By Asia Key-Armour
The Seattle Medium
Monika Mathews was 15 and pregnant when she went on her first college tour. She hid it well into her third trimester.
It was the 1980s and Mathews was a young teen looking for direction in Waukegan, Illinois, a midwestern city forty minutes outside of Chicago. Her favorite movie, at the time, was Breakin.’ When she wasn’t watching the stars of the movie — Turbo and Ozone — pop-locking across her television screen, she was out running the streets, looking for the affection she craved but could not find at home.
“The choices I made had everything to do with wanting a family bond,” Mathews said. “That is a human need. If you don’t have a positive, healthy sense of belonging then you’re going to recreate it somewhere else and it might not be healthy. And that’s what happened with me.”
“I was looking for love in all the wrong places. If I had to sum up all my bad decisions, they would probably fall under those two categories,” continued Mathews. “It wasn’t that my mom didn’t love me, she was just too overwhelmed in her own stuff to even see what was going on with me. So, I raised myself and the streets raised me.”
According to Mathews, she chased after the sense of community, that she felt was lacking at home, in the streets. This quest continued into her early adult years, until she changed her way of thinking and realized that her passion was being misplaced. In 2003, she created Life Enrichment Group, a non-profit organization committed to serving Black youth “with the overall outcome of instilling a positive mental framework towards self, built upon empowering youth to make responsible choices,” according to their website.
In 2016, Mathews would acquire financial backing from the United Way to fund Youth in Business, an academic and entrepreneurial training program for young people, under the helm of the Life Enrichment Group. Youth in Business helped Queen Care emerge, as a natural, organic line of skincare products that Mathews manufactures and sells herself.
Located in Seattle’s Columbia City, Queen Care offers products like lavender vanilla body wash, hair and body oil formulated with shea butter, mango brown sugar scrub, and sandalwood lotion. The store is mostly staffed by the high school section of the Young Queens, a mentorship program also under the umbrella of the Life Enrichment Group. Through the program, Mathews teaches young women from pre-kindergarten to twelfth grade the values of self-love, sisterhood, life and leadership skills, health and wellness and hands-on entrepreneurial training.
“They come into Queen Care after school, two or three times a week,” Mathews said. “We have a youth manager named Kiana who’s been in Young Queens for about four years. The whole goal is to prepare them for the real world. It’s one thing to teach from a book, but it’s another when you have to get in here and market, or you have to talk to a customer face to face, and know that product so well that you can sell it.”
Taji Ellis, a Young Queens facilitator and academic advisor for Life Enrichment Group, said that teaching the youth entrepreneurship and ownership will empower them to embrace their natural talents and profit off of them.
“We make sure we teach them not just how to make and sell products, but also the importance of having your own and honing in on those gifts that all of us have,” Ellis said. “Some people know how to sing, or write, or make products, or do hair. Whatever the case, your gift should be making you money.”
Ellis — who’s own dream is to use her poetry to spread the gospel, to live comfortably without debt and own property that will service not only herself but her community — believes one key to creating generational wealth within the Black community is developing a business acumen with the youth.
“We want to be wealthy, not rich,” Ellis said. “We instill in our young ladies that this is one avenue to create personal wealth.”
“Wealth is more so about ownership and investments,” added Ellis. “If you don’t have those, you won’t have anything to pass down to your children. Entrepreneurship is a tool to empower and support one another so we can actually have our own and be able to pass it down through generations.”
Ellis said Mathews helped her hone in on her own talents as her mentor. She said Mathews let her stay with her for two years after she graduated from University of Washington. During this time, they became as close as family.
As she reflects upon her accomplishments, Mathews could not foresee the philanthropic and entrepreneurial endeavors she would establish when she was a “wayward youth” with a dysfunctional family marred by violence and poverty.
“We grew up around a lot of chaos,” Mathews said. “It was a poor household, we dealt with domestic violence. A sense of community was fleeting for me because we were always moving around. My mother did the best she could with us, with what she knew how to do.”
But, according to Mathews, her mother did instill in her the value of education and spirituality. She knew, even in her tumultuous childhood, that she was of sound mind and had the autonomy to make her own choices.
At 17 with a toddler in tow, she followed her mother to Seattle. She described the move as the best thing her mom ever did for her, but admitted that her lifestyle didn’t change.
In fact, it got worse. She found out that changing where you live doesn’t change who you are.
It wasn’t until a series of bad decisions quantified to the point that she was finally ready to commit to changing her life. She knew if she really wanted her circumstances to be different, she had to replace her negative influences with something powerfully positive.
“When you’re making choices that aren’t conducive to your success, your health or your wealth, it’s hurtful,” Mathews said. “It’s painful. It doesn’t feel good. I was just tired of that, I knew I needed to make a change.”
Her greatest motivation was and still is her son, Kyle Mathews, who currently serves as a youth development specialist for the Life Enrichment Group. In this position, Kyle spends time mentoring and running a reading program for elementary school students.
“When I didn’t care about myself, he inspired me to do better so that he could have a better life,” she said. “All of this is for him and his generation.”
So at 25, she began to meditate on her purpose. She quieted her mind and eliminated all outside sources so she could focus on what she was put on earth to do.
“In that moment, the name Life Enrichment Group came to me,” Mathews said. “And I knew I was going to help youth and families that have experienced similar things that I have. I was going to help them get through it.”
She remembered a scene from her favorite movie, where they were building a youth center in the community. She remembered the college tour her class took while she was pregnant with her son.
She has a vision to open a youth center in Seattle she said, and now, coming full circle, she takes the kids in her Life Enrichment Group programs on college tours every year herself.
In her reflections she began to understand the importance of investing in the youth, planting seeds of encouragement with your words and your deeds.
“[Life Enrichment Group] is more than just programs and Queen Care is more than just a store,” she said. “It’s really about building community. It’s about healing and uplifting each other. It’s all a reflection of my journey thus far.”
“Everything that I practiced to turn things around for myself are the same things I put into the curriculum: affirmations, meditation, self-care, natural means of getting things done, love of being Black,” she continued. “All of those things helped build me mentally, and that’s something I’m very adamant about in our youth, is building mental strength and capacity because everything starts in your mind.”
Kyle Mathews witnessed his mother’s journey from their very beginning. He watched her build Life Enrichment Group and its various programs, and her Queen Care business from the ground up.
He said it is because of her that he is passionate about helping people, building meaningful connections with them and making them laugh. As a junior at Central Washington University, with thousands of community service hours logged, he wants to start his own non-profit some day, and said he could see himself owning a business in four years.
He plans to continue the legacy of community his mother started by leading by example. He wants people to know that whatever efforts they make to show support in the community have lasting effects.
“My friends tell me they want to do things in the community, but they have too much going on,” Kyle Mathews said. “But they see me taking extra time out of my day to go to a kid’s recital and visiting boys I used to mentor at South Shore. I can see that really means something to them.
“If I can get people to understand that what you do, no matter how small you think it is, it’s not meaningless,” Mathews added. “It may seem small to you, but for somebody else it might be everything they ever wanted. The little things matter, and a lot of little things add up to something huge.”