Drive to Succeed

JOHNSTOWN – Four years ago, Pamela Sue Canary didn’t think she would ever go to school again.

The Oppenheim native, wife and mother struggled with learning and reading disabilities all through high school. Although she graduated with an Individualized Education Program degree in 1999, by that point she was an assistant manager at Family Dollar and had lost interest in school, she said. College, it seemed, was out of the question.

“You get told you can’t do something for so long, you start to believe it,” Canary, now 33, said recently from her home in Johnstown. “I never thought I could even go to school, ever.”

On Friday, the Oppenheim native will graduate with honors from Fulton-Montgomery Community College, earning her associate degree in criminal justice. She’s made the dean’s list every semester since she started attending classes at FMCC in January of 2012. Earlier this month, she became the first FMCC student to receive the New York State University Transfer Scholarship, winning $2,000 she said she will use when she attends Empire State College in Saratoga Springs in September.

Additionally, Canary is a member of the Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society, and was selected as one of two students to attend the Criminal Justice Educators Association of New York State conference in 2013. She was also the first FMCC student to win the American Red Cross scholarship, in November.

“I’m graduating with five Bs, and all the rest are As, my whole transcript,” Canary said. “It’s funny how the girl who said, ‘If I can just get Cs, I’ll be happy,’ and then I almost get my first C [this semester] and I cried.”

Canary’s journey back to school began when she met former city resident Carol Smalley, 53, in 2010. Smalley, who raises seeing eye dogs for the blind, needed her apartment cleaned, and ended up using Canary’s cleaning service on a recommendation from one of Canary’s former teachers at Oppenheim-Ephratah Central School.

Smalley discovered Canary’s learning disability soon after that, when she asked Canary to clean her refrigerator one day.

“I had her take everything out, clean [the refrigerator] and put everything back in,” Smalley said. “I didn’t realize until that evening that everything [in the refrigerator] was in reverse, left and right.”

While not officially diagnosed with dyslexia, Canary said she struggles with reading and writing, as well as reversing things in her head – incidents like the one with Smalley’s refrigerator were a common occurrence when she would clean houses, she said. When she started at FMCC, she was reading at a first-grade level, she said. She is now reading at a 10th-grade level.

After talking with Smalley, Canary decided she wanted to go back to school in order to work with at-risk teenagers who were struggling with the same problems she struggled with. But in order to attend classes at FMCC, Canary had to get a high school degree or GED-equivalent. With tutoring help from Smalley and Smalley’s daughter, Elise, Canary tested for her high school diploma through the Board of Cooperative Educational Services’ adult education program in Herkimer.

“In Carol, I think I found somebody who had finally seen something in me that no one else had ever seen,” Canary said. “She really took me under her wing, sat right next to me. She made the appointments.”

Smalley continued to help Canary through her time at FMCC. Canary also found help through the college’s TRiO Student Support Services, which provides academic and personal support for first-generation college students, according to TRiO learning support services coordinator Shirl Doherty.

“She has an incredible drive and motivation, and she is very focused on the prize, the goal, which is graduation,” Doherty said of Canary. “She’s an incredible woman, and I feel privileged to have worked with her for three years. I feel like I learned a lot from her, as well.”

Canary credits the support of her husband, Jason, and 7-year-old daughter, Charlotte, with helping her achieve success, as well as her professors in the criminal justice department at FMCC and TRiO. In addition to school, she works at Upstate Respite Services in Ballston Spa, where she helps children with mental disabilities.

She also volunteers with her church and other organizations. In June in Dolgeville, she will help organize a packing party with Operation Christmas Child, which donates shoe boxes filled with items to needy children around the world at Christmastime.

And in September, she’ll begin studying for her bachelor’s in human relations, with a minor in criminal justice, at Empire State College. Her ultimate goal still is to work with at-risk teenagers.

“I want to work with kids already in the system, because, let’s face it, I’m one of those kids,” Canary said. “I didn’t get in trouble with drugs or alcohol, but I was always acting out, and now I know why I was doing those things. I would get in fights on a daily basis in school. … These kids with underlying issues, who don’t have support at home, just want somebody to care. As soon as somebody cares, it can change their life; I truly believe that.”