Jennifer Jones, founder of Beauty Marks for Girls, helps mentor daughters of incarcerated mothers. Josh Morgan, Greenville News
What can be perceived as a scar — having a parent in prison — has the potential of being a beauty mark.
Jennifer Jones, 34, reached that conclusion through her experience with her mother, whose drug addiction led to her serving four years in county jail.
Jones spent much of that time in her teen years feeling alone and abandoned. She struggled with depression and low self-esteem.
But a background rooted in faith and a community built on faith-minded people helped her heal.
Today, she said, the beauty of it all is that scar of her past can now be used to save someone’s future.
That’s what she hopes to achieve with Beauty Marks for Girls, a nonprofit leadership program designed to empower young girls whose mothers are in prison.
Jones is being recognized as The Greenville News Community Hero for November. The Community Hero program, sponsored by Greenville Federal Credit Union, is our way of highlighting the generous, noble and unselfish work of those among us who work tirelessly — often behind the scenes — to make our community a better place.
What is Beauty Marks?
Beauty Marks, which Jones launched in January, symbolizes that every scar tells a story, said Jones, a married mother of three young children – two girls and a boy.
“Instead of looking at our adversities (as scars) because we all are going to go through them in life, we look at them as a beauty mark,” she said.
In sharing the Beauty Marks story, Jones said she often tells people about a scar she got on her leg when she was three.
It’s huge, it’s visible, and it can be touched, but it doesn’t hurt. That’s because it’s healed, she said. Beauty Marks aims to lead young girls to a similar place of healing.
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“Not to belittle what experiences we went through,” she said, “It’s just that we have to change our perspective about it. “
Beauty Marks is for girls ages 12 to 18. Not only does it train girls to be leaders, but it also seeks to break the cycle of generational incarceration, to break the stigmas, reduce recidivism, and bring awareness to a vulnerable population affected by someone else’s decisions, Jones said.
Jones is one-of-a-kind and a true advocate for girls whose parents are incarcerated, said Judge Erika McJimpsey.
“I think her life story and her life journey brings to the table a level of compassion and empathy for what these girls face — the stigma, the shame, the hurt that they experience with having a parent who is incarcerated,” McJimpsey said.
McJimpsey said she met Jones when Jones wanted to recognize her as a woman leader in the community.
“I was so impressed and so drawn by her commitment that I wanted to introduce her to some people that I knew to help promote her program,” she said.
McJimpsey, municipal judge for the city of Spartanburg has been a lawyer for 23 years and a judge for 10. She said she understands in a unique way the impact parental incarceration can have on a child.
“I worked for several years with the Department of Juvenile Justice in Columbia and prior to that I prosecuted cases in family court concerning children,” she said. “Oftentimes the children I was dealing with, if you went back a step further, you can see that it was a generational issue.”
A bridge for children
Serving as a bridge for children whose parents are incarcerated is vitally important, not just to this community, but nationwide, McJimpsey said.
“These children have done nothing to bring about this hardship and they need the support of the community in order to become all that they can be,” she said. “Sometimes they have a loving support system that is with them and their families but it’s nothing like having people who are not in your family throw their arms around you and say ‘this is something that happened, but this is not a sentence against you.’
“They have the ability to do and become everything they desire to be,” she said. “Sometimes they just need a little help.”
Five girls are now in the Beauty Marks program. Each has a mother serving anywhere from a year to life in Leath Correctional Institution, a state women’s prison, in Greenwood.
Greenwood is also where Jones was born and raised. She was 16 when she was removed from her home. Two years later, her mother was incarcerated.
Her parents got divorced during the incarceration.
Jones said there was a stigma attached to her because of her mother’s incarceration. Even her church became a place where she was criticized and ignored, instead of a place of safety and restoration, she said.
She recalls being in a shoe store in the community, shopping on one aisle when she heard two women on another aisle, in loud voices, talking about her mother’s situation.
“They were (talking about it) like it was a documentary, like they knew the entire story,” she said. “I didn’t see their faces, but I could hear their words. Words hurt. I remember dropping everything and storming out.”
Jones said she had to flee from her hometown because of the stigma and how it made her feel.
‘It was tough’
For a while, she lived with relatives. She later enrolled in college to have a roof over her head and to have food to eat.
For most of her years at Columbia College, a private liberal arts school for women in Columbia, she worked at a Cracker Barrel restaurant. She worked the opening shift, left there to attend classes. After classes, she interned before returning to help close the restaurant in the evening.
“It was a lot of hard work and again with all that was emotionally going on, with my mother being incarcerated and also not having a vehicle in college because I couldn’t afford it, it was tough,” she said.
It was also tough settling on a major, Jones said. At the time, she didn’t know who she was. She decided to major in art.
“My professors didn’t know my mother was incarcerated but what they were doing was planting a seed that you can create your whole world,” she said. “You can take a scrap piece of paper and make it into a beautiful Mozart musical piece.
“It’s like this is a clean slate, an absolute clean palate, and you can paint whatever you want on it and I think that was my escape,” she said. “God is very intentional, but it was not intentional for me at that time.”
Columbia College “downloaded” in Jones the ability to sit at the table with anybody at the end day and be able to articulate her feelings, knowing that her voice matters.
It also didn’t make sense to Jennifer then that she’d someday use those skills to launch an all girls organization.
“It makes sense now, ” she said. “That was just my training to be prepared for my all girls academy.
After college, Jones was the facility director at the Imagine Center on the campus of the former Redemption Church in Greenville.
Nonprofit is “not just hard work, it’s heart work,” she said. “You have to really have the heart and to see the purpose more than you see the paycheck.”
Jones saw her purpose after volunteering at Leath. She taught a 12-week course there and spent two years doing research to form her nonprofit. That is where she found her calling.
Sitting down with the women, getting to know them and hearing them tell their share of why they did what they did helped her have empathy for and a better understanding of her mother.
Jones’ mother, who now has over 15 years of sobriety, works in an advocacy role with Beauty Marks.
“This program has brought another level of healing for us,” she said. “My mother is very close to my daughters, so it’s like God is giving us a second chance which we believe everyone deserves.
An entrepreneur and a stay-at-home mother, Jones concludes that pain has a treasure behind it.
Getting to that treasure, though, is not easy, she said.
“It takes a lot of practical meditation, prayer, healing — all of those steps,” she said. “But I will say what I went through knowing that I am saving another young girl from entering into drug addictions, entering into not knowing their worth, knowing that I’m dropping little seeds of hope to change the next generation one child at a time, that’s the beauty of my story.”
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