By Jen Gittings-Dalton, KEYS Student Facilitator - There was a period in Taneah Mays’ life when life was turned upside down, and she and her daughters became homeless. She knew of no one who could help her.
“I was the last person who thought that this would ever happen to me,” she said recently in a recent meeting with KEYS program staff. “I don’t know how I made it during that time. But I was lucky. A homeless organization connected me to the County Assistance Office, who helped me apply to RACC and I entered the KEYS program. I could never have done it alone.”
She shakes her head at the memory. “My KEYS Student Facilitator, Rebecca Paull, and my amazing instructors in the Respiratory Therapy program, got me through. Now, I work at Tower Health as a Respiratory Therapist.”
On her one day off from the hospital this recently, she took time to talk with Rebecca and myself. Her smile is tired but compassionate. Her daughter, who just returned from six weeks with her uncle so that Taneah could work long hours in the current epidemic, is clearly very happy to have her mother at home with her. She pops in and out of our “Zoom” session.
Taneah is many women in one: a mother to her young daughters; a KEYS alumna; a dedicated scholar who achieved an honors academic record at RACC while overcoming her homelessness; an advocate for mental health care; and now, she works with very sick patients who need to be transferred to the ICU at Tower Health, in the very front lines of the COVID-19 epidemic.
Rebecca asked Taneah what advice she would give to someone like her earlier self. Taneah doesn’t hesitate. “The best advice I can give is – it is okay to ask for help when you need it! Vulnerability is a good thing sometimes.”
She should know. “I was a poor student in high school, and wasn’t ready for college,” she remembers. “I worked for a while in different jobs and realized that I really wanted a career in health care. When I became homeless, my caseworker put me in touch with a counselor, and I learned I was depressed and had anxiety, which were holding me back… but, as hard as it was, I don’t regret that time in my life. I learned so much from it. The coping skills I learned then, help me deal with challenges today. Everyone will need counseling at some point in their lives, and should get it.”
Safe childcare was provided by the county, and that made all the difference to Taneah. “I started to work part-time in retail, then in a medical lab, and I loved it! I knew I wanted to work in healthcare. I chose RACC and got connected to KEYS right away. I started out wanting physical therapy assistant training, but there was no way I could travel to the clinical site in Allentown. Rebecca helped me decide that Respiratory Therapy was the way to go.”
Rebecca Paull, a 15-year KEYS staff member, became her main support at RACC. “I always knew I could stop by and see Rebecca when I needed her,” Taneah says with a smile. It is immediately obvious that their bond is a strong one. “She helped me deal with any issue – when my car broke down, exploring majors, finding money for gas, and the KEYS pantry was helpful – but it was knowing she was there, that mattered.”
Rebecca laughs. “Yes, I knew you (Taneah) were out there doing what you needed to do. I didn’t worry about a missing attendance form here or there! I remember you loved doing your budgets.” Both of them smile. “I could see your dedication to your work, and now to your profession.”
Taneah also becomes enthusiastic talking about her instructors at RACC.
“I had incredible teachers, who worked with me. While I was still struggling, some teachers early on in my first semester, worked with me to attend class one day a week, and I completed all the required work. I could not have done it without them.” Taneah falls silent as she considers that time. She quickly navigated her new environment. “Of course, to succeed in the Respiratory Therapy program, dedication, participation, and attendance are important… and the instructors in my major also cared very much about all of their students.”
“I also had some amazing friends from my church who would come watch my kids early in the morning and get them off to daycare, so I could go to clinicals. I could not have done this alone. I had great people in my corner.”
She was one of those people “In the corner” for others, too. Even while she was a student, a worker, and a busy single mother, she still found time to serve her fellow students as a GED tutor and a RACC Student Ambassador.
Taneah did her clinicals at several regional hospitals, and was offered a position in her field two months before she graduated. She started working for Tower Health in 2017 and was hired full-time there in 2020. “RACC prepared me well,” she says.
We asked Taneah what her life is like now, as a member of the front-line team helping COVID-19 patients at Tower Health-Reading Hospital during this epidemic.
“Well, I love my job, but it is very hard right now. It’s scary! There are more very sick people than ever. We are physically, emotionally, and mentally exhausted. In the beginning we weren’t fully prepared for what was happening, but we are now. The best part is that we are part of a team. I love my coworkers. We rely upon each other to make it through each shift….” Her voice is emphatic, but sad.
“…But the hardest part is seeing that many coronavirus patients, because of their isolation, end up dying alone. So many have touched my heart. They are very sick – air hungry, low on oxygen. Sometimes I am one of the last people they get to see. We help them do FaceTime with their relatives, but many still end up alone.” Taneah pauses. “I was feeling impatient with one patient who wasn’t doing what I needed him to do. I took a step back and had to re-think, because I was feeling overwhelmed. This patient was fighting for his life. I vowed I would do better.”
She continues, “One result of this crisis is that, although very often Respiratory Therapy used to be sort of unrecognized by the public as a profession, now we are definitely feeling love from the community! For all healthcare workers. It helps a lot.”
We ask, what would she say to new workers in her field right now?
“You will need support to get through. Ask for help – find the right people to turn to. Jump right in.” Taneah shrugs her shoulders. “We’ll get through it. I have no other advice – these are not usual times.”
“What can we, the public, do to help?” we ask.
“Well, wash your hands, stay at home if you can. I feel so sorry for the small businesses that have taken a hit. I am very grateful to have a job. But I am concerned about opening too soon; it may make it worse.”
We ask our final question: “Taneah, remembering yourself at the beginning, what was your motivation to do so well despite all the difficulties? So many others fall away.”
She pauses, looks off-screen where her daughter is playing. “Well, I wanted this for my children. They kept me going.
“And for all the great people who were in my corner.”
“And I never give up,” Taneah Mays says.
(Reading Area Community College’s KEYS Program is a Pennsylvania state grant-funded program which helps low-income students utilize a wide array of academic, personal, and advising support as they educate themselves for a better career and fulfilling life.)