Kentwood —Surrounded by friends and family for a graduation party in a picturesque park on a sunny Saturday, Ayjia Jones is relaxed. She is quick to laugh and talks excitedly about her future. As red and black balloons — East Kentwood Falcon colors — blow in the breeze, her smile spreads wide.
Ayjia graduated from East Kentwood High School May 27, and will begin at Grand Valley State University next fall with a full-ride scholarship. She will live in a dorm and plans to join programs and groups and meet lots of people. She will tackle a slate of classes, sees studying abroad in her future and is pursuing her degree in secondary education. She hopes to eventually be a college professor or a high school teacher.
“I feel relieved because the hard part is over– surviving high school, but I’m not saying that’s the only hard part,” she reflected. “Getting into college is a hard part too. But it’s one step I completed. …. Once you get a big step done the small steps should be easy.”
Standing just feet away from Ayjia is another person with a grin stretching from cheekbone to cheekbone. The statuesque woman is Ayjia’s mother, Monique Williams, and she met her own milestone one day before Ayjia graduated. Monique, two decades after dropping out, has earned her high school diploma from Sparta High School through Adult Education. Her own blue and white balloons– Spartan colors– are also fluttering.
“I feel wonderful. It’s always been a (goal) for me to get my diploma, whether it took 40 years,” Monique said. “It just so happened I had some fire lit behind me to get it done in three months and get it with my daughter.
“The best thing to know was that this is all she wanted of me — was for me to get my diploma. It’s the greatest thing. She’s my heart. She’s my soul. Without her, I wouldn’t be where I’m at right now.”
Monique has a full-time job at a restaurant, plans to enroll in Grand Rapids Community College and eventually become a phlebotomist or bus or truck driver. She makes and sells soul food and seafood as a side business.
The Faces of Homelessness
I first met Ayjia and Monique in January of 2020, just two months before the world shut down due to the pandemic. I was writing about housing insecurity in Kent County schools and looking to bring a human face — a student’s voice — to the fact that 2,500 students in the area faced homelessness.
Ayjia, who wanted to stay anonymous and went by A.J. in the article, was brave enough to tell her story of living in a motel, walking to the city bus to get to school early and hurrying home to babysit. She juggled homework with helping care for her younger brother and sister while her mother worked at a factory.
When I interviewed Ayjia, it was her words, and also her eyes, that left me shaken. The deep brown of her irises connected with my gaze, pleading wordlessly for assurance that things would be OK. I told her — and I knew it because this girl was so strong — that her story was only beginning.
I met Monique and Ayjia’s sweet siblings, Kenyatta and Kashanti, a couple weeks later. Many people had read Ayjia’s story and sent in donations for them. I wanted to give them the gifts in person over lunch.
Monique, awash with emotion and gratitude, told me a bit about her life while we dined on soup and sandwiches. She often worked two jobs to afford the weekly motel rate and her credit rating made it impossible to secure permanent housing. Each week was basically a tightrope walk to make sure she had cash in hand to keep their room and pay for all their other necessities.
‘She’s my heart. She’s my soul. Without her, I wouldn’t be where I’m at right now.’— Monique Williams on her daughter, Ayjia Jones
The summer before, she had moved her children from a community where she no longer wanted to raise them because of myriad safety and other issues. She desperately wanted them to attend and graduate from Kentwood Public Schools to have more opportunities. She said it was worth everything to her.
I was again shaken. Like her daughter, this strong, smart woman’s eyes shared an unmistakable truth. Despite the obstacles she faced, there was no way Monique Williams was giving up.
From Motel to Home and Graduation Gowns
Months went by, including stretches of weeks when the family experienced the state’s stay-at-home order from a single motel room with two queen-sized beds and a bathroom. Ayjia, Kenyatta and Kashanti learned virtually while schools were closed. Monique worked and was home with the family when she was off. Despite setbacks and uncertainty, they pushed through everything.
One morning in March I got a text from Monique. She was approved for an apartment in Kentwood. They were no longer homeless. Then, in April, I got another text — a photo of graduation gowns for mother and daughter.
“Two years ago I would not be able to tell you I would be in the situation I am right now,” said Monique. She credits hard work, faith in God and support from people who have become like family to her, including Kentwood Public Schools staff, for helping her get on her feet.
“When people say dreams don’t come true, that’s a lie. Dreams do come true. Two years of homeless(ness), hotel to hotel. Now we in a house, a job — looking bigger and brighter. Dreams come true.”
With her family in permanent housing, Ayjia now looks forward to making her own dreams come true.
“Right now, I feel like there is a stable place for my family,” she said. “To be honest, I wouldn’t have went to college if we didn’t have a stable place because I don’t think it would be fair if I had somewhere to stay. I know what a handful my siblings (are). … I would not feel uncomfortable leaving my mom alone.”
That’s why Ayjia pushed her mom to get her degree. She knows the reality of rent, bills and raising children without stable income or housing. “I’m hard on my mom just like she is hard on me. Everything I do (it’s because) I want her to be stable when I leave. I never want to choose between my dream and what my family goes through.”
Ayjia said her biggest motivation is to have a comfortable life. “I am going to be stable. I am going to make sure there is food every day for me to eat. It’s been a motivation, me wanting stability. … It got me this far so it must be a pretty awesome motivation.”
She found inspiration and information at East Kentwood, and wants to be an educator so she can provide that to others.
“High school has had a big impact on how I am and how I act. I feel grateful to the staff and the people I met outside of school to the point where I feel like I can help impact other people who (are) my age.
“There could be someone like me out there, too, in the same position as me,” she added. “They may be the next Ayjia to just rise up out of their pit and have their pedestal.”
A Community in Kentwood
Jessica Turnow, East Kentwood’s Kent Schools Services Network Community School coordinator, and Sarah Weir, who works with the school’s homeless population, have helped Monique and Ajija navigate their way to graduation and permanent housing.
“Every time I think of Monique, the word that comes to mind is rock star. She pursued and persevered through so much,” Turnow said, “A lot of people can walk or jog through life. Monique had to sprint at all times going uphill. There were a lot of times there were bumps in the road, but she continued to push, and she wasn’t afraid to reach out for help and she wasn’t afraid to lean on her community and school and get what she deserved. She was really good at knowing her worth and pushing through to that.”
Monique also made sure Ayjia was getting the best education she could, Turnow said. “She knew that was something she didn’t get, so she wanted that for her daughter. She is just an incredible person and incredible mother. I am so proud of her.”
As for Ayjia, Turnow could always see her potential.
‘There could be someone like me out there, too. They may be the next Ayjia to just rise up out of their pit and have their pedestal.’— Ayjia Jones, East Kentwood graduate
“I knew from the moment she walked into my office she was a special student, a special woman. She never gave up. There was so many times she had to go home, make dinner, do all the things — because her mom was trying to work and provide for her — and then get her homework done. There were times when she was getting A’s and B’s and she was so worried about getting her homework done… She knew she had to succeed.”
Weir said she is ecstatic to see Monique’s successes.
“There is something so special about her in the fact that she continues. Every time she has a setback she keeps going. It doesn’t matter what it is … she keeps going and she crossed this finish line. She is so proud, and I love that so much. She has learned to celebrate herself. A lot of times people think they can’t, but I love that she wants the world to share her excitement, and the example for the kids is amazing.”
It’s Ayjia’s time to fly, Weir added: “She is motivated. She knows what it looks like when you take the hard path. She is ready to rise above that and just soar. It’s amazing. She worked so hard. … Basically she had to be a part-time mom. I’m excited for her to have fun at college.”
Deciding to Open Up
Ayjia worked to connect with others during her senior year. She revealed her story in Educators Rising, an East Kentwood class for aspiring teachers. Once timid and afraid to open up to others, she decided to be vulnerable and let people get to know her — for better or worse. She told her peers that she was homeless. To her surprise, they acknowledged the information and moved on, treating her no differently.
Now she is ready to move on and ever upward, beginning with college.
“I want to have the balance of have fun and study,” she said. “I started getting into programs and looking up different groups. I applied for them. I don’t want to make myself become too introverted. I want to put myself out there and for people to know me.”
Ayjia said she also values the Personal Finance course she took her senior year. She learned about credit scores and financial institutions and a plethora of information from her teacher about how to finalize forms for college. She learned how to find answers, whom to ask, and is making good use of the knowledge.
“All of my teachers are really supportive. They are very open. This year I got really close to my teachers,” she said, noting smaller classes in person led to more bonding. “I even played a big part in getting to name my teacher’s child, who was born in March.”
Trying new things has made Ayjia realize a lot about herself.
“Once I do something that’s really out of my comfort zone, I’m like ‘I did that. That means I can do this.’ Once you get the small stuff done, you start growing to do bigger things …”
Now she knows.
“I can do bigger things.”