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With homelessness behind her, Madison woman breaks into event-planning biz

Felicia Jones and her son, Khalil.

Felicia Jones and her son, Khalil.

(page 1 of 2)

As the Madison Black Chamber prepares for its first-ever business expo, scheduled for Sept. 27, Felicia Jones, 29, of Madison is handling all the marketing and social media related to the event. That in itself may not be particularly newsworthy.

But Jones’ story is certainly compelling.

A single mom to 5-year-old Khalil, Jones is working on breaking into the event-planning business. After years of planning events and conferences for the Department of Transportation (her employer) and Madison Pentecostal Assembly (her church), Jones decided to launch her own company, Distinguished Events, in February.

It could mean a new beginning for the ambitious woman, whose life story includes some very dark chapters.

Looking for food and shelter

Jones was born in Milwaukee, the middle child in a family of seven siblings. Her father was an alcoholic and absent for most of her life. Her mother battled drugs through Jones’ formative years and couldn’t hold a job. “It was not the best environment,” she admits.

“We were all at the Salvation Army. It was raining. I looked out a window and remember telling myself, ‘This can’t be it. There has got to be more.’” — Felicia Jones

The family struggled to make it. “We were homeless at times,” Jones recalls. “We lived at the Salvation Army, in motels or friends’ homes — wherever [her mom] could find a place for us to sleep at night.”

Sometimes they had food. Often, they did not. “I remember so vividly watching my mom go door to door, asking for food because she had no food to feed us.”

Those hardships motivate her now, and one memory in particular, from when she was about 10 years old, keeps her going.

“We were all at the Salvation Army. It was raining. I looked out a window and remember telling myself, ‘This can’t be it. There has got to be more. I can’t continue to live like this.’”

Leaving their father behind, the family relocated to Madison, where Jones’ mother joined the Madison Pentecostal Assembly, a church on the east side. It changed Jones’ life.

A community of love

“Our church had so much love,” says Jones. “Love I didn’t get at home, not because my mom didn’t love me, but because when you’re on drugs, you can’t care for anyone. I got that love, support, encouragement, and sense of family from the church. It was my saving grace. I knew when I came to church, I’d be happy.”

She grew up quickly, filling the gaps when their mother wasn’t around. She and her older brother made sure the kids all went to school, and somehow they’d find food for the family. “Those were the greatest struggles,” Jones said. “The poverty, not having the parent there for you. No ‘I love yous’ at home.”

When Jones was about 14, her mother was freed from her addictions, but things were still tough financially. “She had burned all her bridges,” Jones says. “We still struggled, but at least the drugs were gone and she could be there with us and for us.”

Bishop Eugene Johnson of Madison Pentecostal Assembly remembers Jones’ early days. “We tried to bring stability to her home environment. She basically became the anchor for the entire family.”

The church, he says, prides itself on emphasizing excellence in education, regardless of circumstances, and offers hugs and financial rewards for specific accomplishments, particularly related to perfect school attendance and excellent grades.

“We try to get the kids to be well rounded, to relate to people, be good public speakers, perform well academically, and to live solidly for the Lord,” he said.

It was just the salve Jones needed to heal.

She attended the University of Minnesota for a while but had to leave school when her mother had a stroke. She didn’t give up, and she later enrolled at Upper Iowa University, studying business administration and accounting.

Through the years, Johnson watched as Jones developed into an excellent communicator. She worked at the state Capitol for a while, first as a page and later as a legislative aid. “She maintained her composure in that political environment,” Johnson said, “where conversations were not the most ... wholesome. I admired that.”

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