Meet Michelle, She ROCs!

Meet Michelle Thurston, a founding ROC member. Her story highlights the many ways that our dynamic ROC members’ lives have been changed by affordable housing. She has graciously agreed to share her story and we hope that it will inspire others to advocate. Michelle believes in advocacy and we are proud to have her as a ROC member. Michelle, you ROC!

In 1989 my family was living in the Bay Area when a 6.9 earthquake struck. The aftermath of that earthquake hit my family hard. While we came away uninjured, we lost our house. It was such a scary and chaotic time. Soon after the earthquake, my father was transferred to work in Oregon. For us it was a completely different culture and environment. We ended up living in the tiny town of Cottage Grove.

These transitions were hard, the only thing that remained the same was my passion for music and sports. As I started high school I went to team try-outs, but because I had horrible vision and for some reason hated (with a passion) to wear my glasses, that only left track. By my sophomore year I really started to blossom as an advanced athlete in track and field, as a discus thrower and shot-putter. With all the support of my mother and brother I travelled all over the northwest competing in meets, sometimes 3 or 4 a day. Those regional meets turned national and then international. I competed from one coast to the other and as far away as Barcelona, Spain.

I was offered a number of college scholarships, but I decided to stay local. How could I leave Eugene that is known as “Track Town USA”?  As a freshman in college I discovered a new event . . . Hammer throw. This was a new event offered to women. It was like I was born for this event! During this time I studied, trained long hours, and worked two jobs. There was not a second of my day that was not filled with the pursuit of my passion and goals of becoming an Olympic athlete and getting my degree in mathematics. That work ethic paid off – I had qualified for the Atlanta Olympics in the hammer throw. It was the first year women were allowed to throw. While it was not a medal event yet, it was a huge step for women in track and field. 

It was during this time my world would be turned upside down. I was diagnosed with an illness that would change the course of my life drastically. Between the illness, hospitalizations, treatments and the mental and emotional strain, my carefully orchestrated life was in pieces. I could no longer compete in track and field, attend school or work.

 I got to a point where I wanted to give up, and honestly I almost did. But fortunately for me I’m stubborn and decided I was going to fight. I stopped trying to do it all by myself and I asked for and accepted help. Once I made that choice, things started to look up. I got into see a mental health/ social worker. I called my mom and my brother, I called my friends. Within months my social worker had me signed up for disability, medical benefits and I was on a housing waitlist and got a place in Cottage Grove.

 It was a weird period of adjustment once again. I had gone from my parents’ house to a college dorm to renting a room, to a hospital, to homeless, to couch surfing – then finally, landed in a huge one bedroom apartment I had to learn how to live in.

It took my pride a long time to accept the fact that I was living in a low income senior and disabled housing, receiving Social Security Disability, and SNAP benefits. 

Slowly I started to gain ground on my illness. I felt strong enough to return to college. It took me a very long time to get my graduate degree in applied mathematics but I did it. 

Over the next few years it became obvious I could not return to working a standard job. But I started to help my neighbors fill out paperwork or help direct them to services, or just advocate for them and with the support and guidance from a senior neighbor, Ray Dean (RIP), I started to become active in our local Resident Advisory Board for our housing agency. 

Suddenly that spark I lost a decade before was starting to come back. I found great joy and purpose. I still live in that little (huge to me) apartment over 24 years later. I am still medically battling, but that no longer consumes my life. I spend as much time as possible as an advocate for housing justice, food stability, and medical care access. I am surrounded by incredible people with incredible life stories that accept me as I am. 

I have made lifelong friends and connections that will be with me always. Some of the greatest things I have discovered is knowing that I am never alone and at night when I’m in my safe warm bed I know without a doubt I have made a difference in not only my life but my community.