Forgetting moments in life are inevitable. But for a member of the Citrus College Foundation, her entire life’s history was lost.
Celeste Palmer can remember only 14 years of the 64 years of her life. On May 1, 2000, shortly after her 50th birthday, a young driver ran a stop sign and crashed into Palmer’s car. She sustained a traumatic brain injury, resulting in total memory loss.
“I knew nothing of anything,” Palmer said. “I didn’t know I had a body at first. I didn’t know there was anything to life.”
Palmer’s story is told in a book, “Chicken Soup for the Soul: Recovering from Traumatic Brain Injuries.” It describes her determination to restart her life after the nearly fatal accident.
Simple routines such as finding clothes hung inside a closet and washing dishes were mysteries to her and became difficult challenges, she said.
Palmer did not remember that she had given birth to three children.
Her children – Heather, Jason and Matthew – are all married now and she has come to know them. But in the aftermath of her accident, learning about them was confusing.
At first, Palmer said she wondered about her children’s reaction to her condition, but she soon realized that they accepted her, minus the memories.
“They’re all great kids,” she said. “That’s a sign to me that it must’ve been okay.”
Nancy Magnusson, also a member of the Citrus College Foundation, said Palmer is one of her favorite friends. “She’s honest and beautiful and very easy to get along with,” Magnusson said. “We’re more like sisters.”
Magnusson said Palmer has focused on the present, rather than wasting time trying to remember moments that have vanished.
The biggest mistake people make in life is getting stuck on the negative whether it’s in the past, present or future, Palmer said.
“We forget to notice how much we are in the present. All we know about is right now,” she said. “Live that moment to the fullest that you can so you don’t miss something.”
As a life coach, Palmer helps people start their own Happiness Projects. This is what she calls a process in which people discern what makes them happy and pursue it.
“I’m trying to help people find a way to avoid making their own road blocks,” she said. “To me that is a Happiness Project all on its own,” Palmer said.
“Happiness is a choice because you have to decide to dig yourself out of that depression or out of that spiral downward no matter what it is that seems to cause that darkness in your life,” Palmer said. “To choose happiness over that and to find that one glimmer of light in your life is so much better than deciding ‘woe is me, I can’t find anything to make me happy.’”
Magnusson has known Palmer for 10 years and describes her as a dedicated individual who works hard at everything she does.
“A lot of people would not have tried to get themselves cured but she has worked hard,” Magnusson said. “Most people who have what happened to Celeste just give up. Celeste does not give up.”
Two years after the accident, Palmer went back to college and graduated with honors with a Master’s degree from the Peter F. Drucker School of Management at Claremont Graduate University.
She said going back to college was an exciting experience because she knew she was accomplishing something that was going to lead her in a new, better direction – and it did.
In 2003, Palmer became Master’s in Business Administration director and in 2004, she became Marketing Director at Claremont Graduate University.
“Being an MBA director taught me a lot about my previous existence prior to the accident,” she said. “It taught me how to find out more things about myself.”
For example, Palmer said she did not know that she could speak and read fluent German until a student from Germany handed her a resume and they began discussing it in German.
“When things came easily, it was fine but when I went searching for it and tried to force it back in my brain it didn’t work,” Palmer said.
Eventually, she discovered that with her spotty memory, holding onto a job was difficult, so she decided to devote her time and energy to giving back.
As Palmer became more interested in volunteering, she began to investigate Citrus College and in 2011 became a director of the Foundation on the Finance and Investment Committee.
Christina Garcia, director of the Citrus College Foundation, said she, like many others, are astounded by Palmer’s survival story. “To meet someone who has lost the whole memory of their life, and of their children, and everything they have ever learned…I’m not sure I really knew that reality existed,” she said.
In her time committed to the foundation, Palmer has gained a deep respect for the college.
“[Citrus] has far exceeded what a community college can do anywhere in the nation,” she said. “I saw all the variety of things that were now being offered here and I couldn’t believe it. The time I have spent here on the foundation board has renewed my faith in the whole community college atmosphere.”
In 2009, Palmer founded a non-profit organization called Bridging the Gap, which provides a pathway for traumatic brain injury survivors to find resources to help in their recovery.
Through fundraisers, her organization helps TBI survivors get out of the hospital to do things more independently, allowing the opportunity to reinvent themselves, she said.
The organization has been able to provide home safety equipment such as ramps as well as funds for TBI survivors who want to get back into school to develop skills for a new career.
Palmer also volunteers at the University Club of Claremont and Rancho Santa Ana Botanical Gardens.
“I don’t know how people don’t volunteer,” she said. “Volunteering is a way that fills your heart and your brain.”
Palmer stresses the importance of volunteering as a way to express gratitude for everything that she has been given in life.
“Whatever stage we are in life, volunteering gives us an opportunity to be productive and give back,” she said. “Whatever your abilities are, there’s always something you can do.”
Foundation director Garcia said that Palmer’s determination to build a new life inspires her.
“She is so in the moment that she doesn’t fret about the past or worry too much about the future,” Garcia said. “She continues to move things forward. I think that’s a good way to do life.”