December’s Empowering Cover Woman: Lela Hinds Peterson Returning the Gift

If there is one message Lela Hinds Peterson could share with the world, it’s that just because you start at the bottom doesn’t mean you have to stay there.

Lela’s young life was not the most pleasant, but her entire story is one of survival, dedication, love, and triumph.

She was born in Brooklyn Jewish Hospital on a mid-December day and spoiled rotten by the nurses because she was the only girl. Her mom was a nurse who traveled for work, and by the time she was eight years old, Lela had lived in Connecticut, Mississippi, and Michigan.

Her mom, Evelyn, had been in an ongoing abusive relationship for years, and the situation became dire. “He would beat up on her and then apologize,” Lela remembers, “but anytime he tried to beat up on her, I jumped in. I would grab him and try to stop him, and he would stop because I don’t think he wanted me to see or know what he was doing. It was very toxic. And then he would try to befriend me or try to get me to watch tv with him or whatever. There was this fear, like was he going to try to hit me or something? But he never did.”

“It was bad,” Lela continues. “Sometimes I’ll smell someone who smokes his brand of cigarette, and it just all kind of comes back. He could be charming but was also very manipulative. I’m kind of grateful, in a way, that he was in my life because it made me realize what kind of man I don’t want.”

One night, at two in the morning, Lela says, “he was over her and he was choking her, and she says that I came in the room and jumped on his back, and I wrapped my arms and legs around him and was trying to pull him off of her. She says that I screamed, ‘Please don’t kill my mommy!’ And she said that was it for her. I was pulling on him trying to get him off, and then I called the police.” It occurred to Evelyn, in that moment, that she was making a choice that was going to affect Lela, and it gave her the courage to leave.

Evelyn took Lela and her sister to California to escape him, but after being in Los Angeles for only five or six months, Evelyn’s boyfriend found them there, so they packed a few meager belongings and fled to San Diego.

The girls lived in their mom’s car for a week before finding refuge at St. Vincent de Paul shelter. “It was a big room that everyone slept in, which was kind of scary,” she says. “Men, women, children. I remember I didn’t want to sleep in a separate bed from my mom, so I was cuddled in the bed with her. It was a little twin bed so it wasn’t a lot of room.”

Meals weren’t provided at the shelter at that time, so Lela and her family went to the food bank a block away to get meals. “My mom was really good about making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and things like that so we’d have snacks during the daytime, and then during the day we were able to go to school, too.”

“Luckily San Diego isn’t super cold,” Lela says, “because I can’t imagine, in November and December, being homeless. During the day at St. Vincent de Paul, you don’t really have a place to go because they kick you out during the day. Hopefully they’ve changed that because it’s a horrible way to be. You walk the streets during the day but then you have a place to sleep at night.”

After several nights at St. Vincent de Paul, someone there told her mom about a nearby battered women’s shelter, and the family was able to secure a spot there through the YWCA. The well-hidden upstairs in the YWCA building had its own elevator to protect the women and children from anyone looking for them.

Lela’s older sister left and went to stay with her grandmother in Mississippi for high school. There were times in Lela’s life when she went to stay for extended periods with her grandmother as well, but Lela didn’t want to leave her mom, so the two remained in San Diego. “I think in a way I was one of those little kids who was trying to fix things and make things better, and I think that’s probably the reason why I stayed for so long and tried to help her.”

When Lela and her mom were in the shelter for battered women, she says they were blessed to be able to receive counseling that was offered for kids and adults. “I remember them telling me that no one has the right to hurt you. Whether it’s physical, mental, verbal, no one has the right to hurt you that way. That was probably one of the greatest gifts they gave me.”

The group counseling in the women’s shelter was the first time Lela got to hear other kids talk about their dads being abusive to their moms, and she started to feel less alone. She attended art therapy as well, and those practices helped Lela to process her feelings. She learned important lessons from the counselors about not repeating history, and that she should be with someone who would treat her with love and respect, and she learned the warning signs of an abuser.

A feeling of security became a part of their lives again. They had a private room with a door they could lock, and they were able to stay during the day and come and go as they pleased, and didn’t have to stand in line at night to get in.

There was a shared kitchen and family room. Everyone cooked Thanksgiving dinner together and had a gift exchange. Lela remembers she only wanted one doll and some new clothes, maybe a cute outfit for her upcoming birthday on December 15. The family that “adopted” her got her five or six outfits and toys wrapped in birthday wrapping paper. It was the first time in Lela’s life that she got birthday presents and not just Christmas presents, having a birthday so close to the holiday. “It was so sweet the note that the family wrote in my birthday card. Even as an eight year old kid, you realize that it was so cool that someone took the time to do something so sweet for someone they didn’t even know. I think that forever changed me,” Lela says through tears.

“It’s therapeutic to talk about it. When I went back and started volunteering at the shelter at the same YMCA that I stayed at, talking to the kids and women there, I let them know that there can be a happy ending. Where you’ve been doesn’t necessarily dictate where you’re going.”

Lela and her mom moved into a house in January after Evelyn had a chance to work and save some money. But unfortunately, Lela’s mom stayed away from her abuser for less than a year before she allowed him back into their lives. Lela says, “Lucky for me I had gone to the group counseling sessions at the YMCA because it made me bold.” This time around, Lela threatened him with calling the police and sending him to jail.

Lela remembers a couple of times when they fought and he manhandled her mom, but as soon as Lela came in, he stopped. “It was almost like he was scared of me. It was just weird because I was a little kid, but for some reason he would stop. If he did anything to her when I wasn’t there, he left bruises that I couldn’t see.”

This man was in their lives off and on until Lela left the house for college. She was fed up with the behavior, her mom’s drinking, the man’s smoking and drug use.

“I forgave my mom a long time ago,” she says, “because she’s human, and humans have flaws. Just because she wasn’t always a good role model doesn’t mean that I don’t love her. She’s just flawed, and that’s ok. A lot of the things she did were because she was an alcoholic. She wasn’t that person when she wasn’t drinking. But now she doesn’t remember any of that. None of us are perfect. We all need forgiveness and grace. And that’s what I give her because I want it in return someday from my own daughter.”

Lela’s mom suffers from dementia and lives in a facility that offers her round-the-clock care. She doesn’t remember much of life’s trauma, which Lela is grateful for. “Her dementia, in a weird way, was a blessing. She was an alcoholic and when she drank she became mean. And she smoked so, so much. Those are the two things I hate the most, drinking and smoking. Because her memory started to go, I convinced her that she didn’t smoke or drink. She’s actually a really sweet person, but half the time she doesn’t remember who I am. It’s sad that you get the ‘good mom’ back but she doesn’t remember you.”

Lela visits her mom on a regular basis, though her mom jumps through different periods of time and repeats herself often. “I’m lucky that she’s still alive and relatively healthy. It’s a combination of traumatic brain injury from being beaten in the head for so many years and the fact that she chain smoked two, three packs a day and the lack of oxygen to her brain. She literally smoked herself into dementia.”

Despite the hurdles, Lela was class president in elementary school and middle school and tried out for and made the dance team in high school. She loved the structure and fun and friends, and it kept her busy in the afternoons so she could spend more time away from home. She spent the night with friends on the weekends but never had them over to her house. “None of my friends growing up really knew about it,” she confesses. “Most of them still don’t even know. I wasn’t really allowed to talk about it.”

The shelter had also guided Lela to the Boys & Girls Clubs of San Diego and helped her to get involved. After she moved into their house, she walked 30 minutes to the club after school activities so she wasn’t a latchkey kid. She attended their summer programs as well and took dance, cooking and computer lessons until she was 14 years old and she became a counselor and was a big sister to other kids.

After high school, Lela was accepted to Whittier College on academic scholarships. She was President of the Black Student Union her freshman year, and became involved in sorority life. During her college career, she felt a pull to return the kindness shown to her during her time in the shelter and began looking for opportunities to give back.

She began by making cupcakes to give out to the homeless in downtown L.A. around the holidays. And she called around to local charities to find out how she could help a family in need for the holidays, and she and her sorority sisters pooled their resources to adopt and provide gifts for a family in need, much like Lela had experienced from the other side of things as a child.

After Lela transferred to and graduated from San Diego State University, she kept up with her annual giving. “The cupcake thing just kept growing every year. I didn’t really know how to bake, but cupcakes were easy because I used to have an Easy-Bake Oven,” she laughs, “and I knew how to make cupcakes! And they’re individual and easy to hand out.”

Lela received her undergraduate degree in social science (concentration in environment) and remained highly involved in charity work throughout school.

Lela was soon hired to do research at Phoenix Children’s Hospital in Arizona. They paid for her to get her masters, from Grand Canyon University in business administration with a concentration in emergency management and disaster preparedness.

She went on a year-and-a-half mission trip to Honduras and Belize during and after Hurricane Mitch, using her education to teach people how to clean the water and fix the waterways from the flooding. “It was a wonderful experience. It taught me to really love anyone, strangers, anybody, and to try to forget about yourself and serve others and be Christlike.”

She met Andre after serving her mission, and the two dated for two years before marrying. “He also had a service heart and never met a stranger. He loved the whole cupcake thing, but I think he ate more than he decorated,” she laughs. “We would still adopt families for the holidays but he took it to a whole new level. I used to just take things to the organizations and let them give the things to the families. But he would be sneaky and leave everything on their front porches…Christmas tree, gifts, food, everything without them knowing. He was really good at that. I loved that he really loved to do that, too. It made it really fun to have a partner in doing good things for people.”

They had their daughter after being married for two years. “Lailoni is the coolest kid I’ve ever been around. She’s just awesome. She’s a joy,” Lela says. “She was a daddy’s girl so when he passed, it was definitely hard for her, but we’ve bonded and become super close because of it.”

Andre passed away from sleep apnea when he was only 39. Lailoni was only eight years old. “He went to sleep and just didn’t wake up,” Lela remembers.

Seven years after losing Andre, Lela sat down with her daughter and together they made the decision to move to Georgia to be near her family and Andre’s. “Life is short and you just don’t know how much time you have with people,” she says. Moving to Georgia from the West Coast presented a bit of culture shock, but Lela and Lailoni have adjusted well in the four years they’ve been in Fayette County. Lailoni is a senior at Whitewater High School, and Lela is the proud owner of Lela’s Place event venue.

When she moved to Georgia, she began to work as an event planner because it had always been something she was passionate about and good at. So opening Lela’s Place has been a dream come true for her. She bought the venue in March and has been building her brand and readily gaining clients since. “I love planning things and making people happy!”

“The clients that I’ve met with so far are just these wonderful people,” she adds,” and to be a part of a special moment in their lives is such an honor.”

It’s a little scary being a business owner, she says, but perseveres. “The success or failure of my business is all on me, but it’s liberating, too, to know that the sky is the limit. You can do whatever you set your mind to, and I love that.”

This fall, Lela’s Place offered free family photos because, she says, she never had photos like that as a child because her mom could never afford them. And she’s hoping to have an open house in December to welcome the community.

Since moving to Peachtree City, Lela has been working with organizations like Bloom and Promise Place, donating clothes and toiletries. She understands more than most what it’s like to be thrust into a situation where you have nothing to call your own, and is focusing her time on giving back the gifts she was given as a homeless child. And the best part of having her own venue is being able to donate her space to charities of her choice.

And though she didn’t have connections with local shelters when she moved here, she and her daughter still found a way to give in their customary holiday fashion.

They took cupcakes to Centennial Park and sat and talked with the people there. “The people were just so sweet, and it was a pleasure to spend time with them.”

“Last year, I tried to switch it to cookies because they’re so much easier,” she admits, “but my daughter was like, ‘but we do cupcakes…’” Lela has been handing out Christmas cupcakes since she was 18— for nearly 30 years now—and her 17-year-old daughter, Lailoni, wants to keep their tradition alive. And so, with love and kindness at heart, they continue each year.

If you, or anyone you know, is in need of help with an abusive situation, please call Promise Place’s 24-Hour Crisis Line at 770.460.1604.

December 8, 2020