DURHAM, NC — A bright soul in a dark place. A college cheerleader full of spirit, full of hope, no worries other than nailing the cheer routines and every college class test. But April-Autumn Jenkins never knew that she would face the test of power, physical power, a male college athlete who would soon change her life forever. Jenkins became a victim of sexual assault, and nobody believed her story. Her life was ripped apart with a resulting, unplanned child, alcoholism, and a loss of mind, literally. But today, this Duke University Women’s Center’s therapist and motivational speaker is speaking out. She is saving others because “Huston-Tillotson saved me.” She is on a mission to lift other victims, primarily black girls, out of their dark places.
“It’s so interesting. God is such a wonderful person. Huston-Tillotson is a part of my story. HT saved me,” Jenkins emphasized.
Within her story are a few hugely inspirational ladies. One is a friend in Austin with whom she found refuge after the attack, and another one is a social worker who was the first person ever to shed some bright light on her darkness. That social worker recommended to Jenkins that she should look at Huston-Tillotson. With growing up in predominantly white schools, Jenkins did not know what to expect on a black college campus.
“But when I stepped onto this campus, it was love,” Jenkins reminisced. “How can I help you? What can I do for you?” These were her constant greetings. Then, there was her Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc. process through which she was strong enough to tell her story.
“They wrapped their arms around me,” just as her professors did. One, in particular, Dr. Rosalee Martin, is a professor that she will never forget.
“My champion, my girl,” Jenkins said of Dr. Martin. “She is hard on you, but it is with love. She shaped what I thought about myself and what I could do.” Jenkins recommends anyone to come to Huston-Tillotson if s/he needs to be loved on, built up, reassured, or validated; “this is a wonderful place to go to start your journey.
It’s family. I felt like I was in class with aunties and uncles helping me along the way. I have the utmost respect for them in their roles and capacities, and I felt like they wouldn’t harm me, so I went with the process.”
Jenkins started her journey at Huston-Tillotson where she graduated with a major in sociology and a minor in psychology. She then earned her master’s (cum laude) in social work from North Carolina State University. Professionally, she did a two-year stint at Texas A&M University where she opened an office for prevention and education initiatives.
“I was a little black girl educating thousands of students on sexual violence who came to A&M in undergraduate and graduate programs. That for me was amazing…as a person who wasn’t believed by another institution in Texas and had the opportunity to educate them about this issue was mind-blowing.”
After Texas A&M, Jenkins knew that it was time to branch out on her own. Soon enough, the idea emerged for her brand to be called Sparks, a verb that leads her to ask her crowds, “What will April Autumn spark for you?”
She continues to build her brand of empowerment, to help black girls like her who felt lost and had their identity stripped away because of situations that robbed them of their purpose in life.
“When you have purpose, but don’t have the education or experience to pull it off, you must start with the education. I had to get HT under my belt,” she said.
It was not until 10 years after she completed her master’s that she started speaking out at places like a North Carolina battered women shelter, Texas A&M, and the University of Wisconsin.
Then, there were smaller groups such as classmates.
One classmates’ event, in particular, is where she recalls telling her story. Once done telling her story, she sat. Tears were rolling down her classmates’ faces, but her face was dry. That was the moment she realized that there was strength in her survival.
“Now, it’s about me empowering others. That was then…I’m over it.”
Recently, she spoke to a group of churches about sexual harassment in the context of Aretha Franklin’s funeral and the touching of Ariana Grande by the lead pastor. Her topic was, “What is sexual assault, and how does it look in church?”
Jenkins finds that she must balance her faith and self-care. “I am rooted and grounded in God…like, that’s my boy,” she said with laughing confidence.
When it comes to self-care, Jenkins also takes it seriously.
“I don’t think black women do it enough. We take care of everyone else but neglect taking care of ourselves.”
Despite her dark days that resulted in a child for which she could not care for, thus ultimately putting the child up for adoption, she later gave birth to twin boys who are now 15. Her past experience, having children of her own, and working around children, she found that she needed a delicate balance with this work. But she is inspired by every moment together.
“Young adults keep me young. Youth are our future. If we do not talk with them to carry the mantle forward, the message will get lost.”
When reflecting on her journey to date and the impact that she made along the way, she feels that she is planting seeds to move people forward.
“I moved from just April to April-Autumn to deal with the harvest part of life. April is springtime and planting. I might not see the harvest in people, but I know that there is one. I’m the planter and was born to be the planter. I’m hoping that I’m being the harvest of the seeds that someone planted in me.”
One seed has to be from her family. Jenkins shared a touching story of her terminally-ill dad before he passed away.
According to her dad, she was supposed to be born on his birthday in April, but instead, she was born in March. Her parents asked her to move back home to Angleton, Texas to help them die. Her dad had lung cancer. While in his last days, he told his daughter, “I should have never named you April because you are Autumn; you are the harvest of everything our family wants you to be and everything we hoped you to be.” And he never called her April again. He passed away two weeks later.
For all the tears she lost, and for all the strength she gained, she knows that she is living a purpose-driven life.
“This is my purpose. I’m operating in my purpose. When I know that this is something God is pleased with, then I’m good.”