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'Dancing and joy': Edmonton woman celebrates graduation after overcoming homelessness and addiction

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Among 2,000 Athabasca University graduates Friday, was an Edmonton woman who hopes her story can inspire others.

Celia Koehler spent her teenage years living unhoused and addicted to drugs. Now, rather than run from her past, she's using it to help others get a hand up.

"One of the biggest things I learned – It doesn't really matter what you see from someone on the outside," Koehler said. "If you see someone that's out on the streets and homeless, don't just assume that they're lazy and they don't want to work because that might not be the case."

Friday, Koehler graduated with a masters of business administration and she said her work in human resources has been an opportunity to give back to her past self by helping others.

"I can start opening doors for other people, people who need jobs, who are in desperate situations who maybe otherwise wouldn't be able to be employed. I now have the opportunity to give that back to them," she said.

"I try to look at the person. What can you bring to us, what does that look like? Not, what are you wearing?"

'IT'S A SCARY PLACE'

Kohler's journey with addiction started as a young woman. Like many teenagers, she experimented with drugs and alcohol, but at 16 things got more serious.

"Eventually, it sort of spiraled downwards and [I] started doing worse drugs," she said. "Got into crystal meth and became a terrible, really bad crystal meth addict."

With three other children to consider, Koehler's mother Shelly Flint said she had to make the difficult decision to ask her daughter to leave.

"It just felt like it was a never-ending cycle of trying new things to see what would work for Celia," Flint said. "At some point, you have to think about the impact this is having on the rest of the family."

For the next three years, Koehler was lost to her addiction. Sometimes she lived on the streets, other times in shelters or stayed with friends.

"It's a scary place, to be honest, and I was young and I didn't know much about the world at the time," Koehler said. "It was a very quick learning experience.

"You grow up quickly."

Things shifted when Koehler met her father for the first time. He hadn't been in her life growing up and she wanted to make a good impression, but she couldn't stay sober despite wanting to.

"I just continued doing drugs all week and ended up meeting him completely strung-out, there was really no hiding it," Koehler said.

When her dad offered to help her get clean, she said yes. She moved to Red Deer and quit cold turkey. It wasn't easy, she said, but luckily she had people in her life to support her and help her start the next part of her life.

Now, Koehler holds multiple degrees, including a bachelor of arts from the University of Calgary, and spends her spare time bodybuilding and training for fitness competitions.

"Going from this place where I didn't have the self-respect to care for myself to a point where I have the self-respect where I go to the gym every day and make healthy choices with my meals every day is sort of a paradigm shift," she said.

Whether it's graduating or competing, Koehler said her life now is something she never would have imagined as that young girl struggling to find food or a place to spend the night.

"I don't know if I would have believed that I would get to this point in my life, it would feel like maybe a dream but not something real," she said.

She's also the mother of two sons, who she's open with about her past.

"I use it as an opportunity to teach them," she said. "My hope is that they can learn from my experiences."

Flint was there to support Koehler Friday, and it was a day for "dancing and joy" for the mother and daughter.

"I think you have to really celebrate the good things that happen in your life, and this is one of those moments for me," Koehler said.

"I'm so happy with the woman that she's become and the fact that she's been able to overcome so many obstacles," Flint said. "She persisted, she kept trying, and kept trying and kept working on it." 

With files from CTV News Edmonton's Amanda Anderson

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