Life has purpose for Stefanie Ashford.
Ashford, 43, proudly walks in her purpose as the chief executive officer and president of the Baton Rouge-based nonprofit People of Purpose.
"We help youth and families in transition resolve challenges in their lives, families and finances," she said. "We do promote Christian morals and values when we're working with our youth and families to encourage them. … Our main focus is trying to help them try to fulfill their purpose in life and achieve success in every area of their life."
While she is fulfilling her purpose by helping others, that wasn't always the case for Ashford, who as a teen doubted her very reason for living.
"Basically, I ended up in a three-year physically, sexually and emotionally abusive relationship during my young teenage years," said Ashford, a native of Mississippi. "It was a nightmare."
The nightmare started with a date rape and included stalking and death threats. She didn't tell anyone.
"I wore a mask to school everyday because I was the popular girl at school," she said.
Ashford was an outstanding student, head cheerleader, played on the basketball team and sang in the church choir.
"I did everything. I was a little busy body, so a lot of people didn't think or know — not even my parents — that I was in an abusive relationship," she said. "And I would come home every night and cry and have thoughts of suicide."
Ashford held on to her faith.
"I was heavily into church," she said. "My relationship with God was there. That's the only thing that really got me through it. I was grateful that his hand was upon me. Even though the devil was trying to make something bad in my life, God turned it around for good and birthed out of me a purpose to really have a heart for kids."
Ashford said she shares her heart and testimony to help inspire the kids and their families.
"I use my story to tell kids that it doesn't matter where you come from or what you've been through in life that you have the power to change your story, and you can rewrite the script so that it can be a good story, regardless of how it starts out," she said.
Twice divorced, Ashford also believes she can relate to the single moms and their struggles.
"I tell my single moms you can do it, but you got to get to a point where you depend on God instead of that man and child support because all he's doing is causing frustration in your life, instead of joy and peace, and your focus is not on what you're supposed to be doing for your kids," she said.
The idea for People of Purpose started in 2000 as a vision from God, Ashford said.
She had 20 years of on-the-job training working in nonprofits before launching People of Purpose in Birmingham, Alabama, in 2007.
"I felt like a lot of things that I'm doing now I was preparing for walking in my purpose," said Ashford, a member of The Vineyard Church of Baton Rouge.
The first People of Purpose program targeted teen moms and their children through a partnership with Birmingham City Schools. People of Purpose expanded to Mississippi in 2010 with more youth programs, tutoring programs and summer camps.
In 2014, Ashford and People of Purpose moved to Baton Rouge and established its headquarters. There are still organizations in Alabama and Mississippi.
Students are referred to the People of Purpose program through local after-school programs. People of Purpose works with the students and their whole family. Most of the kids stay in the program for a year, Ashford said.
"We're that mediation that kind of helps the family keep the glue together and helps them communicate together for the sake of the child," Ashford said.
The Baton Rouge program also offers help with parenting skills and finding jobs, handling family finances, feeding the community, summer enrichment camps and tutoring. The tutoring program include former educators and tutors from LSU and Southern.
"Most kids who have come to us with D's and F's have been able to turn it around," Ashford said. "Everybody who has been in our program by the end of the year have had A's and B's."
The program also offers arts and recreation.
"They get to really tap into their gifts and be creative here and explore and be themselves, and we're giving them that opportunity to figure that out in a safe place," Ashford said.
Even as she was continuing to help others, Ashford went through another difficult time in her life when her sister and mother died within 40 days of each other in 2015.
"I really was at a time when I wanted to throw in the towel," she said.
She once against relied on her faith.
"I felt like I had to dig deeper and realized that God was calling me to really walk fully in the purpose he called me to," she said.
People of Purpose was at two previous sites in Baton Rouge before moving in April to its 1½-acre site at 6500 Stumberg Lane.
"This is our building," Ashford said. "We're not renting. We're not paying anybody. God is going to do so many great things out here. He's already showed me what he's going to do with all this beautiful nature and space we have," she said.
For information on People of Purpose, call (877) 742-7487 or visit popcdc.com.
Making a difference
Shirley Weber's identity crisis started as a teen and lasted into adulthood.
The 47-year-old Baton Rouge woman said the scripture is what gave her a new mind and helped her through bouts with depression and other issues.
"I went through a lot," she said. "It was depression, and I was constantly struggling. The tool that I used was the Word of God, and it changed my thinking. That's what motivated me. … Even when I became a Christian, I didn't know my true identity. I didn't know the purpose of why I was really here. ... Now I have a mindset of 'this is the day that the Lord has made and I will rejoice and be glad in it.' "
Weber writes about her experiences in her new self-published book "To Make a Difference You Have to Be Different."
A book-signing will be held 3 p.m. Sunday at Barnes & Noble CitiPlace, 2590 CitiPlace Court, in Baton Rouge.
She already has inspired others.
"(A female pastor) sent me a text and said she thought she had it all together, but when she started reading my book, she started slowly seeing things that she really needed to start praying about," Weber said. "And I've had people that wasn't saved call me and say they didn't know their true purpose. But after reading the book, they were motivated to get deeper in the Word to see what their purpose really was."
Weber, who works with her husband, Gospel artist and Pastor Larkin Weber Sr., at G-Force Fellowship Church, writes in the book that to make a difference, we have to embrace the differences God has for us.
"You cannot be all you can be and act like everyone else," she writes. "The Lord thought so much of each of us that he gave us all uniqueness."
Weber then points to Romans 12:6: "We have different gifts according to the grace given us."
She adds, "Have you thought of this statement. The Lord made us so special that there are no two people that have the same fingerprints. You have your own skills, dreams and goals that make you different from the rest. Be who God meant for you to be and you will take the world by storm. Someone will always be prettier, smarter and younger, but they will never be you. Walk in your uniqueness."
Weber learned how to walk in her uniqueness and discover her inner power and identity as a child of God.
"When knowing your identity, your faith will grow stronger and develop as you focus on your identity in Christ. Knowing who you are will restores your joy, bring contentment and change your life," she writes.
Chapters in the 59-page book include "Overcoming Your Weakness," "Be Determined to Enjoy Your Life," "Think Big" and "Two Becoming One." Each chapter is followed by a scripture and study questions.
Faith Matters runs every other week in The Advocate. Reach Terry Robinson at (225) 388-0238 or firstname.lastname@example.org.