A smile didn't always come easily for Tre'ona Kelty. A series of unspeakable childhood events wreaked enough havoc on the little girl's confidence to make her question life and contemplate taking her own to escape the trauma.
By the age of nine, the years of sexual, physical and emotional abuse caused her to develop bleeding stomach ulcers. She popped one of the pills prescribed by a doctor into her mouth, deliberately chewed the tablet, and disregarded the label's warning that it could prove fatal. She intended to end her life and stop the pain. Luckily, for a group of women who live in the Benning Terrace Apartments in Southeast, it didn't.
Kelty, 29, survived nearly two decades of abuse, and in 2008 she founded Beautiful U Yes U – a non-profit organization that provides support and encouragement to women who have suffered various forms of abuse.
"I thought of the organization Beautiful U and how it could help women, but I couldn't do anything because I was still in an abusive relationship and I didn't love myself," said Kelty. "How could I help someone else if I didn't help myself?"
She's put the past behind her and now helps others recognize their value.
Family members, friends and supporters gathered at the Benning Terrace Community Center in Southeast last Saturday, August 11, to celebrate and honor the accomplishments of 17 women who graduated from the 10-week, Beautiful U Yes U, Women Embracing and Loving Life [W.E.L.L.] program.
Guests arrived early to grab a seat and by the time the ceremony started, latecomers who trickled in had to stand – because there wasn't an empty chair in the room.
"Ladies, you've made it," said Kelty, who flashed a dazzling smile, as she addressed the graduates. The women, ages 22-60, donned black-and-pink and white-and-pink T-shirts, faced their mentor and basked in the moment.
The two-hour ceremony showcased the program and the women's unique talents. In between remarks from a handful of speakers who included Ward 7 Council member Yvette Alexander and D.C. Housing Authority Executive Director Adrianne Todman, the graduates performed three different dance routines. Before the music started, seven women kicked off their shoes, formed a line and sashayed to the front of the room. They appeared tense during their first two numbers but settled into a rhythm for their spirited final performance that drew loud cheers and applause from the audience.
But perhaps the highlight of the ceremony came when each woman stood and presented a vision board, chock full of photos, quotes and inspirational phrases that represented her idea of beauty. The mood changed from lighthearted to somber once the women started to talk about their personal struggles and past hardships. Each took a moment to acknowledge Kelty and the W.E.L.L. program.
"What this class has taught me is that you can overcome any adversity," said Saundra Morris, 47.
"I was a person who didn't think that I was beautiful. I always had negative things said about me and you tend to believe those things. I used to self-medicate because of the pain. This program has taught me to trust in God, trust in others and most of all, to believe in myself. I learned today how to stand and not fall."
The eyes of friends and family members began to well up with tears as the women poured their hearts out. While each story varied, an underlying theme of pain coursed throughout each of their personal accounts. And some graduates said that mustering the courage to show up on the first day of the program caused them angst.
"When I was asked to come, I thought that a bunch of females are not going to get it, there's always something [chaotic] going on" said Edith Floyd, 49. "But as I've been in the program, I've learned that there's a lot of love, unity and everybody can talk their problems out. I can really say that there's a happiness that you feel when we're all working together. I love it."
The changes in attitude aren't just apparent to Kelty, but to the many family members who have witnessed the transformations. Morris' daughter, Dominique Jean-Baptiste said that the program has had a positive impact on her mother, with whom she didn't always have the most amicable relationship.
"I'm happy for her, I've noticed a change in her in the past couple of months," said Jean-Baptiste, 23. "We always had some type of tension growing up. But I can see that she's more motherly, happy and excited. I can talk to her now and it's made us closer. I really do appreciate [Ms. Kelty] bringing this program here."
Although Kelty can't erase the horrible memories of the past, she can assure others that despite how isolated they may feel or how dismal their situation appears, they too, can overcome anything if they believe in themselves.
"The inspiration and the foundation is to teach them that they're beautiful, and about their worth," Kelty said. "We can't do anything else until they know their worth and then we can build from there."
For more information about Beautiful U Yes U, visit www.beautifuluyesu.com or call 202-413-4083.