Woman on the Rise – Ajaunae
At the time of our interview, 29-year-old Ajaunae is a supervising manager at BJs in northern Virginia. She’s living at a shelter and saving to secure an apartment for herself and her 6-year-old son Justin. She’s optimistic, self-aware and disarmingly witty.
She’s also a recovering drug addict and is emerging, with the help of Together We Bake, from a decade of sheer hell.
“I’m in a really good place right now,” she says. “My 20s were really dark. You know, I was young, doing whatever I wanted. I got into a lot of things, like prostitution and drugs, and just a really dark place. I did a lot of drugs. PCP, ecstasy, marijuana. I just flowed through life, I really didn’t have no direction and I didn’t know where I was going and what I was going to do.”
Ajaunae’s sister introduced her to drugs a decade ago, setting her on a path that degenerated into homelessness, crime, an arrest and a tragedy she works daily to bear. Justin, she tells me with steely resolve, was born a twin.
“Once my children were born, I was overwhelmed,” she says, noting she was still determined to start fresh and stay clean. One night when Justin and Julian were 8 months old, as an exhausted new mom Ajaunae accidentally rolled on top of Julian in her sleep and killed him.
Heartbroken and alone, Ajaunae spiraled down. “I relapsed really, really bad and [Child Protective Services] came and took Justin, who is now with my mother. She has guardianship. I was grieving and not knowing I was grieving. I had no guidance, nowhere to go. And the drugs… I had no outlet, but I never stopped fighting. I kept praying. I didn’t care how long it was gonna take. I told myself I would never give up on my son. And four rehabs later, I’m getting it together.”
With fortitude unimaginable to most, she kept moving forward. “I was tired, I was overwhelmed, I was working, but I went back and got my GED, I got my diploma. I walked across the stage, I was so proud. I didn’t have stability and support. I didn’t have nobody with me, my son was with my mom. I was staying with friends and getting put out, and people were robbing me.”
Last year, she finally landed on one door stoop that opened a whole new door. A friend who’d graduated from Together We Bake took in Ajaunae, and suggested she give the program a try.
“Everything I’m doing right now is self-healing. I just keep persevering. When TWB dropped into my life, I felt like that is really my stepping stone to push me to prosper at my full potential,” she says.
Walking through the doors, “I was not excited, my anxiety was kicking my behind because I have a bad trust in women because I’ve been through a lot with wicked women that wasn’t really for me and took my pain for their gain,” she says.
As is the case with so many women seeking a second chance, Ajaunae immediately realized there was something different about TWB. Staffers helped her secure her current housing, and her classmates became family.
“I know people say they had the best class but I have to say, we had the best, most connected class that ever came through Together We Bake. It was so encouraging and loving,” she says. “We became sisters automatically, and we built each other up. If one didn’t have, we had for you. If you didn’t have lunch that day, we would bring you lunch. If someone didn’t show up, we were calling and trying to figure out what was going on. We had group chats, helped each other with resumes. We still call each other, we’re all Facebook connected. I had an extremely strong group.”
Ajaunae immediately gravitated to the business side of TWB’s core baking business. “I’m more of an office person, so I would rather be in the office for things like labeling and doing inventory and things like that aspect of it. I’m very, very intelligent and I’m very business savvy. So fast food and things like that don’t work for me. I had in my mind, If I am going to work anywhere, I have to be the boss.”
Enter her TWB job coach—a volunteer mentor is assigned to every TWB class member—who helped her land the position at BJs just before graduating last spring.
“They gave me the greatest job coach,” she says. “My resume is outstanding; she is the reason I got the job. I was able to be honest with her about my anger issues and things like that.”
As well as anger, Ajaunae had a list of personal goals she hoped the program would help with: “My anxiety, my depression and my self-worth and ability to push myself alone and be able to get up in the morning and go do things I needed to do. I made it my business to wake up every morning to go to Together We Bake, because I missed them and I looked forward to seeing them.”
Today, as well as working Ajaunae is planning to return to school to seek a business degree, with an eye to entering the nonprofit space.
“I want to do a nonprofit for women who lost children, and create a support system and things like that,” she says. As a graduate, she continues to seek guidance from team TWB. “I want to learn more from them as far as the nonprofit aspect. I just learn a lot from them. Period.”
She also hopes to inspire other women to muster the strength to walk through the doors of Together We Bake.
“I would tell them, Let your guard down and embrace it, and it will be OK. It’s a safe space to go in there with all your baggage and lay that baggage down and allow them to organize and assist you with getting your baggage together so that you can persevere the way that I did.”
– Cathy Applefeld Olson