Brenda Combs is in her element, leading her class of third- and fourth-graders in joyful song. Her hands are in the air, her head a cascade of tight, golden braids. A megawatt smile stretches from ear to ear, as she belts out “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” with the voice of a gospel singer.
The song comes straight from her soul, its theme not an abstract concept but the story of her life. Compared to the mountain Combs has climbed, Mt. Everest is a pimple.
“Nothing is impossible,” she told TODAY’s Hoda Kotb and Jenna Wolfe on Friday. “You can overcome all odds.”
For the 45-year-old Combs, that’s not a glib platitude.
Fewer than 12 years ago, she was a homeless crack addict, a petty criminal, a gaunt and hopeless wreck who had been shot and beaten and raped during the endless years she called a freeway underpass in the worst part of Phoenix home.
It was a world in which a shower and a toothbrush were beyond her means.
It’s hard to comprehend, looking at her now. Since pulling herself out of the gutter, she has earned bachelor and masters degrees and is working on her Ph. D. courtesy of a scholarship from Grand Canyon University.
She’s a teacher at Starshine School, a charter academy in Phoenix and the choir director at Grand Canyon; she also teaches online classes for the university.
She’s had offers to write a book about her life and Hollywood has shown interest in her story, which has been featured in Reader’s Digest.
Her goal is simple: “[To] let the world know, every human being has inside of them what it takes to be successful. If I can do it, starting in the gutter, they can do it.”
She talks freely about those days and makes regular pilgrimages to her old home, an ugly place littered with cardboard hovels, shopping carts, recycled mattresses and the other detritus of a homeless community. And she tells her students at the Starshine School in Phoenix about her experiences, because she wants the children – many of whom come from lives as desperate as the one Combs once lived – to know it doesn’t have to be that way.
She grew up in a middle-class family in Flagstaff, Ariz., the eldest of three children. Her father worked two jobs – by day a baker and by night a janitor; her mother worked part-time as cook in a restaurant. The family was deeply religious. When Combs, who has a real talent for music, was still in kindergarten, she taught herself to play “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” on the piano.
“I started using drugs right after I dropped out of college,” she said. “Marijuana led to snorting cocaine, and cocaine led to everything else.”
While still in Flagstaff, she was arrested for forgery and shoplifting and put on probation. She went through rehab once, started to put her life back together, but fell back into her old life. By 1992, she found herself in Phoenix, in the middle of a freefall that would last nearly five more years.
Every person who’s climbed out of addiction describes the moment of revelation as “hitting bottom” – that place where there are only two options left: recovery or death. Combs hit hers the morning she woke up in an alley.
“I don’t know how I got there and I don’t know what happened to me,” she told Kotb and Wolfe. The final blow was discovering that she had no shoes – someone had stolen them while she was passed out.
It was 115 degrees, and by the time Combs walked to the park where many of Phoenix’s homeless spent their days, her feet were blistered.
“I could not imagine that was the life I was destined to live,” she said. “I had to make a change. That was not my calling.”
She went to a police station and turned herself in – she had long since violated her parole. The authorities offered her a deal: get into a rehab program, get clean, and they’d make things right.
Combs said the first year was the hardest, but she got through it. A bad marriage to an addict followed, which gave her a son, Mycole, 7, and also another life lesson.
She got out of the marriage, got a job, got another job at a daycare center, went to college, became a teacher at Starshine School.
“I’ve shared this story with all my students and with my son,” she said. “I want them to know you can come from the absolute bottom and rise to the top, making all your dreams come true and contributing to society.”
She plans to get her doctorate by the time Mycole is 10 so that she can ditch her three jobs and get one good job.
Kotb and Wolfe prevailed on Combs to sing a chorus of that song that seemed written for her: “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.” Before she complied, she shared the role that spirituality plays in her life.
“Spirituality is what I’m all about,” she said. “My purpose on earth is to be the best example of love and service to others.”