TELLING STORIES, CHANGING THE CONVERSATION

Phoenix rising: The story of Tyleshay Jones

in Career & Retirement by

Shedding her old self to be anew
The phoenix rises from the ashes
Leaving behind layers of thick, weary skin
Dawning feathers of light, she floats into the sun
Firebird tails, laughter floating from a golden beak
Claws clipped like blinged-out wingtips
Turning heads, yet keeping focus
She’s got stories to tell and people to heal — K. Shivers

On a lazy drive back to Newark after a run to do some research in New Brunswick, Tyleshay Jones fields calls from her children and a handsome suitor who makes her blush.

A bedazzled cap sitting low on her crown, she talks about taking her grandson and the neighborhood kids to Branch Brook Park’s skating rink. She voices a list of life “things-to-do,” while expressing excitement and jitters about starting a job as a program coordinator at a senior facility in Irvington.

Her thick, New York accent and quick, shrewd comebacks instantly reveal the origins of Jones, a Bronx-native who moved to Newark about four years ago to depart an abusive marriage that left her homeless.

Between discussing her wig collection and batting two-inch eyelashes, she flashes a smile between long moments of contemplation.

Jones thinks about her life and starting over, something that she did several times.

During this reincarnation, she is an empty nester who enters the workforce with a spanking new master’s in psychology and an MBA, all the while, living somewhere in the trap off Central Avenue.

Something Like a Unicorn

Jones is an enigma to mainstream media. No, more like a unicorn because she simply is not supposed to exist.

In the Bronx, only 19% of the population hold a bachelor’s degree or higher; while the high school dropout rate is 29% in comparison to the average nationwide percentage of 13%.

Black women and Latinas have the highest numbers of living in poverty, and on average, a female’s earnings are about $16,000 less than a male’s.

A young mother who is now a grandmother of six children at 44-years-old, she shrugs off all of the statistics that place her in the skewed numbers of improbability.

Doing the improbable seems to be coded in her DNA. However, she did not take the initiative because she is a superwoman, but more as a woman forced to do it for survival.

    “If I would have believed half of what anybody said [about me], I would not have gone back to school. I would not have moved to Newark. I probably would have stayed with my husband and worked it out so that [my kids and I] could have a place to stay,” says Jones.

A social worker, therapist and non-profit professional who self-describes as “a little bit educated, a little bit hood,” was not supposed to make it, even a little bit.

A high school dropout, at fifteen, Jones had her first of five children ― a girl. Soon after, she married and became a stay-at-home mom, and gave birth to a son. Once her first marriage ended, she wed again, having three more daughters. Both marriages were tumultuous. Her last was abusive.

Jones craved school from an interesting angle. A veracious reader, she often read psychology manuals, books and journals to understand her father who lived with schizophrenia and manic-depressive disorder (now called bipolar disorder).

“I knew about the American Psychological Association before I knew about school. I saw what my father went through and he never really got great treatment. They never really treated him, and it was disgusting. [As well] I wanted to understand mental health because I would self-diagnose too. My focus was to not end up crazy like him,” she chuckles at the sobering truth she tells.

When Jones finally made it to college during her second marriage, she found out that she operated with a third grade math competency.

Dejected and embarrassed because her math skills were not strong enough to pass the standardized test to graduate, she almost dropped out of school until her math teacher convinced her to allow him to provide tutoring so that she could pass basic math courses.

He even explained that he would come to her house with his wife to make sure her husband knew that his purpose was genuine.

Though hesitant, Jones accepted, passed the math exams after two tries and earned her bachelor’s from the College of New Rochelle in 1999.

The Journey

It was a difficult road. Jones dealt with her children joking about her math deficiency; however, it was her disappointment with not being able to help them with homework that was the ultimate push to enroll into school and ultimately finish.

“When I was young, I was hard-headed and spoiled. I was loose canon. I wanted to be a hustler. I didn’t want to listen to nobody,” says Jones. “And I paid for it.”

She continues, “But there was a point that I wanted to do better for myself and my kids. I wanted to have my own and make my own decisions without having to rely on my husband to give me money or tell me what to do.”

Pausing, she checks her phone, looks out of the window then says,

“I am a strong-willed person, but I was caught in two worlds. I was born in the 70s where you married and that was it. I grew up with a mom who told me that I should get a good husband to take care of me. At the same time, in the 80s, feminism and women’s independence became popular.”

New Beginnings

Jones is far away from a series of circumstances that resulted in she and her two youngest daughters arriving into Jersey by cab, with their life stuffed into what was equivalent of three shopping carts. Yet and still, the memories are close enough that they sometimes feel like fresh wounds.

When she left her husband, she was mid-way into completing her master’s in psychology. She somberly recalls the struggles of having to make the difficult decision to leave New York because of the difficulty to find housing while homeless.

Based on the recommendation of a friend, she relocated to Jersey City to receive TRA (public housing assistance). After seeking help with several agencies, Jones was placed in a residential home called Hope House. “[It was a] very, very strict residential home. You couldn’t do anything.”

The constraints were humiliating to Jones, who by that time was a grandmother. The two daughters who still lived with her found the rigid rules more constraining, and Jones clashed with the policies. They were kicked out and when she sought another shelter, welfare services refused to assist because they said she caused her own homelessness.

Room 124

At a low point and with little options, Jones called the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) and reported herself, explaining that she was homeless with children. Luckily, her case worker advocated for Jones. He told welfare services that they could not refuse a woman with children the opportunity to get housing.

Reluctantly, welfare services provided placement, but made sure that she would be uncomfortable.

“They put us in the worst, nastiest, shittiest, dirtiest, most disgusting hotel, but it wasn’t the streets,” says Jones.

She goes on, “We could come and go as we pleased. We went in there and cleaned it up as best as we could and we called it home for 3 months. It was the Starlite Hotel, Room 124.”

As Jones was finding counseling for her daughters. Looking for permanent housing, and seeking help for herself as a survivor of intimate partner violence, she fought to continue graduate school. “It was hard to balance all of those things and remained focused, so I took some time off to get situated.”

Eventually, Jones found housing, but as life deals sour notes, she still had to be a mother, grandmother, sole provider, and returning to graduate school. The stress took a dramatic toll on her health and she got really, really sick.

Phoenix Rising

After recuperating, Jones slowly worked her way to finishing and finds herself riding shotgun back to Newark with me.

Today, she built her online profile and put in some job applications and had time to just take it all in. “I am so used to hustling, I am happy that I was able to relax and think about life,” she sighs as she inhales the sun coming through the car window.

Currently, Jones works with seniors, a population different from her passion of working with youth and teens, she welcomes the challenge.

To her, mental health and lives of youth are disregarded. Worst, the neglect of youth is happening at a time when youth need the most guidance. She remembers having a daughter young, and the things that she experienced. Jones says,

“To have someone to help you grow and deal with your issues is important, but these kids don’t have nothing.”

Jones continues, “We need to give them something. I look around and I see no kids outside. I haven’t seen kids playing jumping jacks, or hop scotch, or riding their bikes for 15 years. We need to give them values, opportunities, and most importantly a space where we don’t judge them, but show them how to be better and so.”

In the long term, Jones sees herself working in social services and providing workshops that are effective and comprehensive. She seeks to design proper independent living programs for people with mental health issues that allows them to cope and have balanced, healthier treatments.

Citing the plethora of issues about the mental health industry, from misdiagnoses, to over-medication, to the large military Veterans who are jailed before placed in a mental institution, she knows her work will reach someone.

Recalling again her father who never got better, though he was hospitalized for his mental health issues repeatedly, she is working to create programs that help people live productively.

Jones rolls down her window as we enter the outskirts of the city on the 1 and 9 thoroughfare. Often, in our ebb-and-flow, we forget to breathe and say, “Damn, I did that.”

Today, Ms. Jones is finally able to do so.

Author’s note: Since the interview, Jones suffered another series of serious health issues. Shortly, she starts a course to obtain a certificate in drug counseling.

Kaia Niambi Shivers covers diaspora, news and features.

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