NICOLE LYNN LEWIS
Issue No. 44
Words: Gabrielle Rucker
Visuals: Erika Lynn Salazar
Thirty-four-year-old Nicole Lynn Lewis knows that hard work and a want for a better future, pays off: she’s gone from having an unexpected pregnancy in her teens that left her homeless to eventually becoming the founder and chief executive officer of Generation Hope, a community-based nonprofit organization focused on getting teen parents in the D.C. area to complete college.
“I had people telling me that I was going to be a failure, that I wasn’t going to go to college,” Lewis, the mother of Nerissa (15) and Naya (5), says. “And now to be at this point of my life... some days I don’t believe it myself. I knew I would be a mom, but I never dreamed that I would be a CEO.”
Growing up, Lewis, who was often an honor-roll student, thrived in the classroom. When she became pregnant during her senior year in high school, she worried that her plans for college might be permanently halted. “I was devastated,” Lewis admits. “I had just been accepted into all of these different colleges and I knew that now all of that was jeopardized. I was really disappointed in myself.”
Lewis had to deal with more than just letting herself down; her family placed great emphasis on education. (Her sister went to Yale for graduate school, her mother was in the midst of receiving her MFA, and her father worked as a college administrator.)
“My mom was [heartbroken],” she recalls. “I remember her crying and [as] I was holding her, she [said], ‘You’re not going to go to college. You have no idea how difficult this is gonna be.’
“My dad was working at Grambling State University and was commuting home once a month, so my mom called him. I got on the phone and he [asked], ‘Is this true?’ and I said, ‘Yeah,’” she continues. “I don’t think he said anything after that. They were [both] devastated and really upset. I don’t think they really knew how to handle the situation.”
With little support at home, Lewis made the decision to move out.
“They didn’t tell me I had to move out, but we already had a tumultuous home—there was a lot of fighting a lot of arguing, a lot of crying, a lot of yelling,” Lewis explains. “It was like throwing a crisis on top of an already fragile situation, so I left. I moved in with [Nerissa’s] father, but we didn’t have anywhere to go. We would sleep in his car, in parking lots, or sleep on people’s floors—it was just a really scary time.”
Now homeless, pregnant, and juggling senior-year classes and doctor’s appointments, there seemed to be no end in sight to Lewis’ struggles. Despite these odds, she was able to graduate from high school with honors. After graduation, Lewis made a promise to her mother that she would attend college the following year. In the fall of 1999, Lewis, now 19 and the mother of a 3-month old, attended her first day of school at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virgina, keeping true to her promise.
Spending many sleepless nights working on assignments or tending to the needs of her baby, Lewis’ time at William & Mary was nothing like that of her fellow classmates on campus.
“I was worried about ‘adult things,’” she says, laughing. “Like putting food on the table.”
Lewis was able to care for Nerissa with the leftover money she received through loans and grants. “I paid for my living expenses, food, and daycare. I didn’t work so that I could focus fully on college and Nerissa,” she recalls. “This was sometimes problematic because I had very little money.”
The summer after her freshman year, Lewis became a single mother after breaking up with Nerissa’s father. Despite the responsibility of raising a child by herself, Lewis was able to squeeze in some fun and make a few friends, one of them being her future husband Donté Lewis. Over the next few years Lewis and Donté spent time getting to know each other and watching Nerissa flourish. In the spring of 2003, Lewis graduated from William & Mary with a degree in English with a concentration in secondary education.
“I remember being at the commencement ceremony and, as you can imagine, it was overwhelming emotionally,” she says. “It was like, ‘Wow! I actually did it.’ I even had Nerissa walk across the graduation stage with me. It was just a very surreal moment.”
Lewis’ life quickly morphed into the one she had always dreamed of having. She moved back in with her parents and started a summer internship working in media relations for a small boutique firm; after that, she went to grad school at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia for social policy with a concentration in communications , and got her first full-time job working as a regional public relations head for Geico.
“It was a very cool first job; I really enjoyed that I was working with senior leadership and I was even traveling a bit,” she says. But despite her growing success at Geico, Lewis soon began to feel the burdens of working a full-time job while raising a child. “I realized I didn’t really like traveling. Nerissa would stay with my mom [and] I hated being away from her and for three or four days.”
She decided to leave GEICO to explore a career path in the non-profit sector, allowing for a more flexible schedule and an opportunity to work on a cause that hit closer to home. Shortly after her departure from GEICO, Lewis began volunteering for several nonprofit organizations geared towards reproductive health and teen pregnancy. Now an accomplished, mother of two and a wife, Lewis, who was now three years into her volunteer non-profit work, was able to glimpse at her work from a different perspective.
“One of the things that became very clear was that there was a lot of support for teen pregnancy prevention, which is obviously extremely important, but where you saw the support take a nosedive was for those teens who do experience a pregnancy,” she explains. “A lot of the support tends to be on survival—’just get me through the next 24 hours: shelter, food, diapers, formula’—not longevity. Then, the educational support just really tended to focus on high school because less than half of teen moms graduate from high school. When I looked at college completion, less than 2% of teen mothers graduate from college before the age of 30. That meant that 98% of teen mothers were not graduating from college and were more likely to be living in poverty [with] their children.
“I looked at my own life and at the transformation that a college degree had on my life and on my daughters’ lives and I was like, ‘We’ve got to do something about this,’” she continues. “More teen mothers and teen fathers need to be walking across the graduation stage.”
That realization helped birth her nonprofit organization Generation Hope, which helps more D.C.-area teen mothers and fathers become college graduates. While Generation Hope’s beginnings were marked by little financial backing and countless overtime, its growing success in just four short years has been payoff enough for Lewis and the many young lives it has affected.
“The most gratifying part of my job is knowing that what we do really matters in the long term,” she says. “I know that when a scholar walks across the graduation stage their earning power immediately skyrockets. I don’t have to wonder, you know? I don’t have to sit back and say, ‘Is what we do really going to make a difference 10 years from now?’ Because I know that their lives are going to be completely different because they have a college degree—not only for that teen parent, but for their child. That legacy just kind of continues in that family. That is so gratifying for me because this all will outlast me—it’s just going to keep going for generations to come and that makes me feel really good.”
What’s a typical day like with your daughters?
Oh my gosh! (Laughs) A typical day with my kids is extremely busy, and because I have a 10-year age difference between my daughters, we’re busy in very different ways. My daughter [Nerissa] is a freshman in high school so I take her to school every morning and I pick her up every afternoon. We’re off pretty early to get her to school by 7:20 a.m. I’ve got my youngest, Naya, in tow, and we jump in the car. [I talk] to my older daughter about things [like] homework, did she sign up for such and such extracurricular activity, and is she ready for the basketball game tonight? With my youngest daughter we’re talking about does she have her cheese stick in her lunchbox? (Laughs) And what does she think they’re going to do in circle time today? [We] get sissy to school, then we go home, and I get [Naya] ready. Then I bring her to school [which] starts at 9 a.m.
Like I said, it’s very busy, we’re always on the go: My daughter plays JV basketball, so we’re always taking her to her practices and her games, and my youngest daughter is in swimming and she takes ballet. But we’re having a great time as we’re doing it—we have our little inside jokes, you know? It’s like the three of us: me and my two daughters, and then my husband is trying to fit in wherever he can. (Laughs)
With such an age difference between not only your girls, but yourself, what were your pregnancies like?
With Nerissa, my pregnancy was crazy. I mean, I was pregnant in some dire circumstances. I had no money. I remember having a really difficult time getting to my prenatal appointments; we didn’t have reliable transportation and I remember walking really long distances to try to get to the doctor. I wasn’t eating properly: sometimes we [myself and my former boyfriend] didn’t have food to eat. All I wanted when I was pregnant with Nerissa was obviously to have a healthy baby, but I also wanted a place of our own to take her home to.
I remember feeling beautiful, I remember feeling excited, I remember all the little things like when she would kick, and getting to know her personality in my belly. It was [also] a lonely time. I was in this really bad relationship, [and] my relationship with my parents was spotty. I had really lost all my friends because of my pregnancy, [but] I was thankful for this baby that was growing inside of me—we were kind of weathering the storm together.
I loved being pregnant with both of them, [but] with Naya it was so different because I had this wonderful, supportive husband. I remember I would get the update every week of what was going on inside me, like how big she was. I would send them to him and he would be just as excited as I was. It was totally different; I had a home and we were decorating the nursery. I felt like I had a real partner and real support with Naya. I was so excited to meet this new baby who was going to be a little bit of me and a little bit of Donté.
The things I was concerned about were very different, but with Naya I do remember being more afraid of something going wrong with the pregnancy, which is so weird because I’d already done it before. I think with Nerissa I was so young that I didn’t even think about all the stuff that could go wrong. But with Naya—and being older and knowing people who had issues right up until the end—I was just like, “Please God, just let this baby be okay.”
What do you enjoy most about being a mom?
I enjoy seeing them kind of come into their own and be their own people, and being able to help them in that process. Every day you get a glimpse. It’s almost like a gift that you get to open slowly every day.
Fill in the blank: I love being a mom most when…?
When Naya comes running into my room in the morning and she snuggles up under me. There’s this whole other side of the bed she could be on, but she burroughs a little area right under my rib and that’s where she stays. I know that it’s only this small period of time I’m going to have that, but I love being a mom in that moment because it’s so sweet!
Fill in the blank: Being a mom is the hardest when…?
I think when there is an experience or a lesson that my kids have to learn that is necessary for them to grow and to mature, but it might be an unpleasant one. I think it’s hard for me because I just want to kind of swoop in and make everything okay, but I know I have to let them go through a process to learn that lesson. That’s probably just one of the hardest things to realize: that they just have to experience life in order to come into their own and be their own person.
How would you describe your children’s personalities?
They’re very different. Nerissa is very energetic, very life of the party. She is always looking for something to do, she wants to get out of the house and just be with people. She doesn’t really like to be on her own much. She just draws energy from being with her friends and family. She’s always on the go and [is] hilarious.
She’s always been like that. She had a streak of mischievousness and around kindergarten, she started talking like a lot in class and getting a little sassy with her teachers. She definitely is very headstrong and she is not gonna let anybody railroad her. Even when she was a baby, I was trying to nurse her, [but] I was so engorged that she couldn’t latch on. So I pumped some milk for her and I put it in a little bottle. She was 3 days old and holding her own bottle because she was that hungry. That’s her—if she wants something she’s just gonna go after it.
Naya is much more content with snuggling up with mommy, [and] being in the house watching a movie. She’s okay with lounging around. But at the same time Naya is also very energetic. In the morning, you’ll hear her door creak open and then [these] rapid speed tiny footsteps into our room, past my husband, to my side of the bed. That’s every morning at 6:45 and then it’s nonstop She still has the energetic thing going on, but she’s fine with staying in the house.
How has being a mom changed your life?
I’ve been a mom for the past 16 years—I’m 34 years old—so motherhood is such a huge part of my life. I feel like it has definitely made me a better person. I think becoming a mom so young helped me to immediately recognize what was so important in the world and get really focused on my goals. For instance, when I went to college, I literally cared less when the next party was, because I had a baby to take care of. I didn’t drink in college because I didn’t want to be drunk on the floor, and everyone’s like, “Isn’t that...the one...who has...a baby?” (Laughs) I feel like motherhood just really put my entire life into perspective; it made me realize what was most important and made me really focus on getting there because it wasn’t about me anymore. It was about my daughters.
What is your parenting philosophy and how do you execute it?
It’s hard for us because we came into our marriage with a child, so parenting was something that we had to try to figure out from the beginning. You just kind of figure it out as you go. My husband’s great with helping me be consistent, which is really important with kids—to have some consistency and to make sure you’re following through on the things you’re holding them accountable for.
I think on the flipside I’m always trying to think of creative ways for the kids to learn a lesson. For instance one time [Nerissa] was pouring milk down the drain that she didn’t want to drink. I’m like, “Milk is expensive.” So the next time we went grocery shopping I told her she was gonna pay for the gallon of milk out of her own money, as opposed to putting her on punishment or whatever you might do. She was totally bummed that she had to spend her own money, but what I was trying to help her understand was the value of the things that we provide.
What perspective or example do you hope to impart on your children through your work?
I hope that Nerissa and Naya look at me and see that the sky is the limit for them. I just want them to know that they can do anything they want to, they can do anything they put their mind to, and that nobody [can] put limits on them. I feel like so often we give in to the doubts that we have about ourselves or the doubts that other people have about us, and the sad thing is they may not have any validity to them; you could waste your whole life because you don’t think you can do something. I don’t want them to feel that way; I want them to look at me and say, “I can do anything, because look at my mom and what she’s been able to do.”
Nicole Lynn Lewis
Issue No. 44
Nicole Lynn Lewis is a statistical anomaly, but you wouldn’t know it by looking at her. Pregnant and virtually homeless at the age of 18, a life in poverty seemed like an unavoidable fate. But Lewis wanted more for herself and daughter, so she took on the task of raising a young child while going to school full-time. Now a wife and mother to two daughters, Lewis tells mater mea how she’s using her experience as a catalyst for change.