It’s never too late for a fresh start, which Bet Stapleton ’08 ’10 knows better than anyone. At 50, she fulfilled her dream of finishing a college degree, and now she spends her days helping victims of violent crimes rebuild their lives and self-esteem.
Although she was the first in her family to attend college, Stapleton left after one year to work full time. “I’ve always had a great love of learning, and I knew I would return one day to finish my degree,” Stapleton says. “It was just a question of when.”
Stapleton says she has always been attracted to fields of work that help people find a “new normal” after a life-changing event occurs. After experiencing motherhood for the first time, she wanted to work in a field that would ease the transition for women. “I became a perinatal trainer, working with women before, during and after pregnancy, and by providing programs that would enhance their lifestyles and make the transition into this new and different world much easier,” she says. As time went on and her children grew older, Stapleton moved away from the perinatal field and began working with women suffering from significant health issues such as cancer or other medical conditions.
As she neared her 47th birthday, and with the support of her husband, Stapleton decided to return to college to complete her unfinished degree. At the time, her youngest child was in middle school and her oldest a freshman in college. For Stapleton, the timing seemed right. Nervous after nearly 30 years away from the classroom, she enrolled in just one class at a local community college.
“That first class was so perfect it was like coming home,” Stapleton says. “The very next day I signed up for another one, and I never looked back.”
After completing her core classes, Stapleton was ready to transfer to a four-year university. Tuition was tight, with priority given to her four children’s educations, so Stapleton needed a smart investment.
“I learned that the majority of the professors at Webster had their PhDs,” she says. “Many of my Webster professors also taught classes at Saint Louis University and Washington University and those universities cost a fortune compared to Webster. It was nice to know I’d get a quality education for a lower cost.”
To further offset her Webster tuition, Stapleton applied for the Sisters of Loretto scholarship, which is awarded to nontraditional female students. She received the endowed scholarship three years in a row.
Stapleton graduated with a bachelor’s degree in American Studies in 2008, and earned a paralegal certification the same year. A combined degree program allowed her to earn a master’s degree in Legal Analysis two years later.
She considered applying to law school, “but the cost and time commitment were formidable,” she says. “I wanted to work in the legal field in a way that allowed greater freedom to balance my home and work life.”
An influential female writer, educator and attorney encouraged Stapleton to join the field of advocacy. While finishing her degrees, she worked as a legal intern for Legal Services of Eastern Missouri assisting victims of domestic violence. She also worked in the St. Louis City Circuit Attorney’s Office as a victim advocate intern.
Today, Stapleton, 56, supports victims of violent crimes to persons as a victim advocate caseworker for the Family Court of St. Louis County. She offers supportive services throughout the entire court process including depositions, court preparation and hearings. She provides access to much-needed community resources and services, as well as crisis counseling to victims of crime and their families.
“In my current position I work with children, as well as with men and women,” Stapleton says. “I am able to provide the kinds of resources necessary to empower victims to become survivors.”
Stapleton also established the region’s first court companion canine program three years ago. The unique program allows a certified therapy dog to calm and comfort crime victims as they tell their stories to attorneys and judges. Therapy dog and Lab-Boxer mix Sophie, who also happens to be Stapleton’s pet, is so popular around the courts that she was once nominated employee of the year. Sophie also provides much-needed solace to employees who are frequently exposed to trauma in their line of work.
“Sophie has assisted hundreds of people, young and old,” Stapleton says. “I’m so proud of her and the program.”
Stapleton sees her career as an opportunity to help others find, as she did nearly a decade ago, their fresh starts.
“As a mother and professional I’m a huge advocate of empowering other women, both collectively and individually,” she says. “I’ve been empowered by many women, and I pay that forward in my job and in my life.”
She certainly empowered her children in the area of education; three have already graduated from college and the youngest will be a junior next year. The kids studied side by side with their mother as she pursued her degrees, and later beamed proudly as she walked across the stage at commencement.
“If I’ve not taught my children anything, I’ve taught them that if you have the desire and the will, you will get it done,” Stapleton says. “I don’t look back on my life and have any regrets.”