Helena Girouard of Port Orange was once homeless, pregnant, abusing drugs and committing crimes to support her habit.
Now at age 35, she has been granted one of the most prestigious awards in the country, a Pritzker Fellowship. As if that wasn’t remarkable enough, she is slated to begin law school at Purdue University in January.
Ms. Girouard works at One Voice for Volusia.
The Pritzker Children's Initiative is dedicated to building a promising future for the country through investments in early childhood development.
Ms. Girouard starting using drugs at age 13, which she initially hid well by being an exceptional student-athlete. She was “invited not to return” to Ohio State University. By the time she got to Project WARM (Women Assisting Recovering Mothers) in late 2013, she was pregnant and using opioids, stopping one month before her daughter, Isabella, was born January 22, 2014.
After the birth of her daughter, who was born healthy, and while still at Project WARM, she graduated from the Daytona State College Fresh Start program. Her life started taking on a new direction.
After Project WARM, she was in transitional housing at Family Renew, another local agency and, while there, earned an associate of arts and associate of science degrees in human services with a specialization in addiction from DSC. As part of her education, she completed an externship at Healthy Start in Daytona Beach.
“I received (Healthy Start) services when I was in treatment,” she said. “Two weeks after my daughter was born, I had a bunch of warrants. The hardest amends I have ever made was to hand my two-week-old daughter to my mom and go walk into a jail and say ‘here I am.’ I spent 71 days in three counties. The judge sent me back to Project WARM, drug offender probation, everything except for the five-year sentence I was facing. I’m not a convicted felon, but I have felonies on my record, they are withheld adjudication.”
As to her two-year fellowship, she said, “Jamie Pritzker and his wife have the Pritzker Children’s Initiative. They have been very invested in the outcomes of healthy birth and things like that. They also are very concerned that kids across the country are not ready for kindergarten. They thought the best way to make the biggest impact would be to have fellows dispersed around the country. There are 13 of us in the country. It’s a grant funded position. This is a pilot program.”
It was One Voice for Volusia that used Ms. Girouard’s story to apply for the fellowship grant. All of the other Pritzker Fellows applicants had graduate degrees or were Ph.D candidates. As part of the fellowship, her job is to focus on policies that affect ages prenatal to age three. Public speaking around the country is a big part of it along with data sharing.
Fellows work directly with early childhood leaders as well as local policymakers and practitioners to create, implement and sustain ambitious communitywide action plans to support the healthy development of Flagler and Volusia Counties' youngest children. Goals include making a collective impact on improving outcomes for the prenatal to three population including substance abuse, housing, and health inequities.
She said she usually ends her talks with “the reason I am so passionate is I was a part of those (homeless/substance abuse) statistics. I was a junkie or a server my whole life and now I am in this very professional role. I think the most important thing to remember, the opposite of addiction is connection. Relationship building is the foundation of everything I do in my work. Having relationships and connections gives me hope. I didn’t have that before. My relationship was with substances. I think my message is you are really not alone. I think the most courageous thing a person can do is ask for help.”
She also mentioned a phrase she heard she liked, which is “I wasn’t a pregnant woman who decided to use heroin; I was a heroin addict who happened to get pregnant. I wasn’t trying to hurt my baby.”
Her office is in the Early Leaning Coalition building in Daytona Beach.
Dixie Morgese, executive director of the Healthy Start Coalition of Volusia and Flagler Counties, said, “The initiatives Helena has been working on include Project HELP with the Daytona Beach Police Department, the Early Childhood Curriculum at Flagler Palm Coast High School, Housing for pregnant women and infants, and Health Equity Zones to address Social Determinants of Health. She participates in the Florida Perinatal Quality Collaborative to further the work for positive birth outcomes and better response to pregnant women with substance abuse disorders and babies with Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome.
“She is helping communities across the state respond better to the CARA Act of 2016 (Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act) by sharing her knowledge of brain science and her first hand lived experience with substance use disorder,” Ms. Morgese said. “In her role as facilitator of the Thrive by Five Collaborative of One Voice for Volusia, she inspires executives from child-care agencies to improve their practices and coordinate more effectively with one another. The Pritzker Fellowship has enabled Helena to grow in her role in our community and support our most important residents – the future.”
Ms. Girouard lost her brother, Armand Girouard, 27, when the plane he was piloting crashed Sept. 29 near DeLand. Such a tragedy may have caused someone in recovery to relapse, but her answer to that was “everyone wrapped around me. There’s no amount of drugs or alcohol in the world that could take that pain away.”
She added that her daughter keeps her grounded.
Ms. Girouard is completing a bachelor’s degree in public administration at Flagler College. She plans to attend law school at Purdue. From there, the sky is the limit.