This mom and mentor is on a mission to help teenage girls overcome poverty and personal struggle. Learn about her own obstacles and how they led her to prepare local, at-risk girls for success in life.
JaNia Vines-Collins never dreamed of going to college. Two years ago, the Auburn High School graduate was living at the Rockford Rescue Mission with her mother.
“My mom had financial problems and my dad wasn’t around,” she says. “It was a very difficult time in my life. I got along with the other people who lived there, but it wasn’t home. Fortunately, I had Shamika on my side.”
Shamika Williams is founder and executive director of Keep Families and Communities Together (KFACT). The nonprofit, started in 2014, is a youth development and mentoring organization created to help fill a void for at-risk, underserved girls living in the Rockford area.
At 15, Vines-Collins joined KFACT and was mentored by Williams. Every day, Williams picked up Vines-Collins from the Mission and drove her to school. Even when Vines-Collins and her mother found other living arrangements, Williams still took her to her job at a fast food restaurant. And when it came time to apply for college, Williams helped Vines-Collins with financial aid forms and made sure she got to her ACT testing.
Today, Vines-Collins is a freshman at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, Ill. She’s majoring in nursing with the hopes of one day working in labor and delivery. Vines-Collins says none of it would be possible without Williams.
“She’s been a real blessing in my life,” she says. “I wouldn’t be here without her. My mom didn’t know anything about college, so Shamika helped me with everything. I felt comfortable with her since she’s walked in my shoes.”
Indeed, the 36-year-old Williams has traveled a similar path as those whom she mentors. She grew up on the west side of Rockford with her mother, who has battled drug addiction for years; her father lives in Tennessee. She remembers days when the electricity was turned off because her mother couldn’t afford to pay the bill.
“I have a lot of resentment,” she says. “My parents were never together, and I have a distant relationship with my father. Growing up in poverty created depression. My mom was forced to use drugs in domestic violence situations, and that stuck with me. For many young girls, that’s all they know. It becomes a way of life. Fortunately, I had good grades and I never turned to drugs.” And she had her aunt, Susie Brown, who stepped in to care for Williams. “Without her, I would have been a foster child.”
Still, at 14 Williams became pregnant. She found some much-needed support at Rockford MELD, a nonprofit at the time that provided emergency shelter and transitional housing to pregnant teens and teen mothers as well as parenting and job skills training. At MELD, one of the people who saw something in Williams was the organization’s fund development coordinator, Karen Tilly. “Shamika seemed very mature,” she says. “She had goals and was ready to move forward with her life.”
Williams went on to earn a bachelor’s and master’s in organizational leadership from Judson University. She later worked for MELD and the Winnebago County Health Department before becoming a truancy officer at Guilford High School, where she met a student in 2013. “She was my lightbulb,” says Williams. “She didn’t get in trouble and she was a 4.0 student. But she didn’t have clothes, she couldn’t afford to go to prom and she wanted out of the projects. She reminded me of myself. I knew there had to be more girls like her out there.” KFACT was born.
KFACT specializes in providing a number of holistic, comprehensive services for teen girls; school-based prevention education groups; intervention services; youth advocacy; college and career mentorship; and transitional assistance after completion of high school and post-secondary education. The purpose of KFACT’s mentoring program, Lady All Stars, is to prepare these at-risk girls, ages 12 to 18, for post-secondary education, and teach the necessary skills to navigate life. “We treat the whole girl,” Williams says.
Working from her home, Williams started mentoring 25 girls, a number that has now grown to 250 among six mentors. Currently, there is a waiting list of 75 girls. Williams says 90 percent of the girls come from poverty.
“We have a 100 percent high school graduation rate and a 96 percent post-secondary education rate among our girls,” Williams says. “We have 31 girls in college, and the first ones will graduate next spring.”
Most of the girls are recommended to KFACT by school counselors at Auburn, West, Guilford and RESA schools. Some are referred by other girls. To be considered, the girls have to volunteer four times a year and participate in 80 percent of KFACT programs. The programs are held in KFACT’s downtown headquarters, which includes a lower-level dance studio. The space was paid for thanks to a grant from Club Blue.
“Shamika is the power of KFACT,” says Tilly. “She’s been there herself, which has encouraged quite a few of the girls. So many of them don’t have anything. They depend on that support to get them through. It’s rewarding to see Shamika come as far as she has.”
KFACT relies on donations and sponsorships to keep its programs afloat. It costs $1,200 per girl to provide a holistic college and career mentoring program. To help raise much-needed funds, every year KFACT holds a fashion show and a trunk party – an event to “fill the trunk” with items that the students take to college such as microwaves, detergent and towels.
Williams oversees a team of five mentors who each work with 25 to 30 girls. Each mentor is paid a small stipend, thanks to the generosity of an anonymous donor. Williams and her team help the girls fill out college applications and financial paperwork and even drive them to college fairs. “When you’re in poverty, your parents aren’t gassing up the car to attend a college fair,” she says. Many times Williams and her team pay expenses out of their own pockets.
Delaushea Fricks felt hopeless. Her mother was single and raising five kids on her own. She struggled to pay rent and was often evicted. Her father was in prison. Food was hard to come by. “It was tough. We didn’t have much,” Fricks says. “I always dreamed of college, but I didn’t think I’d get there. My mom didn’t have the money.”
As a high school freshman, Fricks started hanging around the wrong crowd and was skipping classes. Suspensions and truancy court soon followed. “When they started talking about sending me to a group home for girls I got scared,” she says. “I started going to school and getting good grades.”
Fricks met Williams as a sophomore at Auburn High School. They struck up a friendship and soon Williams was helping her get into college. “I was ashamed of my story, but she got me to open up,” Fricks says. “I love having Shamika in my life.”
Now a junior at Western Illinois University, Fricks is studying to become a pediatric nurse. She’s met new friends and is getting good grades. Fricks is the first in her family to graduate from high school and attend college. “It’s a new chapter for me,” she says.
The same could be said for Williams. For 16 years, she’s been married to husband Fabian, who owns a local clothing store. The couple has five children – Williams’ two sons, two stepchildren and an adopted 12-year-old girl. And she’s following her passion by helping teen girls in need.
“I wish there had been a program like KFACT when I was a teen,” she says. “Most parents of our girls don’t have the capacity to do these things. This program makes a difference. I just don’t want these girls to go through what I went through.”