Irissa Johnson: A place for Pickles

Fair warning: This is not a happy story, but guess what - it’s far from over and it’s looking more and more like there will be a happy ending after all because our hero, well, she’s indomitable.

HER STORY

Right from the get-go, Irissa Johnson (a.k.a. Pickles) had a raw deal growing up.  “It was not much of a home," Pickles said. "My birth mother was home, but she was more of an addict - drugs and drinking. When she got home, it was in a rage. I got beat.” In conversations, Pickles uses the term "birth" mother to characterize a relationship totally devoid of nurturing and love. Her father walked out of their home and her life when Pickles was eight years old.

“I had to grow up [quickly] and raise my brothers,” she explained.

The day after her mother divorced her father, she married an abusive man. Pickles had already had to withstand beatings from her mother, and now also from her stepfather. As self-appointed protector of her two younger brothers, she often bore much of the assaults directed at them, as well.

“It was like taking my own beating , and it was two more times,” she explained.

A SURVIVOR

Pickles said though the specifics are hazy, she recalls being taken to the hospital when she was 9 years old and then upon release being told she could no longer eat chocolate or much sugar; she had to drop out of gym, the school jogathon, basketball  and baseball. She had hypertrophic cardiomyopathy -  a cardiovascular disease that can cause sudden cardiac death.

 When Pickles was 15, her father returned and gradually worked his way back into her life. He gained full custody of her, but she said it took her a year to forgive him for deserting his children.  Shortly thereafter he was also given custody of her siblings. This, too, was a difficult adjustment for the teen who had formerly been responsible for raising her brothers, now she had to let the parenting go to her father. 

At 16, Pickles underwent heart surgery . The surgeons said she died on the table, but she survived with two new additions, two machines now implanted in her body: a defibrillator that keeps her heart beating rhythmically, and a pacemaker – a standby in case her heart did actually stop beating.

 When she turned 17 her father gave her an ultimatum: Get a job or move out. So she found a job working 5 to 7 days a week, but at home she was still required to continue to cook, clean and do the family’s laundry. At 19 she’d had enough.

Pickles left home and lived on the streets for a few months. That particular experience wasn’t new to Pickles. Growing up with her birth mother, she and her brothers were periodically homeless. This was like that - only even lonelier.

A PLACE FOR PICKLES

When her uncle tracked her down and offered her a home, she accepted. She also accepted help from SE Works*.  A part of WorkSource Oregon, SE Works is a non-profit organization that provides resources and support for job seekers. Through SE Works Pickles earned her GED.  They found a place for her at the Portland ReStore, covering her part-time wages for  two months.  SE Works was so impressed by her positive attitude determination and work ethic (as were we) that they allowed her to pick up additional work hours.

“It’s not a like ‘a job’,” Pickles said. “It’s like a family. Here it’s like everyone gets along- no arguing.  To me it’s a wonderful place!”

Portland ReStore Assistant Manager Kate Ayres said Pickles’ dedication to her job was evident in all her interactions with both customers and staff.  Knowing there was a permanent job open at The ReStore, she worked even harder. She actively sought out extra projects, approaching the daunting ones with some trepidation, but never wavering from the task.

Her internship over, GED in hand, Pickles began her first week as an official ReStore employee. Last week she accepted a position as ReStore associate at our Portland location.

Someday Pickles hopes to attend college. She wants to study fashion, photography, teaching and nursing.

Wait, you mean you haven’t decided which field to study?

“No,” she says. “I want to get degrees in all four.”

 We believe she’ll get there because this is not that happy ending mentioned earlier…this is the happy beginning. Well done, Pickles. Welcome to The ReStore.

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* SE WORKS: "Founded in 1997, SE Works is a registered 501(c)3 with an extensive history of successfully engaging multi-barriered, low income, underserved populations, including: at-risk youth involved in the justice system; unemployed adults; immigrants; people experiencing disabilities; and people returning from incarceration. We have a strong reputation in the community and among partner organizations for providing quality programs and creating an accessible environment that is responsive to our community’s needs and concerns." Read more at SEWorks.org

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