Monique Armstrong’s story. She is 33.
As told to Kelsey Timmerman
I felt like I was standing for a million minutes. One at a time, we all were supposed to say something positive about ourselves—an affirmation that all the other students would repeat.
At the time, Motivate Our Minds, which most people know as MOMs, was a nomadic program. It didn’t have a home, so we were in a small white house that was owned by my church. My mom was volunteering that day. She had made Rice Krispie Treats and purchased red fruit punch at the store because she worked during the day and they were easy to grab.
The room was small, barely even any elbow room. All the kids were staring at me. At school I was continuously teased and ridiculed by my peers who thought I was overweight. I couldn’t think of one good thing to say about myself.
“Well Monique,” Mary Dollison, one of the co-founders of MOMs said, “You’re unique.”
“Monique, you are unique,” the students repeated.
Unique Monique. It was like an epiphany. “Oh, that is true.”
It’s a moment I embraced forever.
I’m unique. In that moment I became ok with it. I learned to embrace the things I could not change. I can’t change the fact that I am 6 feet tall. I can’t change that I’m female or of African descent. Those things make me different in some environments.
From that moment forward, I saw my differences as gifts, not curses.
The leaders at MOMs pushed me to be my very best. Their expected excellence. I was exposed to role models like Mary and the other MOMs cofounder, Raushanah Shabazz. They founded MOMs to make a difference in the lives of children who lived in the Whitely and Industry neighborhoods. I was expected to be like them.
It was my grandmother who recommended I come to MOMs. I had no interest in school because of the teasing. My grades suffered.
I had the privilege of the ideal MOMs experience—a partnership between community, family, school, and MOMs. The prescription written for me at MOMs was filled at home. So as a struggling reader, when I was told to read fifteen minutes a day, my mother ensured I read fifteen minutes a day.
If people really understood what MOM’s offered, they would be beating down the doors to get in. And the people who understand it are. If you work the plan, take advantage of the opportunities, it can really change your life.
I began to flourish and grow as a student and an individual. I remained enrolled in the program until eighth grade. By the time I graduated from Muncie Central High School in May of 2001, I was a class officer, prom queen, and a member of the Muncie Pride Group, who spoke to other schools and organizations about the importance of being drug-free.
I attended college at Butler. My first semester, I nearly flunked out because I wasn’t prepared for that rigorous curriculum. I had to actively work at the learning resource center, meeting with my professor, hounding my friends, just so I could survive. It wasn’t easy.
I kept trying to figure out, “Why am I here?” One day it hit me: I’m here to be the example the leaders and mentors at MOMs were for me. Motivated by the expectations of my community, I began to thrive at Butler and beyond.
I’ve interned at the Indianapolis Star, worked in the diversity program at United Way of Central Indiana, been blessed to be an Athena International Young Professional Leadership Award winner, Ball Brothers Foundation Fellow, and inaugural graduate of Shafer Leadership Academy. I have been featured in “Indiana Minority Business Magazine” as one of Indiana’s top executives, honored as one of Muncie’s Young Black and Successful Finest Under Forty, and received the Ball State University Alumni Award of Achievement.
I even served on the board of MOMs and today I’m the executive director. I take our work so seriously. This is life or death to me. You can push a child to their very best or pull them into their very worst.
I’ll invest in any person who’s willing. Whether it’s someone who’s older or younger than me. As a mentor or friend, our job is to be supportive and be a good role model, and to take it a step further and share opportunities.
At Butler, I was exposed to my favorite African proverb: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” My communities’ investment will travel with me throughout my life. An education attained by one multiplies throughout the community. It is my hope that our students at MOMs see that.
I see myself in every child here. Although I can’t go back in time to support and encourage my younger self, to tell her that she’s good enough. I can tell our students at MOMs that they are loved, that they are smart, and they can be whatever they want to be.
I can tell them they are unique.
Kelsey Timmerman is the cofounder of the national Facing Project nonprofit and the New York Times Bestselling author of Where Am I Wearing? and Where Am I Eating? He blogs regularly at www.kelseytimmerman.com.
Are you interested in seeing more stories like this? If so, we need your help. Check out the Build Empathy Story-By-Story Campaign to learn how you can plug into the work of The Facing Project.
About The Facing Project:
The Facing Project is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that connects people through stories to strengthen communities. The organization’s model to share stories and raise awareness is in cities across the United States focused on topics such as poverty, sex trafficking, mental health, immigration, and more. Facing Project stories are compiled into books and on the web for a community resource, used to inspire art, photography, monologues and—most importantly—community-wide awareness, dialogue, action, and change toward a more understanding and empathetic society.
This story originally appeared in Mentoring in Muncie, a publication of The Facing Project that was organized by Big Brothers Big Sisters of Delaware County in Muncie, Indiana.