A childhood photo of Mary Bailey Bustos shows a happy-go-lucky kid with a sunny smile. But she garners no warm fuzzies when examining the picture. Fact is, as far as she is concerned, she might as well be gazing at a stranger. That’s because, for all intents and purposes, she is. Memory loss has effectively erased her childhood. Indeed, she has difficulty recollecting anything that happened to her even two weeks ago.
Bailey Bustos, 44, who now lives in Saint Paul’s Highland Park neighborhood, was thrown head-first through a car windshield in a 1983 accident in Yakima, Washington. When she awoke in a hospital room 18 hours later, her memory had vanished. And her ability to remember anything from then on virtually disappeared. “I’m lucky if I remember last week,” she said. “I would not remember anything that happened last year unless I read about it right beforehand.”
Despite that obstacle, Bailey Bustos has survived and even thrived. She has won two national poetry awards. And she was recently selected Fall 2006 Outstanding Student in the Metropolitan State University College of Professional Studies. “It is a humongous honor,” said Bailey Bustos, a human services major with a dual focus in chemical dependency counseling and corrections. “My daughter was in tears telling me how proud she was of me.”
Pauline Danforth, a Metropolitan State academic advisor, commends Bailey Bustos for confronting challenges and serving as a role model for other disabled, low-income and first-generation college students. Specifically, Danforth praised her thirst for knowledge and organizational and leadership skills.
As evidence of that, Bailey Bustos recently spearheaded the launch of a new Metropolitan State student group. That organization aims to help students with resource referrals and through peer mentoring and tutoring.
She has had to make several accommodations for her disability. She regularly jots down notes to help in navigating her day and keeps her schedule in four separate daily planners, one that she carries with, another at home and two in work settings. The Metropolitan State Disabilities Services Office has also assisted, allowing her extended time to take tests; her recollection often improves with more time. Moreover, internships and independent studies have proven valuable, enabling her to work more at her own pace.
Bailey Bustos is working as a full-time resident assistant at the Salvation Army Booth Brown House Foyer Program, Saint Paul, which assists 16–22 year-olds transition out of homelessness. She offers group workshops and one-on-one sessions, counseling clients on life and study skills, resume writing, and identifying college scholarships (she’s won several herself). She essentially provides the same services as a part-time peer mentor in Metropolitan State’s TRIO/Student Support Services Office.
Previously, Bailey Bustos was a shift supervisor and case manager for a Saint Paul correctional halfway house. Earlier, she was a client at that same facility, after having served three years (1994–1997) at the state’s women’s correctional facility in Shakopee for a conspiracy conviction.
While the 1983 car accident upended her life, it has not defined her. Her poetry has assisted through rough patches, helping her access emotions and frame ongoing challenges. She’s won two major national awards from Poetry.com for poems that were included in published anthologies. She crafted one of those poems, “Good Night My Children,” during a particularly low period, while being detained in jail. Her goal is to eventually publish her own book of poems.
Her disability, she said, has actually benefited her in some ways. “It’s given me the ability to empathize with others who have disadvantages.”
The Long Beach, Calif. native credits her pursuit of a college degree with inspiring two of her three children to finish high school. One is now attending college and another is planning to enroll next year. Bailey Bustos, who hopes to land a job in corrections, plans to pursue another bachelor’s degree and, eventually, a master’s degree.
“I am the first in my family to attend college,” she said, “so it’s really a big deal to graduate. A huge deal. I’m really looking forward to it.”
Harvey Meyer is a writer for Metro State University