When Debra Tribble’s life was going terribly wrong she would think about the years of dealing with people mistakenly thinking she was white. She never pointed to this as the reason for her troubles, but surely for a teenager grappling with self-identity issues, this question of race only compounded growing up.
“I passed the exam to get my driver’s license,” said the Baltimore native, who has light skin, blue-green eyes and had very blonde hair then.
“The examiner said, ‘Yes, you passed everything, but I can’t sign the document because it says you’re Negro.’
“I said, ‘I am.’”
The man responded, “Negroes don’t look like you.”
Debra, 17 at the time, offered as proof her older brother who was browner and sporting his huge afro. At times people thought her mother was her nanny. Once people called police after seeing her out with a Black family and thinking she was a kidnapped white girl.
“I think I became someone who really tried to fit in and be accepted by people,” offered Tribble. “It was difficult.”
Life started out good in a tight knit, Black, south Baltimore neighborhood where people left their doors open to catch a breeze. When her father became a successful dentist, the family moved to a larger house in an integrated community.
“I started to lose myself,” said Tribble.
Her parents enrolled her in a very small Catholic school. In the second year of Catholic high school, she visited four European countries, another experience that built a wedge of difference between her and her friends in public school.
In her junior year of high school, she got pregnant. She completed that year, but the school refused to accept her back the next year.
“The Dean of Students informed my mother they had a meeting and voted me out of the school as a bad influence on the rest of the girls,” said Tribble.
A few weeks later, Tribble gave birth to a girl born two months premature.
Determined to complete high school, she earned a GED at a community college. She went to work at the Social Security Administration, where her mother worked, and lived with her parents.
Over the next decade, Tribble’s life took on a pattern, though she ignored what should have been a warning. She used cocaine, got addicted, and managed to stop twice.
She had stopped when she met a dental student named Rodney Lawson.
They got married May 19, 1984. Tribble was 31. Life was good again.
Tribble thought she could dabble in cocaine—and got hooked again. When Lawson built his dental practice, that meant more disposable income, more trouble.
“For the first three years of our marriage I tried to get it under control. But it’s a disease of the brain,” she said.
Then in April of 1987, while her husband was away at a conference, Tribble stole a large amount of cash he had stashed away.
“The look on his face when he came in and the realization of how I had done this to someone I cared for so much made me realize there was a really big problem,” she said. “I dropped to my knees and said. ‘God, help me.’”
It was Palm Sunday. She knew she needed to find help. When her husband begged her to wait at least until after the Easter festivities with his family, Tribble replied: “No, I’ll be dead then.”
She checked herself into a 28-day drug rehab program at The Tuerk House, located on the grounds of a Catholic monastery in Baltimore. There, she met a woman on her 63rd trip to rehab, saw a man suffer a grand mal seizure due to his alcohol use, and found a woman in her room covered with blood after having a massive hemorrhage from her nose.
“I got honest with myself and looked at what I had done and who I wanted to be,” she said.
Therapy helped her talk about truths she had repressed for years, such as being molested at age nine.
“I felt free! I realized I couldn’t change how I look and how people react to me or any of the slights I felt I had been dealt,” she said. “But I understood that everyone has a purpose in life and that your job is to find out what it is and fulfill it.”
Tribble decided to become a counselor. The girl who needed help had become a woman who wanted to give help. Her husband was supportive. Eventually, she went to work at Tuerk House, later becoming an administrator. She
earned a bachelor’s degree in Health Sciences and Policy and earned a master’s in Community Mental Health. She considered getting a doctorate degree, but found out she had breast cancer. Suddenly, a doctorate didn’t seem so
important. She had a mastectomy and reconstruction surgery.
She left Tuerk House and worked at a couple of other jobs she loved. She and Lawson divorced in 2009. In June of last year, he killed himself in his dental office.
“Of course, I was shocked and dismayed and today it is still at times very hard to believe that I will never see or talk to him again…,” she said.
Meanwhile, in April of 2007, Tribble took a job as director of Chrysalis House Healthy Start, a long-term care program for pregnant women and post-partum women suffering with addiction and mental illness.
“I am a mother to all the woman and grandmother to all the babies,” said Tribble, who residents call “Miss Debra.”
She does not judge the residents, said Taylor King, 20, who has an 18-month-old son and has lived in the house almost a year.
“She loves to say ‘We’re living to learn and learning to live,’” said King, laughing. “And she says, ‘You’re thinking thinking; You feel the way you feel because you think the way you think.’”
King admits she entered the program angry and distrusting of everyone. Miss Debra required that residents hand in their journals on Fridays with answers to questions about what they had learned that week.
“I thought there’s no way this woman is reading all of this,” she said, knowing at times there were up to 16 residents. “I wrote ‘nothing’ for every answer.
“She called me into her office. She said, “’I really value the newcomer’s opinion on stuff. You are just coming in from the outside, so I really value what you have to say. You need to write down something.’”
The following week, King answered the question “One thing you want Miss Debra to know”—and to her surprise, Tribble called her in and expressed sincere interest about her answer. Then King noticed the situation she wrote about
changed. For once in her life she felt valued, that someone had actually listened to her.
“I didn’t get that judgmental vibe from her,” said King.
Tribble’s daughter, Kelly Tribble Spencer, said she’s found that her mother’s work on the behalf of others is legendary.
“I meet people all the time who ask, ‘Are you (Miss Debra’s) daughter? She was my counselor.’ They say, ‘Tell your mother ‘hi.’ She saved my life.’”
"Faces of Hope" will highlight stories to lift your spirit and inspire you. Know someone who has overcome incredible challenges or who devotes their time to helping others? Email your story suggestion to Patrice Gaines at email@example.com.