TAMPA — Tonja Brickhouse heads up Tampa's department of solid waste and environmental program management, one of its largest divisions.
She lives in New Tampa's West Meadows neighborhood, where grand-nieces and -nephews come to visit for weeks at a time. She's 50 and loving life.
But some people never expected her to amount to much.
She was one of five children born to a young mother; all had different fathers.
Mary Holmes-Graves worked hard as a nurse to keep her children off public assistance. Still, Brickhouse endured others' judgment.
"My psyche was that I was not valuable," she said. "Nobody expected anything from me because I was one of 'Mary's bastards.' "
Instead of crushing under the negative labels, Brickhouse studied harder and earned more titles: student government president, award-winning public speaker, cheerleader.
In junior high, she caught the eye of the star athlete. The first time they met, he told her she would be his wife.
They had sex for the first time in 11th grade.
At first, she ignored the changes in her body, but a painful bout with bronchitis led to an emergency room visit. The doctor told her she was almost seven months' pregnant — at age 16.
"You're starting out just like me," her mother told her.
But she also told her daughter not to give up. She could still achieve everything she planned.
It's a message that, today, Brickhouse passes on to those stumbling along the way, just as she did.
• • •
Brickhouse, then Tonja Custis, gave birth the summer before her senior year in Virginia, where the family lived.
She had been determined to prove wrong the people who said she had thrown her life away. When it was time for graduation, Brickhouse tied with another girl for top ranking in the class. They flipped a coin to decide who would be valedictorian; she lost and addressed the crowd as salutatorian.
In her application to the prestigious University of Virginia, she talked about being a teen mother. The school accepted her and even offered a scholarship.
While Brickhouse and her boyfriend went away to school, their parents and extended family helped take care of the baby boy.
At college she was president of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, a resident adviser and a member of the Air Force ROTC.
After she and the star athlete earned their degrees, they got married. Their son, 5-year-old Raymond Brickhouse Jr., was the ring bearer.
• • •
Brickhouse immediately went into the service and was an Air Force officer for 25 years. Assignments took her to the Pentagon and Germany. She served about a year at MacDill Air Force Base.
The pinnacle of her career came in 2005 when the Air Force promoted her to colonel. She became the first African-American to serve as chief of the air transportation division. The job required her to coordinate all types of Department of Defense operations, including the movement of dead soldiers from the war on terrorism and the military mobilization after Hurricane Katrina.
The job was rewarding but exhausting. It's not easy being one of the only blacks and one of the only women in the upper ranks of the military, she said.
She retired in June 2007 and hoped to lead a quiet life while waiting for her children, including daughter Ashley, who arrived 14 years after Ray Jr., to have children of their own.
"When I retired, the good Lord and I made a deal," she said. "He was going to let me chill out for a year."
Then, she says, came a new assignment. It was time for Brickhouse to use her story to help others realize that a difficult past doesn't predetermine a rocky future. In fact, obstacles can make you stronger, more focused and more motivated to achieve, she said.
Brickhouse likes to put it this way: Stumbling blocks can become stepping stones.
She and her husband, married for 28 years, had moved back to Tampa in 2008 to work for the city. In her new career supervising solid waste, Brickhouse saw an opportunity to improve essential operations. But she also looked for ways to become involved in the community.
During a lunch with then-Assistant Police Chief Jane Castor, Brickhouse mentioned that she had been a teenage mom. Castor told her about Alpha House of Tampa, a nonprofit agency for mothers and children. Brickhouse joined the board of directors.
The only difference between her story and those of many of the Alpha House residents, Brickhouse said, is that her extended family stepped in to lend support when times were hard.
When she learned about her daughter's pregnancy, "I just hugged her and told her that I loved her and I would stand by her," Holmes-Graves recalled.
Patricia J. Langford, executive director of Alpha House, said Brickhouse can relate to the young mothers who turn to the center.
"She comes in saying, 'I was a teen mom. I can speak of those feelings, speak of the issues they're going through,' " Langford said.
At the Alpha House annual breakfast in May, Brickhouse shared with the crowd her mother's hardships. Holmes-Graves' family almost forced her to give Brickhouse up for adoption, fearing she couldn't care for a baby.
Holmes-Graves fought to get her baby back and earned the respect of relatives who initially doubted her mettle.
Today, Brickhouse is passionate about the need to break "negative generational cycles" that cause some children to repeat the mistakes of their parents.
She has been frank with her own kids. Don't do as I did, she told them. Wait until you're older and preferably married.
Ray Jr. is a foot and ankle surgeon. Ashley is a 20-year-old senior and aspiring dentist at Howard University.
Both are single and haven't given Brickhouse any grandchildren — yet.
She recently said she doesn't want her life story to come across as a sad story or even one of regret. Look at what she has achieved, she said. It is possible.
"You just go on," she said, "and press."
Reach Tia Mitchell at email@example.com.
Finding Tomorrow | Tonja Brickhouse