"A lot of blessings have come from having MS,” Tamara Carpenter believes. When she was diagnosed in 2004, she was living in Chicago and had a very stressful job as lawyer. Being diagnosed made her ask herself what kind of life she really wanted.
For her that meant pursuing her dream to make it possible for all kids to have access to a high-quality education, no matter their background. She also moved back home to Indianapolis for her treatment and to get the support of her family.
Although she didn’t have a background in education, Tamara applied for and was awarded a National Urban Fellowship, a leadership development program for people of color and women, that teaches public sector and non-profit management practices. “It required me to quit my job, move to New York City and live on a student stipend for 14 months, which launched my work with charter school innovation and development,” she said. Now, as a consultant in urban education reform, “I provide services around development, advancement and sustainability for charter schools. I run around a lot, but the love I have for the children and the work gives me energy that propels me forward even when I feel tired.”
There were some big hurdles along the way. “My family loves me dearly but they didn’t want me to move to New York where I would be outside their zone of protection,” she recalled. “They worried about me having to navigate a large city and get new doctors. They wondered whether I would have health care as good as I’d had with my full-time job. I understand their fear, because if your health is gone, you can’t necessarily get it back.”
But Tamara went ahead. “Going for your dreams doesn’t mean not taking risks — but they need to be calculated risks, and you should involve your doctors and family. But in the end, it’s your life, not your family’s.”
New York did become overwhelming, she admits. By the time she got home in February, she had anemia and wasn’t functioning well.
Nonetheless, she said, “Having MS doesn’t mean going from a great future to no future. There’s a way to balance your health concerns with your goals. Maybe your life was on one trajectory, then this thing comes along and makes you reassess what’s important for you. It did for me. Time is much more precious. I don’t want to waste time doing things that don’t fulfill me and my purpose.
“I knew what I wanted for my future: to run my own school and eventually operate a network of high-performing charter schools,” she continued. Tamara is also about to launch a blog about charter schools and education.
As an outgrowth of participating on the Society’s National African American Advisory Council, Tamara has recorded a public service announcement. “Initially, I was a bit concerned about being a spokesman,” she said. “I worried that if a company saw my picture, they wouldn’t want to hire me because of the MS. But if an organization didn’t want to work with me because of MS, then I knew I didn’t want to work with them.
“What was really great was meeting the other people who were reading for the PSA and hearing their stories,” she continued."
When I found my voice had been selected, along with a montage of photos, I was excited. It was a perfect way to honor all the people who were there.”
The Council’s goal is to get African-Americans more knowledgeable and involved. “Hopefully, the message will get out, and people in the African-American community will realize it is an issue that does affect us. I hope they will embrace knowledge about it, and learn about symptoms and treatment. Right now, there is no face of what MS looks like for us,” Tamara said. “I hope the PSA helps people not fear a diagnosis and realize they can still have a full life. And I hope it gives people someone to identify with — a normal average person juggling insurance, family, dating, all those things. I’m a normal person trying to do that and still maintain my health.”
“Having MS,” Tamara concluded, “has helped me mature, learn balance and cherish the things that are important in life.”