She ran away from northern Manitoba at the age of 12, then survived homelessness and addictions to become a respected community leader.
Her lifetime of overcoming challenges came to a sudden stop after 46-year-old Claudette Michell collapsed at her home and then died of a brain aneurysm in October.
Now, friends and family have banded together to create a trust fund for the children of the University of Winnipeg employee.
The single mother and grandmother left behind a six-year-old son, a 15-year-old daughter, a 19-year-old son and a 29-year-old daughter.
"I think I can say, literally, that it was heartbreaking. Claudette had come into her own and she was highly regarded in the inner-city," said Jim Silver, chairman of the University of Winnipeg's urban and inner-city studies department, where Michell worked.
"It really was a cruel death to lose somebody who'd come so far in her life and who had so much more to give."
Silver and Michell worked together at the department's Selkirk Avenue building, where Michell was the program co-ordinator.
Michell was admired by the community because of the personal challenges she'd overcome, said Silver.
"She ran away from home when she was 12, and she came to Winnipeg, and she more or less lived on her own, surviving on the streets, in foster homes, group homes, locked up in Marymound and juvenile-detention centres," said Silver.
Michell had also struggled with addictions, before getting clean about a decade ago.
"Establishing a connection with her traditional Cree culture is what turned her life around," said Silver.
"She was a very strong Cree woman and her culture, her spirituality, mattered immensely to her, and it was that that gave her strength to change her life."
The daughter of a residential school survivor enrolled in adult education to graduate from Grade 12, then attended community college to get a business administration diploma. She got a two-year diploma in aboriginal governance from Red River College and became the first person to graduate in aboriginal governance with an honours degree from the University of Winnipeg.
Silver said Michell had worked with the department since 2007. "She really dramatically turned herself around, and she was my student and I hired her as a research assistant, and so I saw how enormously talented she was," said Silver.
She would smudge each morning, he said.
She was also part of an aboriginal women's drum group and a sun dancer, he said.
"Claudette was the heart of what we're doing here. The students that we attract are smart, they can succeed at university, but they need some extra supports and Claudette was just absolutely superb at working with students, building their confidence, providing them with the various kinds of support that they need, being a role model," said Silver.
Silver said he knew he would lose Michell, but he thought it would be to another inner-city organization that would snap her up as an executive director.
"She just had immense abilities, immense talent, and everybody that she touched loved her," he said.
Michell lived with her three youngest children at a Windsor Park rental home and died shortly after she collapsed there in early October. Plans for the future of Michell's children are still being worked out, Silver said.
People who wish to donate to the Claudette Michell Family trust fund can go to any branch of the Assiniboine Credit Union.
Donations can also be sent to the Assiniboine Credit Union at 200 Main St., Box 2, Station Main, Winnipeg, MB, R3C-2G1.