Garnet Sexton has always loved books and writing. As a child she would sneak into her Dad’s room to borrow his books. A coal miner in Eastern Kentucky, her dad wasn’t educated but was an avid reader.
“Before I went to first grade, I could read,” Garnet says. In middle school, when she tried writing from her heart, she was discouraged from being so honest. She had the highest grades in seventh grade and was named valedictorian, but didn’t have a good dress to wear.
As she grew into a teenager, she pushed the boundaries. She drank too much, got pregnant at 15 and was married twice before she was 25.
By the time she discovered the New Opportunity School when she was 38, her marriage was in trouble and she was contemplating suicide. Sitting at the kitchen table, waiting for coffee to brew, she noticed an ad in the newspaper for women “at a turning point in their life.” She called the number.
“I thought I didn’t have a chance,” Garnet says. “I thought it was for other people because of who I thought I was.”
But she was accepted and came to NOSW in the winter of 1991. Her husband drove her from Eastern Kentucky to Berea, and she felt so out of place that she asked him to take her home. But he insisted she stay. She checked into her room and spent a few minutes praying.
“And when I went down, within five minutes I was home and comfortable and loved and welcome, and there was no feeling of us and them.”
She loved being on a college campus, reading Appalachian literature and practicing creative writing with author Gurney Norman. “Every minute of it was eye-opening.”
Before she left the three-week program, she had decided to apply to Berea College. She was back in Berea as a college student in the fall of 1991, living in a dorm, studying and making friends.
In her second year, living in a cabin near Berea, she was stranded by a big snowstorm. As she fell behind in her school work and thought about the pressure she was getting from her husband to come home, she decided to quit college. “And it broke my heart.”
Back home, she worked in a grocery store for a while, but found it frustrating. She happened to meet someone who worked at Clinch Valley College across the state line in Virginia. This friend helped her enroll, and Garnet was a college student again, this time a commuter.
She fell in love with sociology and psychology. “That stuff to me was like eating candy.”
For her practicum she worked in a recovery center. And so began her career as a clinician and targeted assessment specialist for people facing addiction, mental illness and incarceration. Garnet found her calling.
Along the way, she picked up her master’s degree and suffered some devastating losses: her son’s struggle with addiction and his death in a car accident, the loss of her sister, and another serious car accident that put her daughter in a coma. She raised her son’s two children.
“I made a lot of mistakes, but they got turned into lessons,” Garnet says. “What could have destroyed me made me a survivor.”
Back home on her family’s land in Letcher County, Garnet retired in 2021. But she felt restless and isolated during the pandemic.
When she joined her NOSW sisters for a graduate retreat in September 2022, she got the chance to reflect and reset. And she decided to go back to work doing what she loves—helping people, especially women.
“Now I have the rest of my life, and I know things that I didn’t know before.”