Readers Share Stories of Strength and Success After Setbacks

Seeing a challenge as an opportunity can change your life

Every person encounters hardship, but what defines us is how we respond to it. From setbacks to just needing a change in life, ups, downs and other challenging moments can even be an opportunity to thrive in disguise. These reader-submitted stories are true tales of resilience and reinvention from people who became stronger and even experienced moments of joy after a setback.

Woman about to take first step from block footpathKlaus Vedfelt/Getty Images

The first dance

I was young, with a tedious job and a long commute. Life was a snooze. What happened to my dreams?

Driving one night, I heard an ad for a Chicago Bulls cheerleading tryout. I don’t know what pushed me, but days later I was in a packed room, wearing a leotard, tights and a number. I knew little of cheerleading or basketball.

As we danced, judges weaved among us, clipboards in hand. I survived cut after cut. At the very end, my number was called. My heart sank—I’d lost at the buzzer. Sixteen girls joined me in the next room. Then, a judge. We were puzzled.

“Look around,” she said. “You are the new 1985–1986 Chicago Bulls cheerleaders.”

Being a “Luvabull” was an honor and a privilege, and it shook up my life. I kept my full-time job ($20 per game wouldn’t cover the bills) and spent my nights and weekends at practices, games and events. Seeing the Bulls (and yes, Michael Jordan) up close was a whirlwind, once-in-a-lifetime experience that I’ll cherish forever, all because I took a crazy chance to get out of a rut. —Lois Lavrisa, Savannah, GA

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Getting the last laugh

I’m 73 years old and a stand-up comedian. I took a class for the heck of it at age 70. I had meat in the freezer older than most of my classmates. To graduate, we had to perform in front of an audience, and I almost backed out. But I was on a high after hearing the laughter of the crowd.

Now, I perform in restaurants, comedy clubs, senior centers, etc. I even have an audition for America’s Got Talent coming up! Who would’ve thought? —Valerie Libasci, Levittown, NY

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Clear eyes, full hearts

I was a high school football coach for 35 years. In a small Texas town, that means the highs are high and the lows are … you get the point. I was fired for not winning enough one season. Pranksters put “For sale” signs in our yard. It was tough to explain to my kids, who idolized their dad.

One day, a neighbor gave me a note of encouragement with the word “perseverance.” That same day I got a letter in the mail from my dearest friend, citing perseverance as well. That ­afternoon, I visited my wife’s classroom, and the word was written on the board. That was 25 years ago, but when things get turbulent, I still remember that day. —Glen Jones, San Angelo, TX

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Back in business

I was suddenly middle-aged with no résumé and no more kids who needed me at home. What was I supposed to do with the rest of my life? I’d been designing items for my own pets for a while, so I began manufacturing them. I had none of the skills to start an e-commerce business: web design, shipping, marketing, social media, SEO, bookkeeping, inventory man­agement. It took a full day just to figure out printing labels.

I still have a way to go, but I’ve doubled my sales. Plus, I’ve made wonderful friends in entrepreneur spaces and among my cat-loving customer base. It’s been the most thrilling challenge imaginable. —Dawn LaFontaine, Ashland, MA

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One man’s litter …

The pandemic shut down my son’s adult day-care program. Individuals with autism crave routine, so it was very hard on him. We began walking the three-mile loop around our lake picking up garbage every Tuesday to establish a new routine.

Autism has deficits, but it also has strengths. One is commitment to routine. My guy wants to head out every Tuesday, rain or shine. The trail looks cleaner every week, and he takes pride in a job well done. He misses his day-care program, but you’d never know it. When life gives you garbage, put it in the trash can. —Annemarie Martin, Milford, PA

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Fostering hope

I was a stay-at-home mother of five when my husband and I applied to be foster parents and were asked to take in a 2-year-old. Hours later, a little girl walked through the door and into our hearts.

She and I quickly developed a deep bond. We applied to adopt her. She was, after all, our child. She was instead placed with a distant relative.

I fell into a depression, became seriously ill and was hospitalized. My doctor urged me to make plans for my future. I began studying elementary education. It was difficult to finish school and run my home, but I did it and spent 25 years at the local elementary school.

But I never stopped grieving for my child. When she became an adult, we reconnected. She finally, officially anyway, became our daughter via adult adoption. We always knew we were mother and daughter. —Elizabeth Gilbert, Angola, IN

Happy young man running on large bar graphKlaus Vedfelt/Getty Images

The happiest job on earth

When the 2008 recession hit, I struggled to find work. A friend said, “Why don’t you do something around Disney? Your whole face lights up when you say the word.”

I applied to many Disney-related jobs and gladly trained to book vacations to one of my favorite places on the planet. My main income was from referrals and repeat business as my ­client base grew. In 2014, I moved from Philadelphia, where I’d lived since birth, to Florida, near Walt Disney World.

This career is my “retirement.” I get photos from families on trips I booked, thank-you notes from clients­—many of whom have become friends—and videos of kids reaching into their stockings to find letters from their favorite Disney characters about their upcoming surprise trips. This reinvention has given me more satisfaction than anything else I’ve done. —Marlene Patrick, Minneola, FL

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A daughter’s gift

My oldest child caught measles before she could be vaccinated, and she was left with an intellectual disability. My husband and I had two more kids, and we all supported her at every turn. She passed from a brain aneurysm at age 40 but was a tremendous blessing and taught us a great deal.

Our other daughter is now a special education teacher. Our son is a financial planner specializing in families with members who have disabilities. I co-founded a residential facility for adults with intellectual disabilities and have been its administrator for 20 years. We all believe our years of living with and loving Cathy were meant to prepare us for the paths we now walk. —Sandy Thompson, Richmond, VA

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Righting and rewriting history

I knew nothing of my husband’s South Carolina hometown when we moved there in 1967, but I was delighted that the nearby college was one of the few offering my desired home economics degree. My father-in-law initially suggested the school, aware that it had no Black students and making a joke at my expense, but I applied and was accepted. I walked to campus or hired a cab, and I carried my books, son and baby bag with me to make it happen.

I was wary, having witnessed the Orangeburg Massacre not long before, where police had shot protesters of racial segregation at South Carolina State University. But on my first day, another student greeted me and ­offered a tour. We chatted and she made me feel welcome.

I didn’t know this was something I was not supposed to do. I didn’t know my husband would become abusive. I didn’t know I’d divorce. I didn’t know I would achieve my dream of becoming a 4-H agent. I didn’t know I’d successfully raise my son on my own. I didn’t know I’d help start a shelter for battered women. I didn’t know I’d retire after 30 years from a career I loved. I didn’t know I’d remarry.

I didn’t know that I’d be the first Black graduate of my university, or that I’d receive an honorary doctorate in public service. I didn’t know I was making history. —Annette Reynolds, Florence, SC

Reader's Digest
Originally Published in Reader's Digest