Atlanta, a place known for rising from the ashes of the Civil War to become an international city, proved to be a perfect backdrop for Artricia James-Heard's own rise from what she calls "a very vulnerable time in her life."
It was there that James-Heard escaped a failing and abusive marriage and found a safe haven with a girlfriend. Over time, however, the friendship dissolved as a relationship grew with her girlfriend's brother, Michael.
That left her and Michael without a place to stay, bad credit and few options.
Serendipity — or a higher power — led her and Michael to a suburban home for rent where an owner, Curtis Seal, asked to review their credit reports so he could have peace of mind. The reports proved unfavorable, but instead of rejecting them, Seal forced them to create a cash-flow plan to show how they would cover rent, pay debtors and improve their credit.
In essence, Seal became a financial counselor, guiding them through the debt repayment plan while allowing them to rent the home. He reviewed their efforts each month, and James-Heard learned while boosting her finances as a Naval reservist.
"He really made the experience good for us so we could become homeowners," Heard-James said. "He said, 'Okay I'm going to rent to you, but you gotta make sure you work this plan.'
"If all goes well I'll be more than happy to sell you my house."
From those early lessons, Heard-James began to slowly grow smarter about finances as she grew closer to Michael and eventually married him.
Even after they relocated to Tampa and MacDill Air Force Base, and she moved from reservist to active duty, the couple continued to acquire knowledge about credit, renting and buying homes.
When it finally came time buy a home 10 years ago, their credit standing and savings qualified them for the house of their choice.
But that was just the beginning. Heard-James shared her life lessons with a friend, helping the friend's credit jump from 463 to a 650 in a period of eight months.
The friend's Plant City-based mortgage company asked, "Who have you been working with? We've never seen someone's credit improve so much in such a short time."
The mortgage company began referring others to her and the side business eventually blossomed into a full-time company: A Right Way Credit Counseling. Now Heard-James, a retired veteran, holds a masters from the University of South Florida in entrepreneurship and maintains an office in New Tampa.
She's since worked closely with certified financial planner Sherida Ferguson, helping people with the baby steps while Ferguson elevates their finances when they've reached more solid ground.
Ferguson and Heard-James say they can help those gripped with that lonely feeling that comes with credit problems.
"They're not alone if they realize they need to do something with their finances," Ferguson said. "There are people like us out there that can help them. I know I can help anybody, but I can't help everybody."
The emotional toll of debt can prompt people to break down. James-Heard keeps tissues on her desk and when clients ask why, she quickly replies, "You're going to need it."
But she points out they always feel better. It's difficult revealing a lack of financial literacy, but it's the first step to improvement.
"I understand because I've lived it," James-Heard said.
James-Heard said one of her biggest achievements is getting people away from the pawn shop. In a sense, I guess that's chapter one in getting a phoenix to rise from the ashes.
That's all I'm saying.