March 7, 2016
By Tonya Cook
I knew there was more to life than what my small town had to offer. I wanted to see things I read about in school books and escape the small town mentality of being trapped as a product of my environment. I thought college could be my way out, but my parents couldn’t afford to send me. So I joined the Navy, and eventually retired with 20 years of Service.
When I separated from the military in 2013, I found the most challenging part was identifying and finding my purpose again. My only child had just graduated from high school, so I felt my purpose of being a needed mother was gone. I was going through a divorce, so I felt my purpose of being a wife was now gone as well. I was empty and depressed.
When I found the Fellowship Program with The Mission Continues, I felt like I had found a new path. My host organization, The Women’s Center of Jacksonville, helped me connect my passion for helping others with my military skills in IT.
During my fellowship, I started teaching basic computer classes. I also met with people individually if they needed help with specific things. For example, I had one woman who was job searching and needed help uploading resumes and submitting applications online. I had another person who had a little side business knitting hats and baby articles and she needed help putting together an advertising flyer and improving her presentation skills.
A few weeks into my fellowship, my host supervisor asked me to take on a GED Math class for two of their in-house programs. One was a continued education program and the other was for formerly incarcerated women who are reintegrating into society. At first I thought, I am not qualified to be a math teacher, and I hate math. I understand math, but I hate it. Nonetheless, I agreed to give it a try. I knew I was either going to fail or I was going to fly, but that I would never know which one unless I gave it a try. It was the best decision I could have made.
I didn’t realize how much they looked up to me and valued my passion until my birthday, when my students and host manager decided to have a surprise party for me. I can’t describe the feeling that came over me just to know that these women, who barely have anything, coordinated this for me.
They brought in chicken wings, drinks, cupcakes, chips, a fruit tray, and small gifts. It meant the world to me because the thought and love behind it made it special. When they presented their gifts they said to me “Ms. Tonya, we want to show you how much you mean to us and how much we appreciate you for taking the time to help us. We don’t have much but we got you this.” I remember my favorite gift was a necklace that said “Believe, Be True. Be Free, Be you.”
By the time my fellowship ended, I had built such a bond and connection with my math students that I didn’t want to just stop and quit on them. After all, I was the one who wouldn’t let them quit on me, and they had come so far. After talking with my host organization, they submitted a grant request to hire a paid part-time instructor, and it was approved. After I applied and interviewed, they offered me the position, and I’ve been smiling ever since.
I learned to never place limits on myself, because you never know what could come of an opportunity if you never try. I am proud to be a part of an organization that is bigger than myself. I truly believe had it not been for The Mission Continues, I would not have searched and found The Women’s Center, and would not be doing what I am doing today: helping others better themselves and their lives.