MADISON COUNTY, Ala. – Several people pick up new hobbies when they retire. One woman found her calling in helping children. But that journey came with challenges.
Beverly Jones-Durr is one of News 19’s four Remarkable Women nominees for 2021.
After a career working for the federal government, traveling the world, Jones-Durr found herself a retiree trying to find a new pace in Huntsville.
“I did all types of crazy stuff, making jewelry, painting,” said Jones-Durr. “All of a sudden I started doing these little workshops, one-on-one, with kids who had low self esteem.”
Her nonprofit Every Child Has a Story was born; it quickly evolved into a sort of a writing club, publishing seven young authors in its first year.
“Before the pandemic, we had these vendor events where they had book signings,” Jones-Durr explained. “They stood in front of their tables, proudly talking about their books. They could do exchanges of money so we taught them business literacy.”
An author herself, and serving as executive director, she created an online platform, including a digital magazine to share the work of these young writers around the world.
“We will publish 15 new authors by the end of this month, in spite of the pandemic,” she said. “You can be five years old and be a published author on Amazon. It’s amazing to see the kids. It builds their confidence, which is what we want in the first place, and their self esteem.”
The nonprofit was expanding. Then came May 13, 2019. A diagnosis: triple negative breast cancer.
“We don’t know what feeds it and it’s extremely aggressive. I had a choice to go through chemo, then surgery, then radiation, but because it grows so fast, it doubled in size in 21 days,” Jones-Durr recalled. “Chemo is a beast. You are literally fighting. Your body is literally fighting. You feel every battle.”
But, as with everything else in her life, there’s humor in the stories from that challenging chapter, like an anecdote of her experience shopping during her chemotherapy stage.
“We were shopping, I got all the stuff I wanted, went to the cash register. I’m getting ready to pay for my stuff…and passed out at the commissary. You do not want to pass out at the commissary, because those people are the same people you see every time you go to the commissary,” she laughed. “So now I cant go to the commissary because I’m ‘the lady who passed out at the commissary.'”
Then, there’s the part about her hair.
“I lost all my hair. It came back curly, it came back kinky, it came back straight all at the same time,” Jones-Durr said. “Then I shaved it and it came back here and in the back but nothing on the side. I was like, ‘I have bipolar hair.'”
When she was ready to be social again, the world shut down.
“I’m excited because I had been trapped in the house, my white count was so low, I couldn’t be around the kids, which was so devastating for me,” Jones-Durr said. “Then COVID hit. When people say ‘I’ve been in the house 90 days,’ I been here since 2019!”
She was used to masks and quarantining, but for obviously different reasons.
So continuing to work with the kids remotely was normal to her, and to the kids in the program, including her 16-year-old managing editor who, by the way, lives in India.
Thankfully she already had the online platform, but she says the pandemic forced the organization to place more emphasis on its web aspects. She says the kids contribute to the digital magazine, and even had an issue where they wrote about COVID-19 and the pandemic as it affects them.
“[The kids] love to [use] Zoom,” she said. “The idea that they can e-mail me and say ‘Miss Bev, I need an appointment with you, can we Zoom?'”
She says she gets her energy from the kids, as they find their voices.
“They have things to say, we just have to listen to them. I learn something from these kids every time I’m in the room with them,” she said. “They’re still teaching me things about their world and what they expect us to do to make it right for them.”
Not to mention, she and her husband caught COVID-19.
So the cancer and COVID survivor says she celebrates every day without pain, and with tons of purpose.
“When I get up, I always say the same thing, ‘Shame the devil.'”
She continued, “No matter what’s going on in your life, you can find something to laugh at. If you don’t, you will go crazy.”