Former CIA agent Michele Rigby Assad captivated a packed audience at the Literacy Services of Indian River Author Series event, held at the Windsor Beach Club and sponsored by the Endicott Family Foundation.
Assad is the author of “Breaking Cover: My secret life in the CIA and what it taught me about what’s worth fighting for.” The book documents her time as an undercover counterterrorism agent in Baghdad and other Middle Eastern locations.
Welcoming everyone, Michelle Servos, Literacy Services board president, thanked event organizer Sven Frisell and sponsors before giving a brief overview of the nonprofit. This past year, more than 150 volunteers provided free tutoring to 300 local residents struggling with reading, writing and English. Roughly 75 percent of students are from other countries.
“We all know that the literacy level of the child is directly related to the literacy level of the adult in their life,” said Servos. “The vision of Literacy Services is to put an end to generational illiteracy.”
Guests heard from student Carlendy Petit-Homme, whose life path could not be more dissimilar than that of Assad, yet they are united in resolute determination. Originally from Haiti, Petit-Homme was introduced to Literacy Services by her sister.
“In the beginning, I was so shy,” said the delightful Petit-Homme, remembering her first meeting two years ago with tutor Lorna Stengel. “Since then, we’ve been speaking, reading and learning vocabulary; we’ve been working on stories and doing activities.”
Through those efforts, Petit-Homme obtained a full-time job at a nursing home and is working toward a GED. “I’m so glad that I came to the library and became a student at Literacy Services. Without them I would not be able to speak English, to get a new job and a new friend. And now, believe me, nothing can stop me.”
Introducing the keynote speaker, Jessica Schmitt, Literacy Services executive director, said Assad joined the CIA in 2002 and, alongside husband Joseph, spent 10 years working as an undercover intelligence officer.
“First of all, I have to say how very much I am inspired by your story,” Assad told Petit-Homme. “I can’t even tell you how fascinating it is to hear people from all walks of life talk about how intimidated they were or how fearful they were, and yet how they pushed through it. And that’s really what it’s all about.”
Assad noted that just as Literacy Services changed Petit-Homme’s life, she and husband Joseph had interventions that changed the course of their lives. It was a passion for mission trips and travel that brought her to Georgetown University and eventually to the CIA.
She said she initially struggled with what she called ‘imposter syndrome.’ “How in the world did I make it into the CIA? I can’t believe that I got the golden ticket to go into this place that no one ever gets to see, to do things that are secret.”
She spoke about being among the few to make it through the extensive and stressful training only to learn that as a woman, “it was not thought that we could actually do the job that we were trained to do.”
A self-described overachiever, Assad proved them wrong, using the same traits thought to be a disadvantage to take control of the situation. Assad shared fascinating stories of her time in Baghdad, the only place she’s allowed to speak about, beginning with the day she “got to go face-to-face with my first terrorist.”
Signed copies of “Breaking Cover” are available at the Vero Beach Book Center. To become a Literacy Services volunteer, visit literacyservicesirc.org.