SANFORD - Johnita Ellerby came from a dark - a very dark - place, but she radiates light now.
That dark place wasn't a physical location; it was an emotional and spiritual darkness. For a long time, she couldn't talk about it. Now, she can.
"I feel I need to be as transparent as possible about my life, hoping it can help someone else come from darkness to light," she said. "I feel sharing my story is something God put in me because, if he hadn't, I wouldn't. He's put a voice in my mouth."
Growing up, Ellerby and her mother, Odessa Ellerby Jackson, moved a lot. She attended schools in Lillington, Pinehurst and Sanford, where she now resides.
At the age of nine, she became a victim of sexual abuse that continued off and on for six years. She never told her mother or anyone.
"Abuse leaves you ashamed," she said. "I didn't care about myself. I didn't love myself. That can lead you into situations you're surprised to find yourself in."
She had her first child at age 16. Still, somewhere in the darkness, there was a distant light: Ellerby always pictured herself going to college. She said she was blessed that good people came into her life who kept that light burning.
One of those was Nancy Cope, her Lee County High School sociology teacher. Ellerby graduated in 1996 and enrolled at Central Carolina Community College. To her surprise, she found that Cope and her husband, Sam, who then worked at CCCC, had provided a $500 scholarship for her.
"She had thought about me," Ellerby said, her emotions still tender at Cope's kindness. "She knew I had potential. She had put money for a scholarship for me at the college."
She attended college, but at the same time, as Ellerby put it, "life happened." From 1996 to 2011, she went through what she called "the bad times." She became involved in an abusive relationship and had two more children, one a special needs child. Still, she worked hard, earned a Certified Nursing Assistant certificate in 1999, and started working in an assisted living facility.
The work was satisfying, but her first passion was to help others who found themselves in dark places. While working, caring for her children and dealing with abuse, she found courage to go back to CCCC to study Human Services. That was when another good person entered her life: Kathleen Hundley, instructor for the Crisis Intervention class.
"She repeated all the time to the class, 'Know yourself, you have to know yourself before you can help anyone else,'" Ellerby said. "I realized I didn't know myself. Her class sent me on a journey."
That journey included reaching out to domestic violence groups for help, first Haven of Lee County, then the Coalition for Peace, in Siler City. They helped her learn to be a survivor, not just a victim.
She also found strength and the ability to forgive in her faith in Jesus Christ.
"I was a mess," Ellerby said. "I had to do some soul-searching, revisit dark places from my childhood and adulthood. Most important, I had to learn how to forgive. My momma set the example. She was the one who emphasized that I had to forgive. When I learned, it freed me. I was allowed to be free and the burden was lifted."
She was finally able to end the abusive relationship.
"I stopped being ashamed," she said. "I started being proud of myself, who I am, my accomplishments. I figured my life had purpose. Something clicked. I wanted to help people in bad situations. Ever since, I've been hungry for education."
Ellerby said CCCC gave her the tools and laid the foundation for her success from Day One, that each instructor and class was a building block. In 2011, she met another person who had a profound influence on her life, CCCC English instructor Adriane Stewart.
"She took time with me," Ellerby said. "She prepared me in so many ways for the university. I'll never forget her as long as I live. She saw that I had potential to challenge the university."
Ellerby and Stewart remain friends.
"Johnita is, quite simply, an inspiration to all those who know her," Stewart said. "She is a courageous, motivated, generous woman who will give back to her community in many ways. I feel honored to know her."
Ellerby earned her Associate in Applied Science in Human Services in 2011 and is now a student at UNC-Greensboro, earning her Bachelor of Social Work. While attending school full-time, she is still working third shift as a CNA at the assisted living facility and caring for her three children and a nephew who lives with her.
Ellerby has already won honors at the university. She has been inducted into the National Honor Society of Leadership and Success. She received the Sunshine Lady Award. Her goal is to get her bachelor's degree in 2014, then move on to graduate school. She said she's not stopping until she has her doctorate.
"I plan on being a professor, teaching classes on child and family violence," she said. "I also plan to lobby governments for tougher penalties for child abusers. If we deal with it when children are young, we won't have so many adults with problems to fix. I believe God will help somebody through me. We're here for each other - that's what I do believe."
It had been years since Nancy Cope, now retired, had contact with Ellerby, but they are now reconnecting.
"Johnita wanted to help others even when she was in my class," Cope said. "She was like that. In her circumstances, many girls would have dropped out of school, but she kept going. I was extremely proud of her when she was in my class and I'm extremely proud of her now."
Ellerby came out of darkness, but all that darkness has only made her light shine brighter.
"When a person comes out of abuse, the world better watch out because they're going to make their mark," she said. "They realize they are not the abuse that happened to them. I'm going to do whatever to reach my dream. That's the legacy I plan to leave behind for my children. It's not easy, but it's worth it."
Johnita Ellerby, of Sanford, holds her membership certificate following her induction into the National Honor Society of Leadership and Success at UNC-Greensboro. She made a long journey from the darkness of abuse to the light of lifting others. A 2011 graduate of Central Carolina Community College, she is now an honor student at UNCG, earning a degree in Human Services. She plans to earn her doctorate and teach classes on preventing and dealing with child abuse and family violence, as well as lobby for tougher laws against child abusers.
Johnita Ellerby (left), of Sanford, holds her membership certificate following her induction into the National Honor Society of Leadership and Success at UNC-Greensboro. With her is her mother, Odessa Ellerby Jackson. Ellerby made a long journey from the darkness of abuse to the light of lifting others. A 2011 graduate of Central Carolina Community College, she is now an honor student at UNCG, earning a degree in Human Services. She plans to earn her doctorate and teach classes on preventing and dealing with child abuse and family violence, as well as lobby for tougher laws against child abusers.