CLEARWATER, Fla. (WFLA) — A Pinellas County woman who overcame homelessness now uses her story to help those who are currently in the position she used to be in.
Jonita Lewis grew up in Clearwater in a loving home with her siblings and two parents.
“I’m so grateful for my family and the foundation they built for me,” Lewis said.
However, she found herself in hard times shortly after high school.
“Me and my boyfriend at the time, we were together, ended up having a baby and shortly after we had another baby, so I was pregnant again twice and fell on hard times and we found ourselves homeless,” she said.
That caused Lewis to lean on The Grace House — a homeless shelter in Clearwater.
“I was in the shelter and gave birth to my second child,” Lewis said.
She was building a family, going to college, jobless and homeless.
“It was scary,” she said. “I would have never thought I would have been in this place.”
But it didn’t last long. After four months, Lewis moved out of the Grace House and went to Springfield College in Tampa. That’s where she met a professor who would help change her life.
“Right out the gate she was confident,” Kirk Ray Smith said.
Kirk Ray Smith was not only Lewis’ professor, but also the CEO of Hope Villages of America. It’s a non-profit organization that helps people face homelessness, domestic violence and more.
“The more I learned about her story and her confidence, I realized it came from a place of pain. She knew what struggle looked like,” he said.
For two years, he studied Lewis – unknowingly interviewing her for a job at Hope Villages of America.
“I was paying attention to her prowess as a student. But more importantly, I paid attention to her prowess as a person. She never hesitate to put herself out there,” he said.
At the end of the semester, he did something Lewis did not expect.
“Last day of class he offered me a job and I’m like what? Me?” she said.
Lewis said she was a little hesitant at first.
“[Kirk Ray Smith] told me, I’ll never forget, ‘until you do something that scares you, you will never experience greatness,'” she said.
“She’s heard me say it 10,000 times and I’ll say it 10,000 more. Until you do something that scares you, you’ll never be successful. I’ve seen an evolution,” Smith said.
Lewis is now the vice president of Hope Villages of America. She helps people facing hard times and even works hand-in-hand with the Grace House, the place she once called home.
“Being on that other side of the table is so surreal. I sit there and talk to them and let them know I was once in your situation and your position and this isn’t over for you,” she said.
She was once viewed as a statistic, but now she is an inspiration.
“Nope, you’re not going to have me listed in your number of statistics – another single Black mother, nope,” she said. “It feels good to beat those odds and encourage others along the way that they can do it as well.”