Jalissa Gives Back to the Agency That Helped Her Grow
For the slight, soft-spoken young woman who is fluent in Spanish and quickly mastering French, her dream of becoming an interpreter and traveling the world is on its way to becoming a reality.
However, early in life, Jalissa Jones, now 18, learned not to trust people - to not let them get too close. As a young teen, she escaped her already traumatic life by watching the travel channels on TV and dreamt of traveling far and wide.
At age eight, Jalissa's oldest brother was shot and killed while trying to break up a fight shortly after her nine-member family had moved to St. Louis from Camden, New Jersey. When she was 11, Jalissa's mother, who had become addictive and abusive, walked out on the family and didn't return.
Without her father and grandmother's continued support and United Way's community involvement, Jalissa's life may have turned out differently. The encouragement from the remaining family members has kept Jalissa and her six other siblings in school and taught them to strive and work hard for what they want.
Other support in Jalissa's life has also helped her become a well-spoken, bright and caring person who looks toward the future and does not dwell on the past.
Before tragedy struck the Jones family, Jalissa spent time in the after-school program at the Kingdom House - a United Way of Greater St. Louis-funded agency.
Jalissa recalled "feeling at home at Kingdom House." She also liked going there because "everyone was nice and welcoming, and there were a lot of programs for everyone."
She realized in order to make her dreams of traveling more of a reality, it would be smart to know different languages. When she entered Kirkwood High School she immediately began with French classes, eventually switching to Spanish.
During her senior year, her Spanish teacher saw her potential and asked her if she wanted to be a camp counselor for the summer helping children with their language skills.
"I asked where the camp was, and my teacher said Kingdom House," Jalissa said. "I said yes, of course. I'd had such a great experience there as a kid."
With the growing population of Hispanics in St. Louis, Jalissa's skills of working well with children and knowing Spanish paid off.
"Near the end of camp, the woman who runs the day care at Kingdom House found me and said she'd heard of me. Lots of the kids who come here are Spanish-speaking - and so are their families. She asked me if I wanted a job here once camp was over to help translate and to help the Hispanic children with their English and to teach the other children Spanish."
The staff at Kingdom House also knew Jalissa had graduated from high school but had not yet applied for college.
"I just didn't want to pay all of those student loans back forever," Jalissa said. "I was working really hard but couldn't afford college yet."
With her new job as an assistant teacher, Jalissa qualified for a scholarship through a cooperative program with the St. Louis Community College and Grace Hill - also a United Way-funded agency.
This past school year, Jalissa received a full scholarship to attend Forest Park Community College where she is furthering her language skills. In the afternoon she works at Kingdom House as a teaching assistant.
"After Forest Park, I'll attend a four-year college - Webster University, I hope - to continue my goals to become an interpreter."
As soon as she walks into the classroom at Kingdom House, the children - ages 3-5 swarm around Jalissa - greeting her with hugs.
"These kids are great," smiles Jalissa as she turns to go work with them. "This place is great - they do so much for the community." And they do, from family support to employment training to elderly services to child care and more.
And they also take care of their own - Jalissa is living proof of that.