Why this DeKalb educator’s lessons extend far beyond the classroom

Avis Foley likes to share her journey through despair to inspire others to choose to live their best lives. CONTRIBUTED BY BLAIR DEVEREAUX
Avis Foley likes to share her journey through despair to inspire others to choose to live their best lives. CONTRIBUTED BY BLAIR DEVEREAUX

Life is complicated.

If you didn't already know that, keep living or just sit for a while with Avis Foley of McDonough.

So much of her story seems all made up: placed in foster care when she was just 3 days old, learned from a note pinned to her shirt in second grade that her name was not Barbie; that abuse doesn’t equal love.

No one, though, could make this stuff up.

And so, when Foley speaks, you go wherever she takes you — through every valley, up every hill and back.

At just 38, Foley has a lot to say about overcoming obstacles, looking past your pain, choosing to live your best life and then inspiring others to do the same.

It’s so easy to fall into despair thinking about all that is wrong with the world. Foley’s story teaches us about the power of the human spirit to lead us from despair into deliverance.

It’s hard to know where to begin, but prayer seems a good place. Prayer changes things.

All her life, Foley told me, she prayed, pleading with God to make her life better. Maybe win the lottery.

“I just wanted to be happy,” she said.

But was that even possible for someone born to a drug-addicted schizophrenic mother and then adopted by someone who, rather than tell anyone she and her twin sister were adopted, sent her to school with a note pinned to her shirt?

Do not call her by her old name, it read. Her name is Avis Foley.

RELATED | Is Georgia’s foster care system really in crisis?

“My teacher read it and sent me to the office,” she remembered half-laughing. “I thought I was going to get paddled.”

The school principal cleared things up in a phone call with her adoptive mother, and the girl who knew herself as Barbie Peay became Avis Foley. Her twin sister Babe was now Avon.

That year, they were second graders, who outside of school, had spent most of their time locked away in the family basement.

“If we wanted water or to use the bathroom, we would have to knock on the door and she would let us up,” Foley said. “We couldn’t hardly ever go outside. And when we could, we were confined to the backyard. We couldn’t open the fridge until our senior year of high school. Back then I didn’t understand, but now after living a little, I understand why she was so hard on us.”

That year at Westside High in Gary, Indiana, though, held promise.

As her high school graduation approached, a school counselor encouraged Foley to apply to college. With her grade-point average and family history, she could easily get a scholarship.

“Nothing good had ever happened to me,” she said. “After high school, I was going to work at McDonald’s and become a manager. I didn’t know I had options.”

She struggled to complete the application but eventually got the help she needed. Her essay recounted her story — being born to a drug-addicted schizophrenic mother, placed in foster care, adopted, never feeling loved and wanting a change.

“I knew I had the grades but felt like my life was one continuous streak of bad luck,” she said. “But I got in.”

Each week, Gracie Bonds Staples will bring you a perspective on life in the Atlanta area. Life with Gracie runs online Tuesday, Thursday and alternating Fridays.
Each week, Gracie Bonds Staples will bring you a perspective on life in the Atlanta area. Life with Gracie runs online Tuesday, Thursday and alternating Fridays.

Credit: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Foley planned to follow her idol, fictional TV character Clair Huxtable, into law school but quickly discovered it wouldn’t be.

“I almost flunked out,” taking the pre-law courses, she said.

She changed her major at Purdue to English education.

Things were starting to look up when Foley headed to Atlanta for the summer.

Within days of arriving here, she was introduced to a guy who turned her head. He was funny and easy to talk to; they shared a certain chemistry.

The summer flew by and she returned to Purdue. When her guy threatened to break up if he couldn’t come to Indiana to be with her, Foley couldn’t say no. It felt good being wanted.

But she started to notice something different about him. More and more, he was putting her down, and when he was angry and drinking, he’d hit her.

RELATED | YWCA helps achieve a win for domestic violence victims in Georgia

In 2005, she graduated with a bachelor of arts degree from Purdue. He left for Alabama, and three months later, she followed him there, moving in with him, his mother, and grandmother.

“That’s when it went downhill,” she said.

They fumbled through an on-again, off-again relationship in which Foley endured both physical and emotional abuse because she “didn’t think anyone else wanted” her.

The two of them were sitting at a Waffle House sometime in 2006, when things finally came to a head.

“He slapped me so hard, the print of his hand was on my face,” she said. “I asked God to give me the strength to leave and he did.”

Over the next few weeks, she gathered her belongings. One morning, while he slept, Foley carried two big suitcases stuffed with clothes and CDs, the only things she owned, to her car and drove away.

“The windows fogged up; I was so scared,” she said. “When he discovered I was gone, he called me 70 times.”

But this time was different. No matter how many times he might say he was sorry, Foley was done.

She moved in with a sister in Atlanta and soon thereafter landed her first teaching job with the Clayton County School District.

Colleagues suggested she pursue a master’s degree, and three years later, she completed an accelerated program at Troy University. Then, in 2015, she graduated from Walden University, becoming Dr. Avis Foley.

Today Foley is an instructional coach in the DeKalb County School District.

When she isn’t speaking, writing or teaching, she is looking for ways to inspire others to live their best lives.

There’s a saying that “life is hard and then you die.”

Foley’s had a hard life, but hopefully she’s got a lot of living ahead of her. She certainly has a lot to teach us about perseverance.

“Here’s what I hope people will learn from my story,” she told me. “All of these things that have happened to me are all just small testaments to the woman that I have become. I represent a brand of triumph, not tragedy. Pain in the process will propel you towards your purpose.”

Find Gracie on Facebook (www.facebook.com/graciestaplesajc/) and Twitter (@GStaples_AJC) or email her at gstaples@ajc.com.