Terra Jones was a sixth grader the first time she was homeless.
None of her new classmates knew about the abuse she endured from her father, and that when she and her mother left, they had no place to go.
“I was afraid of being separated from my mother if they knew that we were sleeping in the car,” Terra remembers. There were no supportive programs that she knew of back then. Her mother was able to obtain housing, although it was never permanent, and they would be homeless again. Frustrated, her mother began to drink and take drugs to cope. Eventually, she would begin to beat Terra.
I was afraid of being separated from my mother if they knew that we were sleeping in the car.
Terra responded by excelling in school, determined to graduate with high marks. While her home life continued to suffer, Terra still had hope.
“I thought and believed that if I became successful, that she would stop her behavior,” Terra recalls.
Terra told herself that things had to get better.
Someone to Count On
Though she didn’t reveal much about her home life with her friends, Terra sought out mentors. She volunteered at a library in high school where she befriended a librarian, whom Terra affectionately calls “Ms. Mary.”
I was determined to go to school and be successful.
Ms. Mary took an interest in Terra, and over time, they grew to know each other well.
She made sure Terra ate during the day, talked to her and invited her to spend time with her family. Ms. Mary held Terra accountable for her actions and provided guidance along the way. She was a role model who would eventually take Terra in after things took at turn for the worse at home.
“Ms. Mary had a college degree, volunteered in the community and was a very giving and humble person. Her example motivated me to strive for excellence in my personal and professional life.”
During this time, she learned that she could emancipate herself. The requirements at that time were that she had to be 16, work at least 20 hours a week and be able to pay rent, and have a place to live. She proved that she met the requirements, and rented a room from her classmate’s mom. By age 17, her senior year of high school, Terra became her own guardian.
“I was determined to go to school and be successful,” Terra recalls. Ms. Mary’s accomplishments encouraged her to strive for success.
Like the other seniors, she worked with school counselors to stay on deadlines for college and financial aid applications. She was accepted to Virginia Commonwealth University and applied for as many scholarships and awards as she could.
During the application process, she wrote about her story and what she had gone through as a child. Terra won enough scholarships from sharing her experience to almost pay for the first year of school.
In 1993, Terra donned her cap and gown and graduated with the rest of her class at C D Hylton High School. Her mother and Ms. Mary beamed with pride.
Homeless for the holidays
Terra lived in the dorms while she studied psychology at VCU. She wanted to be a counselor and help people. She even joined a sorority. But Terra’s college experience was different from that of most of her friends. While most looked forward to holiday breaks, none of her friends knew how Terra dreaded the times when the dorms would close.
A holiday for me meant homelessness again.
“A holiday for me meant homelessness again,” says Terra. During breaks she would stay with a family she met through her church.If she was able to save up enough money, she would stay in a motel. Eventually, she reconciled with her mother and felt safe enough to go to her home during the breaks.
When a Woman is Loved Right
She never expected to become a playwright, but when her church was looking for someone to write a play for children, she took it on with the same gusto she’d given to her studies.
She studied playwriting and went on to write several more on a variety of topics. As time went on, she wondered what it would be like to share her own journey. She soon discovered it was precisely what she needed to heal old wounds.
“It ended up helping me more than anyone else,” she says.
Terra wrote seven plays, but it’s “When a Woman is Loved Right” that changed things for her. The play is based on her life – including her tumultuous youth and her college life (where she met her husband) – told through the lens of hope.
“My future is not going to be my past,” she says of the play’s message. ““The goal was to motivate and encourage children just like me.”
Terra felt vulnerable the first time she watched her life story play out on stage. “But then, I started to see the results of so many women and teenagers seeing the story and feeling like they weren’t alone.”
Sharing her story was therapeutic, she says. As an adult, “I was able to share it in a way that was healthy,” whereas she couldn’t see what would eventually be a blessing to her in all the madness as it was happening.
The play’s success led to speaking engagements,where children and adults reached out to her who had similar experiences. Terra eventually went on to publish a children’s book (“God’s Promise to Every Boy and Girl”) to encourage kids to have hope no matter their circumstances.
After years of keeping her past a secret, Terra’s story was public and lifting others up. It also empowered her to share this part of her life with her own children.
“[The play] became part of who I was, and it gave them something to be proud of.”
Sorority sisters, other friends from college and her community, and even high school friends, came to see the play. Terra said that a lot of them were taken aback because they didn’t know what she had been through.
“I wasn’t moping,” she says of herself as a teenager. “I didn’t show signs of depression or despair.” Her peers in school knew her as someone who had an active school life – Terra was in the student government association, played sports, and was in the choir.
“I stayed busy so I didn’t have to stay focused on the things that were broken in my personal life,” she explains.
I’ve always felt led to give back because I felt that so much was given to me.
Her friends expressed shock to hear her real story, but told her they were proud of her courage to tell it.
“I felt like it would be wrong for me to not share the story of how you can overcome,” she says.
A life of faith and purpose
Terra raised 4 children with the values Ms. Mary instilled in her so many years ago. “My life’s journey is a living testament of how even in the face of uncertainty that my hope and faith would lead me to an expected end with purpose and peace,” Terra said. “That is what I want my children always take with them.”
Terra has 22 years experience in the financial industry where she continues to seek opportunities to help others struggling with homelessness. She’s given several financial literacy workshops at Housing Families First and serves on the organization’s board.
“I’ve always felt led to give back because I felt that so much was given to me,” she says. “I am grateful to have a career that allows me to serve in the community and promote financial literacy.”