to come in, get some help, but the friend refused.
But Bell paid attention. Could these people really help? Was there such a thing as a caring, compassionate person in Las Vegas? So far, her experiences had told her otherwise, but for the first time in a long time, she was willing to believe.
She asked God and he answered
She asked God what to do. He showed her the outreach workers’ business card, which had been dropped onto the floor when they left.
Bell knew it was time to get help.
She and her friend walked out of that Fremont Street casino and headed east, downhill. They came to a church. The words “Jesus is the answer” were printed on the outside.
The building drew Bell in. She did not understand it, still cannot explain it, but it called to her.
She gave the rest of her drugs to her friend.
“I’ll never need these again,” she said.
She was welcomed into the church, which ran a shelter for women. She learned to love again, and to trust. She got clean. She says she found God. She rose up to become director of that shelter, and she helped other women who had been through what she had been through.
It took her a year and a half to undo what almost 50 years of life had done to her.
Bell moved out, got her own place, got a job working with the mentally ill. She was loving life.
Her son was researching colleges and technical schools, and came across Everest College in Henderson, a private, for-profit institution that offers certificates and degrees in fields ranging from accounting to massage therapy.
Formerly Las Vegas College, Everest is run by Corinthian Colleges, a national chain of more than 100 colleges around the country. The Henderson campus has about 1,150 students.
Bell was intrigued.
The truth is, she got sucked in. She did not care that Everest costs several times as much as the local community college. Or that it has the second highest default rate on federal loans in the state. Or that most of the credits she earned there couldn’t transfer to a traditional college. None of that mattered.
What she sensed there was that she could accomplish something. And so, in September 2009, she signed up. She borrowed $9,000 and applied for grants and started studying to be a medical administrative assistant. She got her GED along the way, too.
David Fritz, the college’s president, said he remembers Bell from the first day in orientation. Her smile stuck out, as did her obvious determination to get this done.
“She just amazed me,” Fritz said.
Bell was asked to speak at the school’s most recent graduation ceremony, which honored her as its 2010 Dream Award winner. The award goes to graduates who have changed their lives for the better through education. It carries a $2,500 scholarship to further their education.
Bell says that’s what she’s going to do. She has gotten a job in a general surgeon’s office, and has risen to office manager. She looks forward to getting a house and inviting her grandchildren over.
To get there, she will enter Everest’s new nursing program, which begins in January. She wants an associate’s degree and a full-time job in nursing.
She’ll start school again at the same time she celebrates six years of sobriety.
Contact reporter Richard Lake at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0307.