Two different people told me about the personal testimony Debra Blake shared at the recent ABC Women’s Prayer Brunch. I thought this would be a good contribution to our current series emphasizing how a person’s backstory can help us appreciate who they are, so I called and interviewed her.

Debra has experienced a meteoric rise in her career as an auditor with the State of California Department of Health Care Services. In approximately twenty years, she has achieved the highest leadership level possible and has also pioneered as the first black woman to do so. She directs the work of Southern California hearing officers who render appeal decisions related to various DHCS programs. She also does final reviews of legal appeal decisions that have ramifications for many people affected by healthcare regulations, with the intention of helping all find satisfactory resolutions. She loves her work because she is making a difference in people’s lives, as well as a positive contribution to society.

However, Debra has a clear memory of the guidance counselor, when she was a high school freshman in Racine, Wisconsin, telling her she wasn’t college material and steering her toward vocational courses. He made this judgment even though she was a good student and was getting excellent grades. She had the impression that his attitude was more about her race than her gender. He led her to believe that her best hope was to marry a good man and have children.

So, she did. After graduation at eighteen, she married her high school sweetheart. The couple had one daughter, then another. During this time, her husband served in the Marines, while Debra stayed home and cared for the children. This was the life she was settling into.

But just short of the couple’s tenth anniversary, the marriage came apart, and Debra was left a single mother with two little girls. The three of them traveled to Altadena, California, to find some comfort from her sister Martina. The same guidance counselor had given Martina the “You’re-not-college-material” lecture, but here she was achieving as a public school administrator. This gave Debra hope and inspiration.

She decided to stay in Pasadena and try to find a new direction in life. It was during these days that she began attending Altadena Baptist Church and became part of this faith family. She had always loved math, and she enrolled at Pasadena City College to take courses that would lead to a career in accounting. After PCC, she attended and received her bachelor’s degree from Cal Poly Pomona. Not college material?

After graduation, she had several job offers. An interesting one was with a large CPA firm, but she chose the opportunity with the State of California, mainly because of the health benefits for her daughters. Since then, it’s been a steady climb to her current leadership position. Meanwhile, she met and married Elton Blake, who shared many of her values and goals, as well as her Christian faith. The two of them invest much of their love and energy in the twelve grandchildren they share between them.

Debra feels she’s been “carried” through all her life experiences by the grace of God, expressed in the lives of family and friends. “My blessings have been unlimited; so many doors were opened that I never even thought about.”

Her favorite Bible passage is Psalm 139, which tells her, “He knows me better than I know myself.” That guidance counselor thought he knew Deborah and her limitations, but her backstory is about her God who knows when she sits down and rises up, who discerns her thoughts before she thinks them (Psalm 139:1).

— Pastor George Van Alstine