Just before starting her doctoral program at National Louis University, Donna Woods got an alarming diagnosis: ALS disease, a degenerative illness that progressively robs the muscles of their ability to function. Doctors gave her three years to live, and that was in August 2015.
Woods, who had previously suffered four heart attacks and blood clots in her leg and lungs, could have bowed to their sober pronouncement and withdrawn from the Community Psychology Ph.D. program. Even in the face of a death sentence, though, she refused to let her dream die.
“I’ve always wanted to have a group home for at-risk teens–wards of the state, boys and girls–and to possibly operate a bullied women’s shelter,” she said. “I want to start my own non-profit.”
Woods, of Lynwood, has plenty of relevant experience. She has worked as a school counselor for at-risk youth, a program manager for urban youth empowerment at the Quad-County Urban League south and west of Chicago and a recreation supervisor for Job Corps in Joliet.
So she stuck with the Ph.D. program, receiving therapy for ALS three times a week. In recent months, she wasn’t able to move the muscles in her arms or hands much, so she used a speech recognition program which typed the words she spoke–until the disease slurred her speech to the point where that no longer worked.
She credited NLU’s Peter Ploegman, who helps accommodate disabled students, with helping her through the challenges.
“It’s been a struggle, but we got it down,” she said.
She wrote her doctoral dissertation on “Moving from Punitive Punishment in Urban Schools: Understanding the Significance of a Restorative Justice Mindset for Breaking the School to Prison Pipeline.” She was influenced by observing how the technique of restorative justice can help ensure that youth won’t end up in the criminal justice system. She urges teachers to use restorative justice techniques in school settings.
When she receives her Ph.D. at Commencement, she can credit a lot of it to sheer willpower and perseverance.
“I tried to utilize every avenue because I was really determined to get this done,” she said.
‘What pushed me most was to be an example to my nieces and nephews, family and friends, to let them know all things are possible. To be in a position to motivate and encourage and inspire another person was worth it all.”