Since the start of 2020, Sebrena Pawley had been eagerly anticipating her birthday. She had planned a “travel bucket list” vacation to Africa. But while she counted down the days to her departure, a dark cloud was looming on the horizon. And on March 25, the day she was born, instead of the trip of a lifetime, Pawley received a diagnosis that she knew could end her life. She tested positive for COVID-19.

In the weeks leading up to her diagnosis, Pawley had been busy. As the area manager for young workforce development at Eckerd Connects in New York City, she worked tirelessly as a passionate champion and advocate for teens and young adults in her region and shared her insights through speaking engagements in other parts of the country. She was scheduled to travel to Sarasota as the keynote speaker for the SRQ SMARTgirl Leadership and Mentorship Summit, after which, she was headed on that much-needed and well-deserved vacation.

Now with business and travel disrupted in the face of a global pandemic, she changed focus to rally her team and set a remote operations plan in place. But when the symptoms started, Pawley recognized she had another challenge on her hands. If she wanted to fulfill her lifelong mission to serve others, she had to stay alive. No stranger to adversity, Pawley had spent most of her childhood fighting to survive. She faced seemingly insurmountable challenges as a young girl and had to overcome them to thrive and make a difference in the world. A self-described “concrete jungle native New Yorker,” her mother left her at Mount Sinai Hospital the day she was born and she was put into foster care.

She had over 80 placements in the foster system as a young girl and notes, “I ran from most of my foster homes. I recollect that most of them cared more about receiving that check every month than the young kids that they had in their homes.” And when she ran away, she lived wherever she could—couch surfing in friends’ homes, on the street, or under the subway because it was warm. Despite the challenges, Pawley had an innate curiosity and a fighting spirit that refused to give up, which proved invaluable. She said, “I was always asking a lot of questions: Why do we have to do this? Why are you doing this? What is the purpose? Because we need to ask questions and I wanted to advocate and stand up for myself.”

That stubborn self-advocacy enabled her to graduate from high school early. Pawley found school easy and was frequently bored. Moving from foster home to foster home, she did not think it was necessary for her to go to classes. But when she was held back a grade due to skipping class, it was a wake-up call. “So I said, ‘you know what? I’m not going to ever be held back again. I’m going to show up. I’m going to study. I’m going to do what I need to do so they will put me back in my grade and maybe I can even skip some grades,’” she recalled.

She moved ahead two grades to graduate at the age of 16. Now, she was out of school and had no idea what to do with her life. And then came a turning point. She was on the subway and in a dark mood. She thought about the mistreatment she and her siblings had received at the hands of foster parents and other adults and silently wished she were an attorney so she could prosecute the whole lot of them, bring them to justice and find some peace for herself. She recalled, “At that time I was homeless, a little bit out of  it, a little bit high, not feeling well and had a chip on my shoulder. I didn’t want anybody to talk to me.” But that’s exactly what happened and it made her furious. “A woman sat next to me and she said, ‘Everything is going to be OK.’ And in that moment I’m looking at her like, ‘I don’t want everything to be OK right now. I just want to be addicted to my pain right now and I don’t want to hear anything positive.’ So I purposely got up and got off the subway, only to turn around and she was no longer there,” she said.

To this day, Pawley isn’t sure whether the woman was a figment of her imagination or, as her brother suggests, a guardian angel sent to guide her on the right path. What she does know for sure is that when she turned around on the platform, there, right in front of her face on the subway wall, was a sign for the John Jay School for Law. She got the message and marched right over to the school, determined to enroll. Instead, she met the man who would be her mentor for the next 30 years. “He happened to be standing at the front desk. He wasn’t supposed to be there. Later I found out he was the recruiter for the school,” she said. He started a conversation with her but soon recognized a problem. She was high on drugs. “It was a coping mechanism for me at that point,” she said. But the man at the front desk was not pleased. She remembers, “He looked at me and yelled, ‘Are you high?’ And I said, ‘A little bit.’”

Pawley said he softened when she told him she had been in foster care and was now homeless and that he “saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself.” He told her that she had a gift and she just had to search for it. And when she found it, she needed to give it away to others. But he was not going to talk to her about school in the state she was in. And with that, he sent her to a downtown shelter run by Job Corps that had wraparound services for young adults in her age group. “You could live there and they would give you a weekly stipend, but you had to be doing something—going to school or have a job,” she said. The shelter put her to work at the front reception desk, and it was there she met hundreds of kids just like her. “I was able to see firsthand that they had the same story, if not worse, as mine. It wasn’t just me that was going through whatever it was I was going through. They, too, were in foster care, or were abused or had parents who kicked them out for being gay. I saw that they were persevering and not letting their challenges hold them back.

In a way, they saved my life, because from the moment I got there I never did drugs again,” she said. She found purpose and direction through her job and recalls, “As the young adults came in, I would give them positive words of affirmation, and when I realized I was helping them, something inside of me said, ‘This is it, this is what you’re supposed to do for the rest of your life.’ So that’s when I really found my gift for serving and I’ve been giving that gift away ever since I was 16.” Pawley worked her way up through numerous jobs in the human services industry looking for a place where she could apply her skills to change lives, and she found it at Eckerd Connects. She applauds the organization’s work-readiness training program, which teaches young adults the necessary skills to get a job and keep it. But for her, the job training is not the most important part of what she does. What’s crucial, she believes, is developing independent living skills, mental health and self-worth.

“We reinforce that hard work and persistence are going to pay off, but young adults have to take responsibility for doing what they need to do and be realistic about their challenges. It’s ‘Did you eat last night? Do you have clothing? Do you have a roof over your head?’” she said. She’s passionate about supporting her clients’ mental health because she remembers what she was like at their age. “I know how I was when I was 16. No one asked me whether or not I was OK at all. They just assumed that I was a bad kid. So the very first question that any of my staff asks the young adults when they’re coming in, even if they’re coming in late, is not ‘Why are you late?’ but ‘Are you OK? And if you’re not, let’s figure out what’s really going on with you.’ For me, that’s the most important work that I do. Because the résumé writing and the cover letter and knowing how to get a job can wait. You need to understand exactly what’s going on inside of you,” she said. Pawley and her team challenge their clients to become the best versions of themselves by turning their pain into purpose, and self-esteem is key to doing that.

“They are resilient, but we have to ensure that they know that they’re worthy first. They need to understand that they can fulfill their dreams. A lot of them don’t think that their goals are reachable, so I think just encouraging them to visualize what they want to achieve is huge. Also, we celebrate their efforts, not just their achievements, because some of them put forth the effort and they may not reach their goal immediately, but we recognize that effort in the meantime. And finally we ask them for the ‘Why’ behind their dreams. ‘What is your purpose behind the goal? Why are you motivated to do this?’” Without a reason, it’s hard to accomplish anything,” she said. Pawley was happily absorbed in the thick of programmatic work, motivating her team and tending to her clients’ needs across New York’s five boroughs when the first case of COVID-19 in New York was reported in Westchester County, where she lived. Neither she nor her colleagues had been wearing masks or gloves or social distancing as they went about their daily activities.

At that point, no one knew such precautions were necessary, but changes came soon. On March 16, Bronx Community College, one of Eckerd Connects’ locations, shut down and Pawley equipped all managers and staff with laptops to get Google remote classrooms up and running. Then on March 20, the governor issued a workforce stay-at-home order. “We weren’t sure what was going on. All we knew was people were dying,” she said. The day after lockdown, Pawley started feeling sick. She called her doctor, got tested in a town 45 minutes away, received her diagnosis, and started having severe symptoms two days later. She watched the news as the daily death toll rose into the hundreds and stayed in constant contact with her doctor, who told her what to expect. She noted that everything he said would happen did. “That’s when it really took a turn and I thought ‘Here we go,’” she said. Her body was racked with a nonstop violent cough, drenching night sweats and a raging dangerously high fever. She was taken by ambulance to the hospital, where the medical team administered IV treatment.

“After they got the treatment into me, my fever came down a bit and I was sent home because they had run out of beds,” she said. Days later the fever spiked and she wound up back in the hospital. After receiving a second round of IV treatment, they sent her home again, where the cough and fever continued to hang on day after day for weeks until finally resolving themselves. “My main concern was did I infect anyone? None of my staff was directly affected, but their family members were and we lost five people in my apartment complex. It was so surreal. You never think it can happen to you,” she said. After recovering, she has tested negative twice for the virus and is feeling healthy, but she cautions everyone to take precautions and fight complacency. “Don’t think it can’t happen to you. You don’t want to get this. Social distance and wear your mask and gloves. Do it for yourself, your family, friends, parents and grandparents,” she urged. Pawley is now focused on the business of moving forward. She says, while working with clients remotely will never be the same as connecting face-to-face, in some ways it has made her team more productive and resilient. She is looking at what the future holds when Eckerd Connects reopens, which she acknowledges probably won’t happen for months. But she is prepared as much as can be with social distancing practices, gloves and masks for her staff, and plans to install plexiglass dividers at both locations.

She is committed to conducting a survey for the young adults she serves to see how they feel about coming back and how they were affected by COVID-19, knowing many of them have lost family members during the pandemic. Having the virus made her more resolved than ever to serve. “I feel that we have to take responsibility for transforming the world that we live in every day by our actions. And we have to be taking one life-transforming step at a time, understanding that this stuff is a process and service is everything. And until we get that, our young adults will continue to suffer,” she said. Where once she dreamed of retaliating against the injustice of her circumstances, now Pawley is all about finding solutions and she’s not giving up. She wants to open a shelter for young adults, providing services from the hours of 3 to 10pm—perilous times for kids inundated by an atmosphere of drugs, violence and isolation. In the meantime, she is doing everything she can to make sure they know they are worthy and valued.

When asked to sum up her journey thus far and the key to overcoming the challenges she has faced, Pawley gave just two words: I persisted. SRQ