By Daniel A. Brown
Cassandra Saslona radiates a youthful energy. In her early 30s, she has confidence, maturity and wisdom beyond her years – and beyond what anyone would imagine for someone who experienced a childhood like hers.
Cassandra’s gratitude for her life and career are palpable, instilled from a place of survival. During her teens, any confidence, joy and family stability seemed uncertain.
And she never thought missing curfew one night would change the course of her life forever.
Finding Hope in a Family Crisis
After Cassandra arrived home late one evening, her father’s disciplinary actions turned into a domestic dispute.
At that time, she was a student at Sandalwood High School and told the school’s dean about the incident. Thankfully, Sandalwood is a Full Service School, with a wide array of social services administered by United Way of Northeast Florida and several community partners on campus. Full Service Schools connects nearly 3,500 students and families annually to critically needed therapeutic, health and other social services.
The dean and guidance counselor directed Cassandra toward Full Service School peer support group meetings.
“We would just chat about what’s going on in our lives and would realize that we were going through the same thing,” said Cassandra. “And we’d have the counselor there to kind of mediate us and show us the silver lining and give us tools to work through those situations at home.”
Both of Cassandra’s parents struggled with addiction. While they each sought recovery, she found her family life to be unstable, even chaotic. She eventually lived with her grandmother, then with an uncle and then back with her father.
“When I was a junior in high school, I became pregnant,” Cassandra said. “Due to the domestic dispute earlier that year, I was terrified to tell my father.”
Cassandra’s guidance counselor suggested she invite her dad to the school, and they would help Cassandra break the news.
“My dad told us that if I was going to make a decision like this and to live my life as a grown woman, then I needed to do so outside of his home,” she said.
So she did.
With the help of her guidance counselor, Cassandra was put in touch with United Way 211. Operating 24/7, United Way 211 is an information and referral hotline that connects callers in Northeast Florida to hundreds of available human- and social-services resources.
Cassandra was put in touch with Jacksonville Area Legal Aid, who helped her become legally emancipated from her family. In addition, 211 helped her receive food assistance, Medicaid, medical care for her pregnancy, and eventually, child care as she pursued a career in the medical field.
Reimagining Her Future
In spite of her hurdles, Cassandra received certification as a medical assistant from Everest University. In a short time, Cassandra went from being a novice medical assistant to working for a plastic surgeon, a five-year career experience that helped her develop leadership skills in the health-care field.
Since March 2015, Cassandra has worked for Mayo Clinic. For five of those years, she worked as practice floor supervisor, where she oversaw a team of schedulers who assessed both new and established patients.
In October 2020, Cassandra began her current role as associate coordinator, a position where she helps partner with scheduling leadership teams to develop and implement workflow solutions and optimize patient access.
Paying It Forward
Cassandra’s son is now 14. Along with her life as a parent and valued and trusted employee, she is also taking college courses to earn an associate’s degree.
Cassandra also takes pride in giving back to her community through United Way of Northeast Florida, the organization that helped her overcome tough challenges in her life in order to reach her full potential. She often speaks during United Way events at Mayo Clinic and even was a keynote speaker at a breakfast in 2019, all to encourage her Mayo Clinic teammates to support an organization that has been so instrumental in her success.
“I shared this same story I’m sharing now: that I came from a tough background and ended up pregnant at a young age and kind of needed to figure it out on my own,” she said. “And that speech ultimately reconnected me back with United Way of Northeast Florida and offered me the chance to explain how I became a part of the Mayo Clinic team.”
Regardless of story or circumstance, United Way partnerships like Full Service Schools and United Way 211 help thousands of people every day like Cassandra find hope and achieve a greater future.
“One in every three people have been affected or received services from United Way,” said Cassandra. “And I love to tell people that you’re looking at one of those people. If someone needs help, I would say just a call 211: because you never know what resources are on the other end of that phone call.”
When you support United Way, you give hope, help and healing. Donate now to United Way of Northeast Florida to provide individuals like Cassandra the life-changing opportunities we all deserve.