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Finding the strength to change your life

Published April 02. 2011 09:00AM

As God continues to shower me with blessings, one of those blessings is my new friend, Fran.

In addition to radiating goodness in everything she does, Fran is a strong, take-charge woman who rises to every challenge, both large and small.

But she wasn't always like that. Seeing the strong, gutsy woman that she is, it's hard to believe she spent 20 years of her life mired in fear and despair.

She has agreed to let me tell her story so that women can believe they can change their lives, no matter how bleak the circumstances.

Married at 17 to her high school sweetheart, they became the parents of four children and Fran centered her life on her family.

She knew her husband had a cruel streak but she thought love and prayer would soften his heart. If she tried hard enough to please him, she believed, she could create a loving home environment.

But no amount of love could counter the anger and violence that erupted without warning from the man she married.

If a child spilled milk at the table, he struck the child across the face. He hit her too, but he did more than hit the children. He beat them.

"I kept praying the violence in our home would end," she said. "I kept believing if I stayed and if I prayed, things would get better."

Instead, the violence escalated. She recalls the time she left the house for two hours to take care of a neighbor in need. When she got home, she learned from another neighbor that her husband had spent that time beating the children then stomping apart all of their toys.

"A neighbor who was a big man stood outside the house with tears in his eyes as he watched the children being beaten. He never called the police. People weren't fast to do that back then," she says.

When she worried that the next beating would kill her or the children, she knew she had to get out of the situation.

"But first I knew I needed to find a way to support my kids," she says. When her parents died, they left $5,000 to be paid in $100 monthly installments. She used that money for community college where she worked on earning a nursing degree.

"I kept remembering the words of my grandmother who said, 'You can do anything you set your mind to doing.'"

Many women in Fran's situation have no money, no job and no hope. She didn't have money or a job, but she had the courage to find a way out. Tackling nursing school after 30 was its own challenge but that wasn't nearly as hard as overcoming the daily obstacles her husband put in her path.

Fran "wasn't allowed" to study while her husband was still awake. After everyone was in bed, she would get up in the middle of the night to do her schoolwork.

She couldn't use her husband's car but he gave her permission to use his old motorcycle

"I taught myself to ride by driving around the yard until I could handle it. I remember taking my children to school one at a time on the motorcycle," she says.

The day she graduated from nursing school as class valedictorian, her husband left her. Her success was more than he could handle. But he came back again and despite his "sweet words and promises," the violence continued.

When she finally had money for her own apartment, she had a policeman come while she told her husband she was getting a divorce.

"That night as I stood at the sink washing dishes, my daughter told me it was the first time she ever saw me wash dishes without crying. The children thought I should have left a long time ago," Fran said.

She knew that, too. But she only did what was possible.

Now, she knows through experience that finding the courage to take that first step can change a woman's life.

"My lifemy new life didn't begin until I was 50. I didn't so much as pick up a paint brush until I was 50," said the woman who is now a renowned mural painter.

She never suspected she had any artistic talent until she signed up for an art course. The class was supposed to complete a painting in eight weeks. Instead, Fran did eight, winning high praise for her obvious talent.

The daughter of one of her patients learned of her painting ability and hired her to do a room-sized mural in her home. It was at that point that Fran formed a partnership with Magda, her painting teacher and friend.

Together they have gone on to create outstanding murals, including an inspirational mural outside her parish. The mural stands 31 feet high and 85 feet long and continues to attract people who are inspired by it.

While observers know how hard it was to stand on scaffolding to do the mural, they have no idea of the story behind the artist.

It is a story of strength and courage and an example of how a woman can change her life.

"I don't think anyone has an idea of what's inside them until tragedy befalls them," she says. "I want to give women the message that they can become anything they want."

From downtrodden to reborn, from abused wife to intensive care nurse and artist, her transformation is proof of that.

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