Harolyn Benjamin is the founder of Women Who Care in Enterprise. She and her husband, Michael, will celebrate their 34th wedding anniversary this year. They have three children: Marcellus, Marshawn, and Deanna (Borders); four grandchildren: Courtney (13), Demitrius (5), Dexter (4), and Layla (16 months); and two fur babies, Blue and Bluay.
WP: After a long battle with seemingly mysterious health issues, you were recently diagnosed with Generalized Myasthenia Gravis – an autoimmune disease that attacks the muscles. What was the journey like to get there?
HB: In 2017, when I started having difficulty walking, chewing, talking, swallowing, eating, and holding my head up, it was tough. I kept telling my husband I felt like my body wanted to break up with me. It was difficult to wrap my head around the fact that I couldn’t fix what was happening to me. Because that’s what I do: I fix things. That’s what we as women do, right?
God kept saying ‘It is Well!” But to be honest, nothing about it looked well. It was hard; it was confusing. I couldn’t see the “well,” but my husband made it very clear we were going to see any and everyone about this situation. Every day he would come home and say, “I made you an appointment for this or that doctor.” One day, I watched him move from one side of the yard to the other. At first, I thought he was exercising, and then I looked out the door. And realized he was using the bricks to make additional stairs so that it would be easier to get in and out of the house.
My daughter, Deanna, and her husband, DJ, would take me from emergency room to emergency room trying to find any answers. My youngest son, Marshawn, would call and encourage me. And my oldest son, Marcellus, went to all of my appointments. And my daughter in love, Jasmin – thank God for Jasmin. She would help me when I couldn’t physically help myself, including preparing my meals, getting dressed and wound care.
I couldn’t help but have Joy, as well as be grateful and thankful, because God was pouring into me what I believed I had done for others in my life.
WP: Talk to me about how you were able to keep “Choosing Joy” throughout this journey.
HB: Any person who has ever gone through a health crisis can tell you that it can create such fear. It can cause you to stay in a place of uncertainty. It can be difficult to see the tunnel at the end and sometimes impossible to wake up and get up everyday. So if I told you that I was hanging out with Joy every day, well now that wouldn’t be true. There have been many times during this journey when I had to run after Joy. I often say that I don’t like the process, but I trust the builder.
After I was given the diagnosis, I had to have a conversation with myself, one that was specific to me. One that when times became hard and I didn’t understand, I would have something to draw from. I’ve given these talks to thousands of people, and it was always easy to find the right words, but when you’ve got to self-talk, it’s a lot more intentional.
I had to give every thought that was entering my mind an opportunity to express itself. When loss showed up, I had to grieve. I had to cry for what I thought my life was supposed to look like. The moments when It felt like I was going to fall down and might not get up, I had to allow myself to fall down. If I had to have a pity party, I knew that Joy was on the other side.
Just the other day I was having a difficult time walking, and there were so many emotions that came up, but the one I tried to focus on was Joy. I began to thank God for such a cool morning. I started to focus on the sounds that the birds were making, how happy they were to greet the morning.
Sometimes, it’s not looking at what might be going on in that moment. I now find Joy in knowing that we have a diagnosis and medicine. I try my best to remember to choose Joy! Especially when I’m able to do something I hadn’t done in a while. But there are times that I fail, and I have to have a do over. And that’s okay. I’m learning to be okay with however I’m feeling in the moment.
WP: You’ve definitely not been shy about sharing your journey. Why is it important for you to be vocal about what you’ve been through?
HB: I really hadn’t planned on sharing anything. I was all up in my feelings, scared, confused and yes, angry with God. But even then, I knew this was not my story; that women, men and families were going through situations every day and struggling to find the right resources. When God said after I got out in October to share a little of my story, I was a little scared, because at that point most of the people in my life, including friends, did not know that I had been in the hospital for almost a month. People would look at me and say that I was such a strong, encouraging person, but I didn’t and sometimes still don’t always see that. But then I had to remember again – It wasn’t about me!
And suddenly the most remarkable thing started to happen. People began to use the tagline, “I’m Choosing Joy ❤️.” In the midst of some very challenging life issues, in the midst of a pandemic, people were saying, “It’s tough, but I’m still Choosing Joy ❤️.” Wow! What a great teachable moment. Learning how much and how often to share is still a delicate act. It is challenging when you are trying to balance everything, but there is so much more to this story. Who knows, maybe one day it might be in a book.
WP: Speaking of helping people… you’re the woman behind Women Who Care. What was the catalyst for this outreach and how much has it grown over the years?
HB: I started Women Who Care Inc, in Jefferson Parish, Louisiana, August 18, 1998, because of the poverty level, but I was also trying to find my place there. I was trying to find a program that would help me build my self-esteem, [and] I realized very quickly there was nothing available. If I was going to have it, I had to create it. I contacted a world-known motivational speaker named Les Brown, and he became my mentor. Then I was offered an opportunity to speak at the national Black Mayors Conference. Once I said yes to my purpose, doors began to open up.
We’ve been providing training, education and enabling our guests to find their place. We also provide job readiness, parenting, life-coaching services, and workshops. These services have been free since we started 20 years ago. We have two physical locations in Enterprise, and Elba. We also assist those living in the New Orleans metropolitan area.
My goal has always been to have multiple locations throughout the country. That dream hasn’t changed, even while I’ve been in the midst of this current life change. My number one goal has been and continues to be to help one person, one family, one community at a time.
WP: What would you say to someone who wants to give back but doesn’t know where to start?
HB: I think all of us have at some point said if only I could…”fill in the blank.” Maybe I’ll do it when I have more time, the kids are grown, I’m retired. But life has a way of showing up with its hiccups and having you make some of those choices sooner rather than later. Being in a global pandemic I believe can be a great way to create a right now frame of mind. You can make a right now change! Here are a few things we can all do: pay for the meal of the person behind you; put money towards a stranger’s utility bill; pass out flowers to your coworkers; or cut your neighbor’s yard. Sometimes it’s just looking around you to see what needs you can help to meet. Let out some of the Joy bubbling inside of you!
WP: Your children are grown now, but do you think you ever really stop mothering?
HB: Nope. I still find myself giving wanted and unwanted advice. God communicated with His son until the day that He died. And after. They will always be my babies; they will forever need sound wisdom. And, Ashton, you know I always have something to say. But the best advice I can give them: live your best life ever. Enjoy everything, especially the good, the bad, and yes, the ugly.
WP: How is being a grandmother different from being a mom?
HB: Omgoodness, they are just yummy. They have these little personalities. And they love to see you and tell you everything. I decided that I wanted to be called Glamma. They decided I would be called Gran. They appreciate everything that you do and they love telling on their parents so they can see them get in trouble. I just believe my job is to spoil them and remind their parents what they did at that age.
WP: A lot of people say that today’s generation cannot raise their children the way their parents raised them because that world no longer exists. What are some of the things you taught your kids that you think today’s parents should still be teaching?
WP: When we have children, however, they come into our lives, I want mom’s, dad’s, grandparents and those raising these precious souls not to be the people or the person to hinder them. The world is not flat. We are not here alone. We have to make sure that we give them all of the tools they will need so that they can make a difference in the world long after we are gone. Love them more than you like them. Treat them like miniature people who want and need and deserve to feel loved, cared for, wanted and, the biggest one, appreciated!
WP: What’s something you hope your children and grandchildren are learning from you, even if it’s not a direct lesson?
HB: Wow! It’s going to be two simple things: Love God and let the deeds that you do for others speak louder than the words that come from your mouth.
WP: What’s something you’ve learned from your children or grandchildren?
HB: It’s okay to be happy about the very simple things. Sometimes you’ve got to motivate yourself by dancing by yourself. And I’m one of the strongest women they know, even when I don’t see it.
WP: If you could give your younger self one piece of advice, what would it be?
HB: It looks bad right now, you feel lost and alone, but if you can just hold on, girl, you are going to be an amazing woman! And you, my sister, will do some things that will change the world. Or at least wherever God has planted you!
WP: Any words of wisdom for new moms?
HB: Just breathe. When it looks good, breathe. When it looks like everything is falling apart, just breathe! This moment won’t last always. You are stronger than you know! None of us have all of the answers, so don’t look at how someone else is rocking their baby and hold yourself to their standard. And remember, at any point in the journey, you can still Choose Joy!