“What Horizons Was”

The essay below was written by Sally Turnage Gustin, a TCC Board Member as well as a Horizons mom, teacher, and friend. It represents her opinions and experiences.

My family’s first serendipitous encounter with Horizons School occurred in 1990 when our daughter, Heather, experienced a period of disenchantment with public middle school. Her father was then the clinical director of the state mental hospital, GMHI, which is now best known for being the creepy and cool Hawkins Lab of “Stranger Things.” Like any good psychiatrist, he decided that Heather needed to be diagnosed for her “learning issues,” so he hired a child psychologist to run a battery of tests. The results offered results of both a bit of laziness and a bit of being behind. But she encouraged us to take our reluctant student to visit a little hippie, democratic, independent school in the woods in the middle of the city. From that initial visit, we were all hooked.

Heather enrolled and immediately became involved in all aspects of the Horizons experience. Lety, my wife, began teaching Spanish before going to her job as a pediatric R.N. in the mornings, and I acted as a guest speaker about topics such as AIDS/HIV and drugs, and substituted for absent teachers whenever possible. When a teacher was fired, I was offered his job. I reluctantly accepted, thinking I would teach for a year and quickly go back to a higher paying position elsewhere. Lety retired from nursing and joined us full time. Les asked me at some point if I was interested in taking over so he could retire, and I told him I needed time to think about it. He had a stroke shortly thereafter, and my decision was made. Les, Lety and I worked together to try to keep things running smoothly. Until Les and I made the decision to close our doors in 2017, I realized that I was where I was meant to be. 

It’s difficult to describe exactly what Horizons was; it needed to be experienced. From its inception, the mission was to empower youth by including them in the big decisions. Students and all staff were on a first name basis, respect was expected in both directions based on inherent value of all humans, and diversity was the rule- not the exception. Students came from all around the world and from down the street. We had children of celebrities, refugees from war-torn countries, those with learning differences, some National Merit Scholars, kids who had been bullied and needed to feel protected (including some of our refugee students who dealt with Islamophobia), some who needed a smaller environment for optimal learning, mafia kids, individuals who were struggling with LGBTQ issues, a few who loved our performing arts program, those who wanted to perfect their English for higher education opportunities, and the list goes on. Over 90% were on scholarship, and many of them paid no tuition.

The term “family” is often used in reference to Horizons, but it is an inadequate term to describe the relationships that developed on that campus. There were situations that caused me to question the judgement of those in power when I first arrived, such as placing students from Eritrea and Ethiopia next to one another in our boarding program, forcing Japanese and Chinese students to sit together and discuss prejudices, allowing the students to confront individuals who had offended members of the community in meetings, among many others, But I quickly learned the wisdom behind their methods. The intent was to provide a corrective opportunity empathically and, if the individual (s) refused to accept it, expulsion was the ultimate price for choosing to continue to inflict pain on a fellow community member. The result was often awe-inspiring, and many strong bonds were forged this way. It was certainly the family I had always wanted, and I truly loved going to work every day.

We held two social justice-based performances each year that were written, performed and directed by our students. We had close collaborations with 7-Stages Theatre, YEA (Youth Ensemble of Atlanta) and Moving in the Spirit, so our performances were often enhanced by the professional skills of volunteers. Scott Turner Schofield, a transgendered actor who has since been nominated for a Daytime Emmy Award, once spent a few weeks with us, helping our students hone their theater skills. Dana Lupton, Heidi Howard, Freddie Hendricks and Debi Barber worked with many of our students in extra curricular programs and companies which emphasized not only talent, but character and integrity, as well. 

Jane Fonda included us in her Atlanta Program for Arts in Learning (APAL) program which provided us with resident artists to create projects with our students that strengthened their understanding of academic subjects. She also opened her home to some of us and attended public events so our families could meet her.

Renowned Spoken Word artist and activist Alice Lovelace was a teacher for a while, as was her daughter and fellow poet, Theresa Davis. We had so many incredible opportunities to learn from the best possible sources. Alice’s husband had been a Black Panther as was the father of one of our students. It was Alice who first taught me about institutional racism and helped me to understand why I will always be a part of the problem unless I am actively working to be part of the solution for the rest of my life. She shook me to my foundation and help build me back with love. I am forever grateful to her for this and for much more, and I love her very much. 

Les and Lorraine had started a school in New Mexico for the Navajo children, then turned it over to be run by the Navajo so they could escape the abuse by the American government. Some of our students who had escaped unimaginable circumstances to be brought to the US shared parts of their stories with us. Hosea Williams’ grandchildren were our students, so they brought their grandfather in to tell us stories of marching with Dr. King, and they brought their aunt and uncle, actors Elisabeth and Afemo Omilami, to help recreate the Selma March. We were small enough to hop into vans and crash speaking events of Desmond Tutu and Howard Zinn, and one of our former board members had grown up with the King family, so we were fortunate to be invited to many events at the King Center.

Louis Delsarte, the brilliant artist best known for his murals throughout New York City, created a giant mural with the hand and footprints of a group of our kids consisting of four panels. It hung in our theater for many years, and we’re currently seeking a museum for its display without our having to transfer ownership. Louis’ brilliant daughter, Rachel, was one of our own.

We learned a great deal about caring for exotic animals thanks to Les’ quirky ideas. Our goats and llamas successfully tackled our kudzu problem on all seven acres. Les and I gained some experience in getting thrashed around by unhappy goats and llamas, as well. We discovered that black swans are no match for the neighborhood birds of prey, ducks can be vicious when you try to force them out of the pool, chickens tend to wander and lay their eggs in odd places when they aren’t cooped up, and gentrified neighbors aren’t often as fond of your animals in their gardens as one might hope. We spent many hours chasing escaped goats and llamas down busy streets! 

We were “adopted” Atlanta developer Henry Finkbeiner who also happens to own most of the town of Silver Gate, Montana. Henry looks like a homeless person, drives an old car, and has more money than God. But he loves to give it all back, and we were so fortunate that he chose us. Among other things, he hosted our students and staff in his Range Riders Lodge and provided them with a Yellowstone experience they couldn’t have gotten anywhere else.

Then life came to a screeching halt for us in April of 2012, when Lety was diagnosed with an incredibly rare and aggressive form of cancer called small cell neuroendocrine cervical cancer. Approximately 150 women are diagnosed worldwide each year, and the prognosis is grim. Lety’s gynecologist told us to walk away and not look back because we probably only had one chance to beat this. So, we did. We were gone for more than four months as she went through surgery and chemo, and Les and the board as well as the Horizons community were incredibly supportive. We never missed a paycheck, so many meals were lovingly prepared for us, and our Horizons family made sure our needs were met.

We lost our house in the shuffle and moved into the school. It was such an incredible gift. The only bills we had to worry with were Lety’s medical bills. When Lety had a recurrence in 2014, I was able to be with her through the surgery and hospital stay, and I could work and run upstairs to be with her throughout the day. Many of our coworkers or families would cook for us or cover our office shifts so I could be home with her in the afternoons.

We were told in 2015 that her cancer was stage IV, and her doctor was out of options. We found a Facebook group dedicated to her type of cancer, and they had found an amazing ally in a doctor at MD Anderson by the name of Michael Frumovitz who specialized in treating both small and large cell neuroendocrine cervical cancers. I immediately picked up the phone and attempted to make an appointment for Lety with him only to learn that he was booked solid for the next three months. When I conveyed this on the Facebook webpage, the host told me to send him a private message, so I did. He responded quickly and asked if we could be in Houston in 5 days. We absolutely did!

Meeting Michael Frumovitz was like meeting hope where there had been none. He introduced himself by his first name, took a great deal of time with us, explained everything in clear terms, smiled a lot, and made us feel welcomed. He referred Lety immediately to other departments to make sure all her needs were met, and we had appointments set for that day and the next by the time we left his office. He proposed a treatment plan for Lety, fondly known as the “Texas Cocktail” by his patients. Her cancer remained stable for more than four years on his regimen, and those four years were precious to us. MD Anderson was also amazing. There was a powerful feeling of solidarity from the moment we entered, knowing that everyone there was either a cancer patient, a supporter, or someone working there to support those fighting cancers.

We were commuting from Atlanta to Houston every three weeks for Lety’s treatment and, by 2017, we realized that we needed to relocate to Houston. Les wanted to retire, and we had searched for our successors, but nothing proved fruitful. We entertained a serious offer to buy us out from a Chinese firm, but it soon became clear that they had no intention of honoring our values. So, we made the hard decision to close our doors after 39 years.

Lety continued to do well (with the help of her service dog, Simba) until summer of 2019, when the tumors began to resume their growth. She tried a couple of other options under Michael’s care, but she contracted RSV in November which resulted in an extended hospital stay to combat pneumonia. Michael and other staff members we had grown to know and love visited often, which meant so much to us.

We left with hospice on December 28, and Lety passed away peacefully on January 22, 2020.

Our two closest friends in her cancer group died in April and May, respectively.

We were incredibly fortunate to have had access to Michael Frumovitz and MD Anderson. Dr. Frumovitz is the top specialist in the world for SCCC/LCCC, and he offers free telephone and online consults for all women with this disease who are unable to get to Houston to see him. He is a brilliant doctor, a lovely human being, and a true healer.

I have been a member of the board for many years, but I took a break after Lety passed. So, it came as a wonderful surprise to me that the first annual grant was to be a $25,000 donation to MD Anderson in memory of Lety. I asked that it also is given both in memory of Lety and in honor of Dr. Michael Frumovitz. He and I discussed the best use of the donation, and it is earmarked for the keynote speaker of a gynecologic oncology conference that is coming up in 2022. Lety’s name will be announced.