A troubled life turns rich and full

December 22, 2018

Great stories of redemption usually don’t spring from political announcements.

This week marked an exception.

Gov.-elect Michelle Lujan Grisham appointed Albuquerque Fire Department Capt. Jackie White, 44, to run the state Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.

This is the same Jackie White who quit school at age 15 in her native Canada and descended into a life of despair. She moved in with a troubled boyfriend when her parents began divorce proceedings. White dabbled in drug use as her boyfriend fell deeper into that life. They foundered together.

“We ended up in a place that was incredibly challenging,” she told me. “It was almost like a boarding house. There was a lot of drug use, a lot of mistrust. I was working at kind of a dead-end job.”

A turning point occurred as White waited tables in a restaurant, trying to scrape together enough money to pay the rent and buy food. Word arrived that a female cousin would graduate from high school. This achievement awakened White’s slumbering drive and talents.

“It was an epiphany moment,” she said.

Her cousin was on a path to success. White wanted to take the same road.

White had been so talented a softball player that her coach had phoned her most days after she quit school. He encouraged her to play ball again. She ducked him for months, ignoring his recorded messages. He stopped calling so frequently, but phoned White again around the time of her cousin’s graduation.

“He had a vision for me that I couldn’t see,” White said.

Ready for reform, White recommitted herself to softball. She even lived for a time with her coach and his family. She also resumed her studies and received in 1992 the Canadian version of a general equivalency diploma.

White’s parents never closed the door on her after she left home. She eventually lived with her mother after her parents’ divorce became final, and softball became her focus.

White wasn’t simply a good player. She had exceptional talent that drew college recruiters. Softball brought her to Albuquerque to play for the University of New Mexico’s team from 1994-97.

White, then known as Jackie Lance, made the Canadian Olympic softball team in 2000 and 2004. She played second base, shortstop and the outfield. The kid who had nearly fallen by the wayside, into a world without ambition, became a woman playing on the planet’s biggest stages in Sydney and Athens, Greece.

Except for White’s participation in the Olympics, none of her personal story was mentioned when Lujan Grisham announced her hiring as a Cabinet secretary. The governor-elect joked that White could have helped her when she played on a softball team as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives.

There’s a deeper and better story unfolding. White speaks candidly about her troubled past. She believes it might help kids who have dropped out of school and are vulnerable to addiction, one of New Mexico’s epic problems.

Not everyone can star in a sport as White did, but she says anybody who’s down on her luck or living with bad decisions can recover with effort and, of course, help from others.

“I feel incredibly lucky to have had that,” White said.

She also worked hard to build a career, never squandering the opportunities that softball opened to her.

White graduated from UNM with a bachelor’s degree in criminology. She considered joining the military or becoming a police officer. Then she decided being a firefighter was the right job for her.

She has been an employee of the Albuquerque Fire Department for 17 years. Her interests led her to paramedic training and work on emergency rescue units. She rose to the rank of captain but said she decided not to test for further promotions because overseeing emergency operations fit with her interests.

White last year received her master’s degree in homeland security and defense from the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif.

She was happy as a member of the Albuquerque Fire Department but intrigued by going to work for Lujan Grisham, a Democrat promising improvements in day-to-day government operations.

“It was a thought, not a statement to anybody, that it would be an amazing opportunity,” White said.

She applied for three possible jobs on Lujan Grisham’s homeland security staff: Cabinet secretary, deputy secretary or “other.”

To White’s surprise, she received an interview last week with an aide to the governor-elect. Then Lujan Grisham herself called White back and interviewed her.

“Everything happened so fast,” said White, formally appointed by Lujan Grisham on Wednesday.

White, who became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 2015, will make $128,000 a year as secretary of homeland security.

It’s an agency that has been controversial for years on Republican Gov. Susana Martinez’s watch. Then-state Auditor Tim Keller in 2016 said its fiscal management was suspect and another agency should oversee its important financial functions. The Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management also faced federal scrutiny on claims that it misspent $7 million in grants. Martinez’s administration announced that the money eventually was accounted for, and none of the grants had to be paid back to the U.S. government.

White becomes animated just talking about the challenge of running the department. Doing the job correctly, she said, means preparing for the worst to keep people safe during wildfires, floods, power outages or terrorist attacks.

After Lujan Grisham announced the hiring of White and two other Cabinet secretaries, she encouraged everyone in the room to applaud them.

There’s no cheering in the press box, as the governor-elect knows. But it’s easy to root for White.

She lost her way as a troubled teenager. Now she’s about to head up security in a new homeland.

Ringside Seat is an opinion column about people, politics and news. Contact Milan Simonich at msimonich@sfnewmexican.com or 505-986-3080.

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