By Jennifer L. Warren
POUGHKEEPSIE – Approximately 100 guests in the dead silent room had their eyes peeled to the speaker as she emphatically affirmed her truth.
“I am a survivor, not a victim,” Alyssa Carrion proudly addressed the spellbound audience after relating her journey laced with hardship, pain, shame and a host of other emotions she kept hidden for years, choosing to replace them with strength and resiliency while reclaiming her power.
Carrion, who works for Mental Health America of Dutchess County Veterans Programs as well as serves as a Veteran Peer Mentor for Veterans, is fueled to make former military lives’ better after enduring her own military sexual trauma while a freshman cadet at West Point. Although graduating from the prestigious military institution in 2006 and moving on to a decorated military career, Carrion never forgot the wrongful imprint of her unpunished abuse; however, she elected to focus her energies on its lessons, using it as a catalyst to unearth her purpose. That choice has made all the difference.
“We need to do much more for veterans who have experienced trauma; they need and deserve care and respect,” said Carrion. “I strive to do that with all the people I work with every day.”
It’s that empowering ability to “Flip the Script,” conquer challenges and draft their own narratives, that led Carrion to be chosen as one of two potent speakers at last Wednesday’s Annual Women’s Networking Event, held at Locust Grove Estate in Poughkeepsie. The program, led by Senator Sue Serino of the 41st District, originated in 2018 and focuses on local women having a critical platform to bolster both their personal and professional networks. Its intents run still deeper.
“I started this event because I was meeting so many amazing women, and I really wanted to find a way to connect them; it’s what we do as women,” said Serino, who also shared her own not always smooth back story, one whose select pieces she too was told to keep under wraps as she entered the political realm. “We all have faced challenges that could have easily stopped us from going forward, but so many of us have found ways to keep going.”
Another one of the evening’s speakers, Undersheriff Jacqueline, “Jackie,” Salvatore of the Columbia County Sheriff’s Office, also epitomized the program’s theme of “Flipping the Script.” Being fed stereotyped, limiting roles of what a woman should be, while growing up in a family “riddled with substance abuse” and void of any strong mentors to set the barometer for anything more, Salvatore spoke of declining two college athletic scholarships, naturally falling into abusive marriages, and experiences with extreme poverty. However, similar to Carrion, her emphasis was on a purposeful decision laden with overcoming, healing and growing.
“No matter what your scenario is, where you are in life, or what’s happened to you, know you are exactly where you are supposed to be right now,” said the dynamic speaker Salvatore, who sleighed those confining female blueprints, working as a State Trooper for 28 years and recently earning the distinction of becoming the first female and person of color to take on the position of Undersheriff in Columbia County. “I have learned never, ever to judge someone else and to give myself as many options as possible.” Reflecting further, she added, “I have zero regrets in my life, simply multiple opportunities.”
In addition to the guest speakers unraveling their personal trials, tribulations and ultimately successes while uplifting all present, the night also featured Serino’s announcement of the 41st Senate District 2022 Woman of Distinction (many of the trailblazing community leader nominees were in attendance), Lori Cassia-Decker, the Co-founder (along with her husband George) of the 20 year old non-profit and official 501(c) (3) organization, Angels of Light, originally created to make a genuine difference in the lives of children battling life-threatening illnesses while providing integral support and hope for their families during the holiday season. To date, Angels of Light has uplifted the lives of more than 1300 children. It has also evolved into something taking on an ever-expanding breadth, delivering year-round help with medical bills, utilities, food, gas and much more.
“We never set out to start this organization; it really was Divine Intervention, said a visibly touched Cassia-Decker, who spearheaded the effort with her husband who had been coaching a young player with a life-threatening illness, immediately wanted to help ease his path in any way possible, and soon saw how many others could benefit. “We didn’t know at the time there was such a need, and I just feel so incredibly blessed we are able to make this all happen now.”
Cassia-Decker, who has formed a strong bond with Serino over the years, added, “Sue is just amazing, always coming to all of my events, and really, really showing a genuine interest in everything I do, not as a politician, but just a person.”