It takes a village

Felicia Villegas Echeverria could have fallen through
the cracks, but her community wouldn’t let her.

Two weeks before Christmas, guests stream into the stately Marietta home of former Gov. Roy Barnes and Marie Barnes. A forest of Christmas trees has sprouted, an army of Nutcrackers has reported for duty and a heavenly host of angels harken from under a galaxy of twinkling lights.

The crowd is a large and prominent one, with folks like Cobb District Attorney Vic Reynolds and former Cobb Juvenile Court Judge Juanita Stedman in attendance.

Marie Barnes summons everyone’s attention with a gracious welcome and says she’s never really been one for joining charity boards. But Marietta Mentoring for Leadership, the reason for the night’s gala, has captured her attention. The program pairs high-potential youths facing various challenges with mentors who provide structure, guidance and encouragement.

“These kids’ lives are changed forever,” Georgia’s former first lady says, then hands things off to founder Beverly McAfee and Marietta City Schools Superintendent Grant Rivera. They share inspiring words about the organization’s work before wrapping up with some gentle nudges about donations.

The crowd gets back to mingling.

On the other side of the bedecked living room, through a kitchen festooned with a brilliant white tree and laid with a sumptuous buffet spread, the spacious and spotless garage is set up for the night as a dining area, complete with a bar and jazz quartet. A striking young woman sits with her handsome husband at the back table. She wears a bright red dress and sparkly heels, her makeup perfect and her long, dark hair elegantly styled to the side. While the hushed crowd was focused on the purpose of the event, though, she was as far from the center of the action as she could be.

Yet Felicia Villegas Echeverria is exactly the reason everyone is here. Patrons may not realize it, but the speakers have essentially been talking about her. Even the decorations seem to tell her story. They’re a mix of spiritual and secular — a reverent creche scene here, a jolly Santa there. In one corner of the front yard, lights spell out a single, powerful word: “Believe.”

2

Stolen childhood

Felicia is a 23-year-old Kennesaw State University sophomore. She’s active in a campus club for first-generation college students, proud of her 3.27 GPA (but determined to boost it further) and enjoying her job in the school’s scholarship office.

You’d never guess the parking lot of the Waffle House near campus was once her home.

At 15, the Marietta High School student wasn’t about to tell anyone her plight. Leigh Colburn, who was principal at the time, sensed something amiss.

What’s going on? Colburn prodded.

Nothing, Felicia insisted.

A few heartbeats passed in silence.

We’re living in a car, Felicia finally admitted. The high school sophomore and her toddler were homeless. Incredibly, it wasn’t the worst living situation Felicia had endured.

Born in Cobb County, Felicia was 2 when she was taken to live with family members in Austin, Texas, after her parents divorced. The temporary arrangement became permanent, then abusive, and the abuse stopped only after Felicia became pregnant. Patient, caring police officers gently coaxed the truth out of the then-terrified 13-year-old.

Her mother, unaware of the horrors her daughter had been enduring, brought the expectant teen back to Marietta. A DNA sample taken when Felicia’s daughter was born here provided incontrovertible evidence at trial. Felicia’s abuser is behind bars for life.

Upon her return to Marietta, Felicia was finally free from abuse, but her living situation was far from stable. When Colburn discovered the mother and child were sleeping in a car, the Marietta community stepped in.

Working with leaders from LiveSafe Resources (then known as the YWCA of Northwest Georgia) and the Center for Family Resources, Colburn helped Felicia secure housing, got her involved in the mentoring program and made sure she was able to stay in school and graduate.

Colburn didn’t stop there. She worked to expedite Felicia’s enrollment at Kennesaw State University and connected her with Elizabeth Boyd, a professor and director of research for the Women’s Leadership Center at KSU’s Coles College of Business. At Colburn’s invitation, Boyd attended an event benefiting the shelter where Felicia lived for a time. Felicia took the stage and shared her story that night.

“I saw Felicia speak and I was like, ‘Wow, I have to be involved in this girl’s life,’” Boyd recalled. “She accepts the reality. She’s not sitting there trying to make things what they’re not. She has so much to manage, but she’s hitting her stride now.”

As poised and confident as she appears, Felicia has episodes of anxiety at times. She dislikes being hugged and shies from the spotlight. It can be hard even to walk outside her home.

“Sometimes I can’t go grocery shopping,” she said.

One morning when she was running late for statistics class, she couldn’t find a parking space and had a panic attack.

“I ended up dropping the class,” she said. “I probably should be seeing someone.”

After the slew of counselors she’s spent time with over the years, though, she quails at starting anew with yet another.

But things are getting better.

“I don’t get as sad anymore,” she said. “My nightmares aren’t as bad.”

At KSU, Felicia is majoring in psychology and pursuing a certificate in child advocacy services training. Her favorite class has been one in child maltreatment. The subject matter is troubling, yet covers ground Felicia knows all too well.

“When I grew up nobody ever talked about it,” she said. “If I had spoken up sooner, my life would have been so different.”

Felicia and Alvaro help their children build a gingerbread house the week before Christmas.

3

Outpouring of support

Felicia shared her story in a July 2015 Personal Journey. She’s read it only once, just a few months ago.

“It was hard,” she said. “Even thinking about it now, my heart is racing.”

Plenty of other people read the piece, though. Donors set up a fund at First Landmark Bank in Marietta. One woman donated a backpack full of school supplies for Felicia’s then first-grader. Others got in touch to donate clothing and other items. LiveSafe Resources executive director Holly Tuchman arranged for Felicia’s busted air-conditioning unit to be fixed, and the organization’s longtime supporter, Kim Gresh, surprised Felicia with a laptop computer. The response shocked her.

“I thought maybe people would read it and say, ‘Wow, that’s really sad,’ but I never really thought anyone would care,” she said. “Strangers were telling me they cared about me.”

Although reliving her ordeal was trying, she says she’s glad she did. She hopes it might help someone being abused, or provide insight to someone who suspects a child they know is being harmed. She wonders what might have happened if she’d had the sort of resources available to her as a victim that she was provided as a survivor.

“If I had read something like my own article, I would have cried,” she said. “I would have been scared. But I would have felt some sort of empowerment to come forward.”

She’s thought about contacting her abuser, who will spend the rest of his life in a Texas prison. She wants to ask him why he did it and show him how she’s flourished despite his crimes. In a 2015 interview with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, conducted at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice Polunsky Unit, David Saldana didn’t deny what happened and showed no remorse, instead citing a bizarre interpretation of Scripture to justify his actions.

Upon reflection, Felicia figures making contact would only give him what he wants.

“I’d rather he just go through the rest of his life wondering,” she said.

One day she’s going to have a difficult conversation with her now 9-year-old daughter.

“I feel like everything happens for a reason,” Felicia said. “I want her to know she is a God-sent blessing. She saved my life.”

Felicia and Alvaro became husband and wife the day after Thanksgiving. The ceremony was held at her the home of her mentor, KSU professor Elizabeth Boyd. Jennifer Brett/AJC

4

Eye on the future

Despite how far she has come figuratively, the path of about 20 feet literally in front of Felicia the day after Thanksgiving felt formidable. It was her wedding day.

The gathering was simple and heartfelt. White flowers in little Mason jars lined the pathway to the makeshift altar. A corner of the yard was draped with white cloth and floral bouquets. Felicia wore a beautiful white, lacy dress bought by her mentor, Elizabeth Boyd.

Guests including Colburn, Felicia’s former principal, and Beverly McAfee, the Marietta Mentoring founder, took their seats in Boyd’s backyard.

Alvaro Echeverria, Felicia’s boyfriend since high school, stood with the minister and wedding party as the processional music started and stopped, started and stopped.

“I just couldn’t do it,” Felicia said. “I was like, this is too scary, everyone’s going to be staring at us. I was super nervous.”

Finally, she made her way down the path and became Mrs. Echeverria.

“You make me feel beautiful, smart, special and funny through the good and the bad,” Felicia said, reading to her husband from the vows she wrote. “You’re my best friend and the only person I want to go to for everything. You make me laugh. You comfort me when I cry.”

About 15 people celebrated with the Echeverrias on their wedding day; their 4-year-old son was ring bearer and his 9-year-old sister was flower girl. After the short and sweet ceremony, guests took their chairs from the back of the yard and placed them around tables near the deck where they enjoyed a buffet dinner and wedding cake. After the sun set, fireworks illuminated the sky.

“I’d never been to a wedding before,” said Felicia. “That was my first.”

Felicia’s mother did not attend. For a time, they had reconciled and were mending their relationship. But recently her mother moved on again.

“I cried, more than I thought I would. I thought I would be too angry,” Felicia said. She figures it’s probably for the best. “I don’t have negative energy around. This is a new chapter in my life. I feel like a grown up now,” she said. “I feel like all the trials and tribulations are in the past.”

But there are still challenges ahead. Because she’s still in school and raising two children, Felicia can only work part time. Echeverria hopes to own his own business some day, but for now he works a job detailing cars. Money is tight.

“I’m not going to lie, they don’t have heavy jackets,” she said of her children.

But Felicia is determined to improve her quality of life and the life of her family. That same perseverance that compelled her to attend high school even when she was homeless continues to propel her through college. After that, she wants to pursue graduate school. Her dream is to use her own triumph over a painful past to inspire others, even as she continues her own recovery.

She’s interested in criminal psychology and hopes to work with law enforcement some day in a career focused on helping young victims and their families. She envisions developing a “one-stop shop” business model where survivors could be paired long term with counselors as their cases proceed through the justice system.

In a way, Felicia is already helping others. Her success working in partnership with the YWCA of Northwest Georgia (now LiveSafe Resources) and the Center for Family Life Resources helped inspire the Graduate Marietta Student Success Center, which partners with the private and public sector to provide a host of academic and behavioral services to Marietta High School students, as well as facilitate their transition to college. Colburn helmed the program after retiring as principal of Marietta High School. She’s since retired from the center and consults with school systems that want to adopt the model.

“The experience of Felicia is part of what got the ball rolling,” Colburn said. “Felicia was the first real tangible example of a three-way partnership. She was that first experience that made us think we could do this more often, in a more operational way.”

Felicia is so focused on the future, she rarely takes the time to reflect on all she has achieved so far.

“I feel like I don’t let myself marvel in my success. I feel guilty thinking that sometimes,” she said. “I hope I look back on my life and feel like I lived a good life, that I helped as many people as I could, and that I was happy with who I became.”


ABOUT THE STORY

I met Felicia Villegas Echeverria in February 2015 at the annual Tribute to Women of Achievement luncheon hosted by the YWCA of Northwest Georgia (now LifeSafe Resources). There she told her story publicly for the first time. Struck by her poise and courage, I helped share her story in Personal Journeys. We spent months working together. Occasionally, when our interviews tread painful ground, I would ask if she was sure she wanted to continue. "Let’s keep going," she would always say. We have kept in touch and with her permission, I’ve connected her with people who have offered help. Her grace, humility and perseverance are extraordinary. I look forward to her college graduation in a couple of years.

Jennifer Brett
Staff writer
personaljourneys@ajc.com


ABOUT THE REPORTER
Jennifer Brett is a multi-platform journalist and digital coach for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Cox Media Group. She was part of the CMG reporting team for the 2018 Rose Bowl and Rose Parade (and will be at the College Football Playoff National Championship tomorrow), the 2017 Super Bowl and President Donald Trump’s inauguration. Last year she traveled to Las Vegas to cover the horrific mass shooting, to south Texas to write about the former National Security Agency contractor accused of leaking government intelligence and to coastal Georgia to write about the impact of Hurricane Irma. Her previous Personal Journey, about longtime Atlanta Braves usher Walter Banks, was named the Georgia Associated Press Media Editors’ first place winner for feature writing, sports writing and overall story of the year.

ABOUT THE PHOTOGRAPHER
Hyosub Shin was born and raised in South Korea. Inspired by the work of National Geographic photographers, he came to the United States to study photography and joined the AJC photo staff in 2007. Past assignments include the Georgia Legislative session, Atlanta Dream’s Eastern Conference title game, the Atlanta Air Show and the Atlanta Braves’ National League Division Series.

Felicia and Alvaro watch as their children Teresa Villegas, 9, and Nathan Echeverria, 4, play with their dog Apollo.