With homelessness behind her, Madison woman breaks into event-planning biz
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.”
Seeing her potential, he asked her to plan her first event on behalf of the church, which wanted to send a group of young people to the Pentecostal Assemblies of the World national convention.
“I’d never planned anything before,” Jones said, “but it kind of came naturally, with the help of the Lord. … We took 56 people on a bus from Madison to Nashville for about three days. I arranged everything — registration, travel, the hotel.”
The culture of Felicia
In 2007, Johnson, also a career executive at the Department of Transportation, hired Jones and continued to witness her capabilities firsthand. More event planning followed.
“I pastor with the philosophy of having a very strong work ethic,” Johnson says. “A pastor passes what is within, to the people. So I’ve had a full-time job, rose through the ranks, and recently retired from a very demanding job. I also started with nothing in Wisconsin 30 years ago. But I have a degree in business from UCLA. This is the culture of Felicia.”
As a youth counselor at the church, Jones sees plenty of young people who remind her of herself when she was their age. “I’ll talk to them and ask what they want to be when they grow up. Some say they just hope to be alive by the time they’re 25. I wish they’d say, ‘I want to be president, or a doctor.’ I wish they could see that, but sometimes it’s hard for kids to see that they can have ambitions.”
She remembers being asked that question, too. “I’d fidget, hoping I could just eat that day. I couldn’t see a future.” Some of her 22 nieces and nephews, she admits, struggle with the concept of opportunity. “All they see is poverty and homelessness, but somebody needs to break this cycle.” Why not her?
This summer, Jones served on a planning committee for a youth conference at the Bishop O’Connor Center. The conference was attended by about 200 young people from as far away as California and Georgia. Except for the attendees’ travel, it was entirely paid for by the church. Jones handled registration for the event, and it went off without a hitch.
“Even though people are coming for free, they want the $700 experience,” Johnson said, pleased with the response. “I was very happy to see that Felicia was going to start her own business.”
Currently, event planning is just one of three jobs Jones juggles in her busy life. Besides her job as senior contract specialist at the DOT, she recently found a receptionist job at a local wellness center. When not answering phones, she’s allowed to work on her event-planning business, which she says is her true passion.
“I love my job at the DOT,” she says. “It’s wonderful and secure. But eventually, I want to grow the events business and do that full time. It could be five years from now, or whatever. Any way I can learn and grow, I’d be open to that.”
As a new business owner, she’s now working with the Madison Black Chamber on the still-to-be-named September event. Joseph Roy, chamber president, also worked at the DOT. “She’s really good at [event planning], and I suggested she make it a formal business. It’s a service that’s needed, and now we can enlist her help.”
Jones is thankful that her son’s father remains a strong presence in his life, which allows her to pursue her dreams.
“I won’t let my son struggle like I did; I’ll make sure of it,” she promises. “I have to show Khalil that, yes, you can go to school. You can be president and be as successful as you want to be.”
For more information, email Felicia Jones at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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