Regina Benson says it was her eighth-grade teacher in her hometown of Bartlesville who inspired her to become a teacher. It was a career path goal that carried her through high school and on to Oklahoma State University where she obtained her bachelor's degree in secondary education.
Benson describes earning her degree as "a dream come true." And the dream carried her home and to a teaching job at Bartlesville High School. She taught for two years — and then her longtime OSU football player beau, Allen Benson, proposed.
Allen, an Ardmore native, told his bride-to-be he was done with football. "He said he had gotten a real job at Uniroyal. He proposed on my birthday (April 21), and we were married in August," she recalled.
The newly married couple set up housekeeping in Ardmore. And that's when the teacher's career path took a sharp turn out of the traditional classroom.
"I tried to get a job teaching social studies but there was nothing available," Benson explained. "I saw an ad for the community shelter and I applied. I had no idea. I had never been exposed to abuse and neglect, and the shelter is the front lines."
She worked at the shelter for 2½ years, and her experiences there showed her there were other areas of education equally as important as book learning. She applied for a position at the Carter County Department of Human Services. Ironically, it was after she got a temporary job teaching at Ardmore Middle School that she was offered a job as a child welfare worker at DHS.
She accepted the post as one of only five child welfare workers in the county at the time. Taking the job turned into a career that has spanned 26 years of teaching life lessons to children, parents and extended family, and even the entire community.
Was it easy? Not so much. In fact, Benson said, in the beginning, she had a lot to learn.
"My goal was unrealistic. I thought I could go in and find wonderful places for children— that I could change lives. I wanted to change outcomes," she said. "It wasn't long before I realized I had to refocus on the parents. I had thought you could skip the parents. You can't."
Benson estimates illegal narcotics are responsible for 20 percent of the parental dysfunction in Carter County.
"It's mind-altering, and it usually takes the courts becoming involved to make a difference. But the rest of the people we see really do want to change. Some are horrified to see us knocking on their door," she confided.
Over the years, child welfare in Carter County has expanded to 25 workers, and Benson has risen in the ranks, becoming a supervisor. Along with working with adults to obtain the skills they need to parent their children, Benson has also worked as an independent living specialist.
"That's working with children who are aging out of the system. Those are the cases where reunification (returning home) just was not going to happen and adoption, for one reason or another, wasn't a real possibility."
Always the teacher, Benson worked with her charges to "finish high school and go on to school or a trade school."
The results of those efforts? She smiles and says, "I have a lot of welders who make way more than I do."
Child welfare is a career filled with gut-wrenching, nightmare situations. It also comes with great satisfaction.
"My greatest satisfaction is knowing, in most cases, I did make a difference. Kids come back to see me and bring their kids with them. They want me to know they are doing OK. And parents also come back and are proud to show me their kids are doing good," she said.
The satisfaction she gets from seeing children and families succeed makes the sometimes-uphill battle worth the effort. But she is quick to point out she couldn't have accomplished what she did without her own personal support group.
"I have been blessed with a fantastic husband who has filled in the gaps for me far too many times. My mother-in-law, who lives across the street, made sure my kids (sons, Allen and Max) never had to get up in the middle of the night because I did," she said. "My whole family sacrificed. I always tried to make as many things that my sons were involved in as I could. I might have been at the game (physically), but not present (mentally and emotionally). Because of my job, my boys have a deeper understanding and are more aware than most. They bought in to what I was doing."
Benson's last official day on the job will be Nov. 29. Late last month, she was honored at a reception at Dornick Hills Country Club for her 26 years of service to the State of Oklahoma and as the first African American to retire from DHS Child Welfare in Carter County.
How does she describe those 26 years?
"Child welfare isn't a job, it's a lifestyle," she said.
The young teacher who came to Ardmore as a bride envisioned herself in a brick-and-mortar classroom. Instead, she found herself teaching life lessons in sometimes scary and unexpected places throughout the county. She imagines her retirement will be a "big change," and laughingly says her son, Max, claims he could get used to her cooking breakfast every morning.
But one thing won't be changing. She'll still be pursuing the career she was inspired to seek as an eighth-grader. Last week, the Ardmore Board of Education approved her employment as a language arts teacher at Second Chance Academy.