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Circle of Surviors

Some might say they’re cursed; they call themselves the lucky ones. This is a time of year when we take stock of our accomplishments and setbacks. We look forward to the year ahead. Sherri Arnold Graham, Jeffrey Brooke Allen and Amanda Lockamy face another year living with chronic illness – cancer, multiple sclerosis and debilitating depression. Simple survival might be achievement enough, but not for these three survivors.

A difference between depression and despair

Jeffrey Brooke Allen lost his job, his wife and his car all in the same week. The depression he suffered as a result is a demon he fights by working with local charities.

Allen is 64 . He lives in a small, three-room apartment in Haymount with a stray gray kitten named Babycat. He says he is lucky to be where he is.

Allen graduated with a doctorate in psychology from Northwestern University and came to Fayetteville in 1976 to take a job as an assistant professor at Fayetteville State University. He was in his tenure year in April 1982 when his life began a downward spiral. “I got fired, divorced and wrecked my car all in the same week,” Allen said.

Life got worse.

“I was hospitalized four times for clinical depression,” Allen says. “I had schizophrenic manifestation, rapid mood swings and I was bi-polar. I still suffer from depression, and I know I probably will every day for the rest of my life.

“The divorce wouldn’t have been so bad if it was just my wife. But she took my children, a boy and a girl, and moved all the way to Louisiana.”

With no job and no car, Allen moved into a friend’s backyard shed.

Today, he has his own apartment. At the top of his steps hangs a sign, given to him by his daughter, which says, “You are here.”

Allen makes $711 a month including food stamps. He says he lives like a poor king.

He smokes cheap cigarettes and eats a lot of beans and rice. He admires Babe Ruth, Roberto Clemente, Jackie Robinson, not for their athletic ability but for their compassion; they worked with charities.

Like them, Allen has become involved with local non-profits such as the CROP Walk, the Boys and Girls Club, Fayetteville Urban Ministry, The Haven Friends for Life animal shelter and other charities. He once gave some inheritance money – $11,370 cash – to Fayetteville Urban Ministry. “I just liked those numbers,” he said.

“I want people with emotional challenges to know they can make it,” Allen says. “It won’t be easy, but they need to know you can recover and you can lead an active life.”

Allen began trying to get his feet back on the ground with something his mother had saved from his childhood. “I still don’t know what I would have done if it had not been for my old 1933 to 1956 baseball cards,” he says.

Allen became a sports card memorabilia, record and comic book dealer, but few, if any, of his customers liked him because of his mood swings.

“I have gone from 100 percent me, me, me to doing everything I can for charity,” he says. “Working for charities costs me money, but at this time in my life, I feel better when I’m giving than when I’m making money.

“I didn’t choose to be charitable to ease my depression, but my depression eased when I became charitable,” he said. “It is true, you know – it is better to give than to receive.”

Allen says he has learned there is a big difference between depression and despair. “Depression is when you don’t think you are good enough for the world; despair is when you don’t think the world is good enough for you.”

Detours do not

change destinations

Sherri Arnold Graham was only 36 when she found out she had breast cancer.

A wife and mother, Graham had surgery and chemotherapy treatments, all the while vowing to “fight every day” of her life. Now 45, Graham is fighting to increase breast cancer awareness in Fayetteville and beyond.

A talkative lady with a big smile, Graham is a woman on a mission. With the help of her husband, Ernesto Graham, a gynecologist, she started the Sherri Arnold Graham Foundation in 2005 as a means to help those in need as they go through cancer diagnosis. The foundation recently received an $800 donation from the Renaissance European Day Spa which gave a portion of spa proceeds during October, national Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

Brenda Hall, director of Cape Fear Valley Health System’s Cancer Center, calls Graham “a woman on a mission.”

“When she learns of a newly diagnosed patient, she delivers a care package to the patient and offers support and hope and guides them to available resources,” Hall says.

“She has also recently received grant monies to spread the word of education, prevention and awareness. She goes out to churches and community events to educate people. She is making an impact on the health care of women in Cumberland County.”

Her leadership has served as the catalyst for unprecedented faith-based partnerships with both Cape Fear Valley and Rex Hospital in Raleigh. With her help, hundreds of uninsured and underinsured women can now receive quality mammograms at no cost. This health advocacy and health awareness ministry is now regarded as a collaborative model for miscellaneous health initiatives in cities such as Detroit and other states like Florida and Maryland.

“I believe I was diagnosed so that I could help others,” the associate minister said. “I preach a sermon where I tell others that detours do not change destinations. I believe it was God’s will that I help others this way.”

‘Keep fighting, keep trying’

Amanda Lockamy always wanted to be a teacher working with children who have special needs, so she was happy when she got a job after college teaching exceptional children at Cape Fear High School. But that same month, September 2001, her world and her plans changed forever.

In her first month as a teacher, Lockamy received a diagnosis that turned her into a person with special needs herself. Multiple sclerosis is a condition in which the immune system attacks the central nervous system. People with MS suffer from different degrees of disability, but Lockamy knew she might have problems continuing as a teacher. And then one day, she had trouble writing on the overhead projector.

“My students noticed that I was having trouble holding my pen,” she said. “I knew that I probably wasn’t going to be able to contine to teach.”

So Lockamy, who is now 31, made the decision to go back to school and learn to be a high school guidance counselor. She will finish her degree next December. She is working as a counselor now at Douglas Byrd High School and uses her experience to help the students there.

“When a kid comes to me and tells me they can’t do something, I try to relate my experience to them,” she says. “I encourage them, tell them what I’ve been through, and try to motivate them to keep fighting, keep trying.”

Lockamy, who used to actively work out and taught classes for Weight Watchers, now finds her physical disabilities to be a huge handicap. “I had to learn that it was OK to ask people for help,” she said. “I had to learn that it was OK to accept that help.”

For one, an aide helps her take notes in her classes at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke.

“The biggest change is the fatigue factor,” she says. “I get tired so easily now.”

But Lockamy is planning a skiing trip in December, something she has not done since she was diagnosed. She says it is something she has to try.

Lockamy recently lost one of her biggest cheerleaders. Her father, Bobby Lockamy, died after a long illness. She says she learned a lot from him. But she still gets support from her mother, Linda. Mother and daughter are active in the local Eastern North Carolina MS chapter, helping organize fundraisers and promoting awareness about multiple sclerosis.

“She worries more about me than I do,” Lockamy says. “I tell her not to cry. But we sometimes cry together.”