Editorial: Karen Watson Knows the Pain Because She’s Lived It

BY January 5, 2018

It’s not every executive director of a nonprofit here who began life working in the fields and at packing plants at age 11. Or had to take care of her younger brothers’ needs then and help pay the family bills. Or walked across the stage pregnant to pick up her high school diploma.

Like so many leaders in Southwest Florida, Karen Watson brings passion to her calling in ministering to the needs of our young people. But unlike so many of them, she brings a history of hurt and struggle and grit that serves her so well in her daily rounds. For she runs Our Mother’s Home in Fort Myers for unwed mothers, and she not only knows the drill—she’s lived it.

We’ll see her at work and learn about some of the young women there. But, first, let’s discover how this woman from run-down public housing in the Dunbar section of Fort Myers faced up to the violence, the poverty and the despair all around her.

“I had struggled as a student through elementary and middle school,” she says. Who had time to think of schoolwork when she had to do so much just to survive? “But,” she says, “the lightbulb went on in high school, thanks to a teacher who told me what I could be and boosted my self-esteem.”

And Karen’s mother, a single mom with no education and few resources, made it clear she wanted better things for her daughter. She’d drive to McGregor Boulevard and point out the nice homes to show her children there was a better life outside Dunbar. Once, her mother drove them to Washington, D.C., to show them it was a real place, not just something you saw on TV.

Good News, Bad News

With her degree from North Fort Myers High School, Karen started at Edison Community College. “But,” she recalls, “with two jobs and a baby, I couldn’t keep up and had to drop out.” She met her first husband and had a baby. But he was physically and verbally abusive to her, and she had to take her two girls and exit the marriage.

This was in her early 20s. She went to work for the Lee County School District for 22 years, a lot of it with pregnant moms, infants and toddlers. Along the way, she went back to school and got a bachelor’s degree in social work from Florida Gulf Coast University. But she felt she needed yet more education to be able to do more things for needy kids. She quit work to go for a master’s degree.

“I showed up the day before classes started at FGCU only to learn that the financial aid wasn’t in place,” she recalls. “There I was with no job, now no school and wondering if all my efforts had come down to this. I pulled my car into an empty lot and burst into tears. I called my mom and she asked how much money I needed. She said she’d get a loan through her credit card and wire me the money. That was the turning point in my life. And I did get my master of social work degree.”

Stepping Up

A professor recommended that Karen go to Our Mother’s Home as a volunteer in 2007, and by 2011 she became its executive director. Over time, she’s put its finances in order and established its place in the community. The mission is to see to the medical, educational, mental, parenting and life skills of young women.

Karen tells me about a couple of the young women she’s worked with there. One, let’s call her Brenda, came to the home pregnant at 15 and had mostly lived in foster care. She had been told to have an abortion and quit school. “I said ‘no’ to both of those,” Karen says. “I stayed with her through the birth of her child, and we made sure she graduated from high school. She’s now in college, with custody of her baby.” Then there was Lisa, who stayed in the home for two years, having her baby, graduating from high school and then leaving for a job. But things fell apart for her, and she returned for six months to get stabilized and save some money. She’s now back on her own and going to class at FGCU.

Karen, 52, married to her third husband, and a mother of two and grandmother of three, still believes there’s much more for her to do. She and TaSheekia Perry have founded Impact Dunbar (under the auspices of the Southwest Florida Community Foundation) to help the women in that neighborhood. And Karen is running for election to the Lee County School Board. She told me she had been inspired by these words from Brenda when she was about to give birth to her child: “God, if you give me the strength, I will do the rest.” Karen’s “rest” will continue to be a blessing for those in need she so faithfully serves. 

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