As early as age 3 or 4, Miesha Willis remembers thinking, “I will not live like this when I’m grown.”
The lifelong Gulfport resident was always keenly aware of her surroundings — and the fact that her parents struggled with substance abuse. They began by selling drugs like marijuana and cocaine, using them recreationally before moving to crack cocaine.
“Originally, they didn’t look like drug addicts, neither did we look like children of drug addicts, but I knew that we were not like other people,” Willis says. “I went to school every day knowing that we were different.”
After numerous evictions and utility shut-offs, Willis’s mother reached rock bottom. Willis went to live with her grandmother at age 10, and while her home life was better, the exposure to illegal substances in her neighborhood continued.
“The very things that my father and mother did that I hated, I began to do as well,” she says. At age 12, she was smoking marijuana and getting suspended from school. At 13, she was selling drugs and had an extensive juvenile record. By age 16, she had spent time in Columbia Training School, a facility for troubled teenage offenders, and was a ninth-grade dropout in an abusive relationship with much older Eddie C. Willis.
Nonetheless, “I know now that God’s hand was upon me, and He had a plan for my life,” Willis says. “The same week I dropped out of school, something told me go and get a GED. I did and passed with ease the first time.”
Approaching age 18, Willis knew she couldn’t face the consequences of adult charges and resolved to stop selling drugs. She embarked on a cosmetology career and became the youngest student ever to enroll at Chris’ Beauty College. In 2002, she opened her own salon — Shades of Essence.
That same year, she married Willis, who also had a criminal past but assured her he was committed to change. They now have been together 24 years and married for 18.
“We have seen some valleys, been through some fires and some floods, but I can say we’ve chosen to do it together,” she says. “He’s my best friend, business partner and co-laborer in the gospel.” The pair now serves on the ministerial staff at Faith Works Ministries, where he is assistant pastor.
Having overcome so much, Willis began to think she could “believe” her way through any challenge, but a struggle with infertility forced her to accept she may never have a child.
“My husband is seven years older than me and had children prior to our relationship,” she says. “I have had the privilege of helping him raise them, and did it with joy, but it didn’t stop my longing to be a mother. This was the greatest test of my faith and the best opportunity I have had to understand the ways of God.”
Her miracle eventually came in the form of 1-year-old Eddie Jr., but Willis didn’t waste time while she waited for motherhood. Over the years, she became the youth pastor at her church and mentored many girls she encountered, seeing herself in them and recognizing the scars life had left on their hearts. She also started a community outreach called More Than I See, which is dedicated to celebrating and encouraging girls and young women. The outreach plans to launch its first career camp this summer.
Willis says she never could have imagined the life she lives today — a salon owner and CFO of her husband’s commercial janitorial company, E&M Willis Inc. Years of negative mindsets and generational patterns are part of who she is, but they don’t define or control her.
“Everything went according to the master’s plan,” she says. “I choose to embrace every adversity and use it to help someone else. This gives purpose to all of the pain.”