Graduate Creates Meaning From Past Struggles, Triumphs

An email from a former acquaintance proved to be a pivotal moment in life for Alaina Ellington. This email eventually sparked Ellington to further her education, culminating in a master's in clinical mental health counseling.

One of the seminal moments in the life of Alaina Ellington ’17 M.S.Ed. ’21 came on May 9, Mother’s Day. She walked to the stage on Peterson Field at the Buena Vista University Commencement for her fellow graduate students. She nearly cried while stepping to the microphone for the class address.

Why tears? Because her mind flashed to another key juncture of her life, the point that made all this possible.

“I was the mother of a two-year-old, and I was homeless, sitting in the Muscatine Public Library checking email,” Ellington says. “And that’s when a message from Renee Davis showed up. She said God directed her to send me an email, to ask how I was doing, and to ask me to call her.”

Ellington called. During their conversation, Davis asked Ellington to come live with their family.

Ellington, a foster child, was in and out of various treatment programs as a teen, a child who often ran away. The first “project” she finished, she says, was the treatment program at Christamore Family Treatment Center in Mt. Pleasant. Counselor Michelle Skubal was influential, a force who kept her pushing toward healing from her past. Ellington resided with Skubal for a time as she finished her high school education at Wisdom Quest, the alternative high school in town.

Following high school, Ellington entered an independent living program and earned a job. After losing that job, however, she took her daughter to her mother and tried to make ends meet. She ended up jobless and homeless.

“BVU instructors are so supportive...They’ve all given me great feedback and challenged me to promote my growth in the counseling world.”

Alaina Ellington

“Renee, whom I call my ‘adoptive mom,’ had met me in a parenting class two years earlier and wondered what had become of me,” she says, reflecting on the email and call that changed her life.

From miles away in Mt. Pleasant, Davis arranged for Ellington to get food and into a motel for the night. The next morning, she picked up Ellington and took her home, where she and husband Steve Davis continue working to serve young adults in need.

“I started my own cleaning business with Renee’s help, and I enrolled in Southeastern Community College in Burlington,” Ellington says. “I earned my Associate of Arts, I got married to Michael (Ellington), earned the custody of my daughter, then enrolled at BVU full-time.”

Ellington earned her bachelor’s degree in psychology at BVU in 2017. She entered BVU’s graduate program in clinical mental health counseling and kept working full-time, taking courses online except for the face-to-face instructional retreat that occurred on the BVU campus in Storm Lake one week each summer.

“BVU instructors are so supportive,” she says. “Drs. (Elisa) Woodruff (Assistant Professor of Counselor Education), (Kathleen) Ruscitto (Assistant Professor of Counselor Education), and (Casey) Baker, (former Program Director, Master of Science in Education—Clinical Mental Health Counseling) respond to emails almost immediately. They’ve all given me great feedback and challenged me to promote my growth in the counseling world.”

“Alaina is a perfect storm of a student. She’s bright as can be, brimming with curiosity, a scholar of the highest caliber, deeply reflective, and a model leader and encourager of her peers,” says Woodruff. “The counseling profession hit a jackpot the day she decided to join our ranks. I am so excited to watch her transition into professional practice and feel absolutely honored to have been part of her journey.”

Ellington completed assignments and group tasks on evenings and weekends. She grew close to her cohort through weekly, if not daily, communication and a pair of weeklong face-to-face residencies on the BVU campus in Storm Lake, a clear highlight of her time as a BVU Beaver, the first in her family to earn a bachelor’s degree, let alone a master’s.

She and her husband welcomed the birth of a son in 2007, and worked to raise two children as Alaina served as Supervisor, then Mental Health Coordinator for habilitation services offered through a community-based mental health agency. She became program director for a community-based mental health services provider, serving those with chronic mental illness or intellectual disabilities. She now works to reduce methamphetamine overdoses in Keokuk County through the Strategic Initiative to Prevent Drug Overdoses, a grant funded by the Iowa Department of Public Health Bureau of Substance Abuse.

“We seek to reduce the stigma around people with substance-misuse disorder,” she says. “We’re working to increase surveillance among law enforcement and joining with the local housing authorities to address the issue of abandoned homes, which often become meth manufacturing bases.”

She took the time in that busy schedule to celebrate Commencement by driving five hours to Storm Lake to visit BVU’s campus again, joined by her children, husband, mother, and stepfather. Adoptive mother Renee Davis watched in Mt. Pleasant via Facebook. She texted the graduate immediately after she confidently closed her address and walked from the stage.

Ellington read the text, heart pumping, tears forming. “It is so fitting you that you gave this speech on Mother’s Day,” Davis wrote. “You chose and fought to overcome the obstacles that blocked your path to motherhood…You did it. Love you.”