Photo by Heidi McLelland
By Kristen Domingue
Felicia Brabec’s inspiring life has its roots in being conscious and awake quite early in life to others’ pain and suffering. For those familiar with the deep empathy that calls us to service and holds the hands of our integrity to the fire when it comes to doing all you can to help, you’ll recognize familiar themes and find a comrade in arms in Felicia.
What most inspired us about Felicia’s story is the way it takes into account the shaping influence of our childhood experiences. Too often we assume children and teens are “too young” to remember trauma, or we leave it to their youthful resilience to help them “get over it.” When really, they need as much support as we can give them to move forward — just as adults do.
In realizing that, Felicia became the change she wanted to see in the world.
In fourth grade, I had a friend whose parents were going through a divorce. And, in my fourth-grade mind, she seemed sad and I wanted to help her. So, I took the money I made from recycling aluminum cans, rode my bike to the local drug store, and used all of that money to buy candy for her. I remember giving that candy to her and seeing her smile.
I remember two things from that experience in particular: she smiled when I gave it to her and this meant she got to have a break from her sadness. I also remember keeping this a secret from my parents. Several days later, my mom asked me why I used my money to buy candy for my friend. I thought my mom would think I wasted my money and give me a punishment. However, none came. In conversations about this with my mom as an adult, she has commented, “your focus was exactly where it needed to be. You were caring for a friend who needed support. Supporting actions like this is how parents raise kind, loving people.”
Seeing people, recognizing their pain, and doing what I can to relieve some of it feels like air to me.
Honoring my past and changing the future for the better
During my first year of high school, I experienced one of my first significant losses. When a teenager dies, it’s always sad, but this was my best friend. The next several years were horrible as the loss was devastating for me. I was good at masking things with everyone except my parents. Eventually, they took me to see a therapist, who fairly quickly told my parents that I was fine because I didn’t tell her anything.
Looking back, I can see I didn’t share much with the therapist at the time because I wasn’t comfortable with her and she was easy to trick. I remember thinking the fact that she actually thought that I was okay (because I told her that) when my best friend just died was astounding. I don’t remember her really probing or questioning if I was actually okay. I couldn’t believe that with all of her training she would just take my word and miss that there might be more going on under the surface. This added insult to injury, as they say — I had lost my friend and now I was frustrated with the therapist who didn’t help and should have known how.
In hindsight, I remember thinking teens need a place to talk to someone with whom they feel comfortable. My best friend dying was probably the first pivotal moment in my life; my struggle to heal from her death had a huge impact on me. I would say I didn’t really begin to deal with it until I was a freshman in college. Living and working through that pain is the reason I work with adolescents and young adults now. I want to help others during that developmental time. I know how crucial this can be.
Now, I know to ask, how to probe, and how to patiently wait until a teen is willing to open up to me. I know how to let them know that whatever they’re feeling, they don’t have to feel it alone.
During college, I double majored in sociology and anthropology then moved on to complete a masters in social work. College also brought a turning point in my relationship to public service. I’d always participated in student government, but found I needed to choose between student government and basketball my freshman year. The coach informed me that I would make the team if I tried out, and while I loved basketball, in the end, I wanted to participate in my community I was really just starting to explore and chose student government.
During my doctoral program, I again participated in student government. Giving back to my local community allowed me to help in a different way. After graduation, I worked as a social worker and coach at a public high school in my hometown. I loved it. The students were amazing! The teachers were dedicated and, I got to work alongside my favorite teacher, my mom.
The balance between service and self-care: I don’t do it alone
Keeping balanced is extraordinarily hard. I’m a type A person who wants to give my all to the people in my life and the work I do. Our family, my husband, and our two kids are the center of my world.
For years, I was a stay-at-home mom with a part-time job. It was the perfect balance for our family. However, as our kids grew older, I wanted to be challenged in different ways so I added more hours to my clinical work and eventually added public service.
Fast forward to September 2011, I received a call from the County Commissioner for our district. She explained her plan to retire as County Commissioner to pursue a career change. After speaking with her and my husband, I decided to try a career in public service.
I applied, was interviewed, and was voted into office in October 2011.
For the past 8 years, I’ve had the honor of serving the residents of our community. It is a job that I love and take very seriously. Although the job is supposed to be part-time; it isn’t. To do the job right and to do right by the residents who vote for us, this is at least a full-time job; often more. Every election, I am humbled that the residents allow me to continue to serve them. The policy decisions that we grapple with have serious and direct implications for our residents. I am both passionate and dedicated to this work.
Staying balanced now is a constant struggle for me. I don’t get much sleep. I try to give my all to our family, my clinical work, and public service. I often fall short. When I focus on one area, there can be push back or disappointment in another. At all times, I try to do my best and prioritize what’s on my plate. It is far from perfect, but I try my hardest!
Finally, meeting my husband, Dave, has had a tremendous impact on me. When I arrived in Ann Arbor, I knew no one. I met him a couple of months after moving here. He continues to push me to be the best person I can be. We love raising our children here. This community reflects many of the values that we live by and do our best to instill in our children. Those values include love, care for one another, empathy, inclusivity, justice, and giving back to our community.
Having a supportive husband who understands what gives me purpose is a vital part of what makes our lives together work. His support and understanding when public service demands much of my time allows for our family to be balanced. And, when I am giving too much of myself in another area, he is the grounding force to pull me back.
Honoring myself, my family and the work
I am proud of the work I get to do with my clients. As we work together, I am astounded and grateful that they allow me to walk part of their journey with them. I am amazed by their resiliency and vulnerability.
In the public service arena, I’m proud of the advocacy I’ve done for others — whether it was to help county employees get 10-year labor contracts, or advocacy at the state level for community mental health support, or advocating for the County’s non-discrimination policy to include gender expression. However, the piece of work that I am most proud of as a public servant is the Racial Equity work that we’re doing at the county. It is the culmination of about 6 years of work by what began as a small group of dedicated people to a growing critical mass of County staff and administration, elected officials, and community members. Breathing life into this policy ensures that this work and the reality of many in our community cannot be ignored. There are inequities in our county that we must face, address, and make right.
To further this work in a more wide-reaching capacity, I’m planning to run for the 55th district of the Michigan House of Representatives.
Finally, I am both proud and grateful for, humbled by, my family. I get to live life with an amazing partner who understands me and supports me even when I am difficult and challenging. Dave is talented, bright, dedicated and compassionate. Together, we’re raising two remarkable children who are funny, passionate, gregarious, serious, and empathic. We hope they’ll grow to give back to their communities as well. What greater joy could there be?
Felicia Brabec’s story is one of courage and personal integrity. With each step forward, Felicia followed her calling to serve, lead, and leave the world a better place for everyone around her. We’d even go so far as to say that Felicia is the type of person who leaves people better than she found them — a true testament to the immense capacity we all have to love.
We hope that as you encounter more young people who’ve experienced the trauma of a loss or any type of trauma, you’re inspired to deeply uncover what they need, just as she has been.
Kristen M. Domingue is a copywriter and content marketing consultant in the New York City area. When she’s not delivering on client projects, you can find her cooking up something gluten-free or in an internet rabbit hole on entrepreneurship or astrology.