Project: Life’s Journey nonprofit helps those with financial and mental health challenges
This year, Benicia Hernandez added a nonprofit arm of her business, Project: Life’s Journey, to help even more people with financial and mental health challenges. Currently, the organization has a project to buy masks from local businesses and distribute them to the homeless in Norfolk and Portsmouth to lessen the spread of COVID-19. Benicia is also passionate about reducing the stigma that surrounds mental illness in the black community. Too often, African Americans expect people to handle depression or anxiety with faith and a “tough it out” attitude, Gill says. Avoiding proper care can lead to damaged relationships, broken families and self-medication with drugs or alcohol.
By 19, Benicia Hernandez Gill was a single mother of two. She got through high school with support from her parents and spent a decade as a waitress to cover expenses for college classes and her young family. Finishing her bachelor’s degree took eight years.
But Gill wasn’t stopping there.
Now 43, Gill has a master’s degree in community counseling and is a licensed professional counselor and substance abuse treatment practitioner. The Norfolk resident has her own 40-employee mental health agency, Life’s Journey, and is a certified life coach who spreads her messages through blogging and speaking engagements.
This year, Gill added a nonprofit arm of her business, Project: Life’s Journey, to help even more people with financial and mental health challenges. Currently, the organization has a project to buy masks from local businesses and distribute them to the homeless in Norfolk and Portsmouth to lessen the spread of COVID-19.
“I want to empower those who are struggling, because that’s where I came from,” Gill says. “I came from the bottom.”
Project: Life’s Journey is named for the youngest of Gill’s four children, 6-year-old Journey. Gill’s vision is to offer free wellness and parenting classes; assist single parents with tuition; fund youth recreational activities; and donate school supplies to educators.
Gill also is passionate about reducing the stigma that surrounds mental illness in the black community. Too often, African Americans expect people to handle depression or anxiety with faith and a “tough it out” attitude, Gill says. Avoiding proper care can lead to damaged relationships, broken families and self-medication with drugs or alcohol.
“They’re surviving but not thriving in those situations, which in my mind goes all the way back to slavery,” Gill says. “It’s time for them to thrive. It’s so important to me that I have a part in improving the health of the black community.”
Project: Life’s Journey held its first event, a virtual 5K “Race in Place,” on May 16 to benefit the Wesley Community Service Center in Portsmouth. Gill sits on the board of directors of the center, which has seen demand for its food pantry double during the pandemic.
Organized in just five weeks, the 5K drew 65 participants and raised $1,000. “It meant the world to us,” says Renyatta Banks, Wesley’s executive director. “Benicia is a go-getter, a ball of energy and always carries a smile. She has a real caring heart.”
Born in the Philippines to a Navy father, Gill has lived in Norfolk since age 5. Her dad was a longtime city firefighter; her mother, a hairstylist, has become an integral part of Gill’s business team.
Although Gill became pregnant with daughter Shawnice, now 26, in the 11th grade, reality didn’t really hit until she had son Elijah three years later. “I started asking, ‘What am I going to do to be able to take care of my kids?’ ” she says. “I had to pull my life together.”
Gill went to Tidewater Community College for an associate degree, Old Dominion University for a bachelor’s, and Norfolk State for her master’s. She founded Life’s Journey in 2016 to treat all types of mental illnesses, including schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and major depression.
With a direct but gentle style, Gill aims to hold individuals accountable for decisions and focus on healing and moving forward. She draws on her own past as an example, emphasizing the value of hard work, education, high personal standards and strong support systems.
“People are afraid to work for goals,” she says. “They think, ‘Oh, but it will take me 10 years to do this.’ That’s OK! Those years are going to pass by anyway, and if you put the effort forward, you can make real changes. Just start and keep going.”
This spring, Gill has stayed busy with telemedicine appointments and enjoyed spending more time with her family, especially taking long bike rides with Journey. She is close with all of her children: Shawnice helps run her company; Elijah has his own lawn care business; Aliyah, 17, is a rising high school senior; and Journey just finished first grade.
Gill also is working on a Master of Business Administration through Louisiana State University Shreveport, which she hopes to finish in 2021. As her business and nonprofit keep growing, she has no plans to slow down.
“I’m fighting aging with all I have in me,” she says. “I’m only getting started.”
To learn more about Project: Life’s Journey’s programs or make a donation, visit projectlifesjourney.org or call 622-0700.