Dawnell Jacobs never thought she’d be where she is today.
Homeless, alone at 17, her mother on the run and her brothers whisked away into the foster system, Jacobs could very easily have been one of those thousands of children who slip through the cracks of society, discounted and given up on.
But that isn’t what happened. Instead, Jacobs fought her way up through the system for years, putting herself through college and graduate school so she could earn enough money to get her brothers out of foster care.
Now, Jacobs, a 36-year-old language arts teacher at Early College Academy, says she is finally at a point where she can begin to pursue her real dream: becoming a best-selling author by drawing on the stories of her own turbulent life.
And with four published novels (and a fifth coming soon), she’s well on her way.
A rough start
Jacobs was born in Fort Benning, but moved to Atlanta when she was in middle school. From the start, it was a difficult family situation.
Her mother had been medically discharged from the military after being diagnosed with severe mental illness, and her stepfather flitted in and out of the home. It was a dysfunctional family dynamic, and as the older sibling by 11 years, she faced the brunt of that dysfunction, she said.
It was a stressful life, but Dawnell excelled at school in the city.
“I was always the good kid in school,” she said. “I never acted up in class. I wrote stories, got published in high school.”
But everything changed when she got called to the school office one day. A voice on the phone told her her mother had seriously hurt her stepfather in a fight, and was on the run from police.
“I just screamed in the office,” Jacobs said. “I don’t even remember what happened the rest of that day.”
Her brothers were removed from the home and taken into foster care. Jacobs drifted between her boyfriend’s and friends’ houses to keep out of the system. She was homeless, without her family and had no idea what to do next. She was angry, and felt the unfairness of the situation down to her core.
“To wind up, my senior year, not knowing where I was going to live, having my brothers taken in foster care, having my mom gone ... I was trying to go to colleges and that had been ripped from me at that time. I really (didn’t) know what my future was going to be,” she said. “I was angry.”
Eventually, Jacobs found shelter with a pastor who took her in as long as she would work. “My goal was to get custody of my brothers,” Jacobs said. The pastor said if she went back to school she wouldn’t have to work, and could focus on getting her diploma. She took the offer.
Jacobs began going back to high school, getting on MARTA well before the sun came up and returning home at the end of the day. When she graduated, she realized her brothers had been sent down to Columbus to live with an aunt. She came back down South, but had no steady place to live. So she applied at Columbus State University, and got in.
“I lived in the dorms. I got my degree in three years because I just stayed and studied full time,” she said.
She graduated and lived out of her car for a while, going from couch to couch and looking for work and places to stay. Then she was hired as a teacher, something she said she never expected to do.
To her, these were all just steps in getting her brothers back.
“When I got my first check, I used it to get my first apartment, bought a bunch of furniture from Goodwill, and then I got my brothers,” she said.
They were finally back together, but it wasn’t easy, Jacobs said. The kids had been abused and had behavioral issues. Her oldest brother had sickle cell anemia and was in very poor health. But they stuck together. Now she has one brother at CSU, another in college and married, and another in the military.
“I’m very proud,” Jacobs said.
“Everything that they said I couldn't do, I did.”
Her dream had always been to become a published writer, but it had taken a backseat to school, work, and above all, getting back her brothers.
“Everyone in my household had been through a lot. We all had to deal with it in our own ways. And one of my ways was writing the books,” Jacobs said.
Friends and family began reading the stories she’d typed out in her free time, and told her she needed to give writing a fair shake.
So she did. She started a publishing company and wrote her first book, “The Monsters Within,” in 2015 — a dark novel about a woman who becomes entangled with a family in danger of an abusive father.
“I pulled from, you know, my own dysfunctional upbringing, the domestic violence, the arguing, except it’s exaggerated,” Jacobs said. She designed the book cover, the interior and pushed it out on Amazon.
“I thought ‘this is probably not going to go anywhere, I’m probably going to be the only one who reads this book.’ Next thing I know it starts popping up on my Facebook timeline. People I didn't know were buying this book,” she said.
She kept going. She wrote another book called “The Shades of Devotion,” which became her most popular novel to date. It, like all her books, draws from one of her own experiences.
When Jacobs was 17 and homeless, a friend made her an offer — she would pay Jacobs $15,000 to marry her friend, an illegal immigrant, so he could stay in the U.S.
She didn’t do it, but wondered what might have happened if she had.
“When thinking about that story I thought, well let me rewrite what could have happened if I had said yes at that time.”
The book has sold well since, she said, and has received rave reviews on Amazon and social media. She’s now written two more books, and has plans on the way for more. She said her burgeoning writing is allowing her to finally live her own dream.
“For the first time in my life, I want to do something for me, instead of making my decisions to help other people,” Jacobs said. “I’ve spent my whole life in survival mode — my whole life. And one day, when I hit my 30s, I realized that my whole life I’ve been fighting.”
Eventually, she says she hopes to inspire more writers to get their voices out into the world — especially minority voices that she says are being forced out by outdated societal expectations.
“There's this idea out there that black authors aren't mainstream authors, that we can only cater to black audiences. That's not true,” she said. “That’s one of the reasons why its important to me to be successful, to show that there's a place and a voice for African-American communities in literature.”
So what advice does she have for any aspiring authors who think they might not have a shot?
“I tell everybody: do whatever it is you love, have faith and dream big. People told me I’d never be able to get custody of my brothers. It took while, but I did it. People told me I would never get a good job. I became a teacher. Everything that they said I couldn't do, I did,” Jacobs said.
“Have in your mind what it is you want to do, reach for it and just believe and have faith that it can happen.”