ORLANDO – A sluggish economy. A weak labor market.  Rising gas and food prices and other pressures on the wallet.
The recession’s impact on Central Florida has been painful for a lot of people, and put immense pressures on families to survive.  What a lot of people could use these days is some inspiration.
That’s a concept recognized by the staff at Everest University off John Young Parkway in south Orlando, where they invite in speakers for inspirational talks about how to not only cope in these challenging times, but also to feel inspired to keep chasing your dreams.
Susan Fray, president of the university’s Ambassador and Leadership program, introduced one of their recent graduates, Vikki Hankins, to the students at the start of the speaking program. Hankins returned to the school to meet with students, staff and the public so she could talk about her long, difficult journey, from despair to hope. It’s a journey that started with Hankins living in a storage unit because she couldn’t afford an apartment, and ended with her operating her own successful business.

Vikki Hankins, author of the book "Trauma," talks about her experience living in a storage unit during tough times with students and faculty at Everest University. (Photo by Michael Freeman).

And what mattered most, Hankins told the large audience, was sticking with her dreams, despite the times when life seemed to have thrown in too many sharp curb balls to keep going.
“Our guest has been special to us,” Fray said. “She comes from Everest, and she has her own story.”
Beth Rodriguez, the university’s organizer of events, said she was particularly eager to bring Hankins back to the school to meet with students. It started with a chance meeting from one of the admirer’s of Hankins’ book, “Trauma.”
“I’m awe-inspired at how I met Vikki,” Rodriguez said, adding that on the day Hankins was graduating, a woman named Lillian approached her and asked if she could get in to the graduation ceremony without a ticket.
“She came up to me and she was standing there with this book in her hand,” Rodriguez said, adding that the book was Hankins’ autobiography, “Trauma.” Lillian did not have a ticket, so Rodriguez told her that without a ticket, there was no way she could get in.
Lillian just kept pleading with Rodriguez to let her into the graduation ceremony, telling her that she had read Hankins’ book and had never been so inspired in her life. She had flown from Maryland to Florida just to attend that graduation ceremony. Rodriguez said she was so impressed by the woman’s story that she did a quick search and found a spare ticket.
“I told her, ‘You drove that far, you deserve some tickets,’ “ Rodriguez said.  “Then I told her, the one thing you have to promise me is I’ve got to meet this lady.”
She did meet Hankins, Rodriguez said, and immediately knew she would be perfect for the Ambassadors program.
“I said, ‘Please, I’m begging you, you have to come speak to my ambassadors,’ “ she said.
Hankins said she has a lot to be thankful for. She’s a published author, runs her own self-publishing agency, a4j Publishing, and is a freelance paralegal. She’s also going back to school in the fall to earn a degree in political science.
“I am aspiring to run for and hold public office,” she said.
But getting here, she added, wasn’t easy, and the path was pretty bumpy along the way.
“From time to time, everyone needs motivation,” she said, as she urged the students and faculty to always take the time to care about others – and demonstrate it whenever possible.
“What do you think the most important quality is that you have to have? To care,” she said. “To care will cause you to take action. It will cause you to reassure and set examples. It also prompts you to take the initiative. You have to care.”
Hankins said just a few years ago, she had fallen on such hard times that she couldn’t afford an apartment. She ended up living in a small storage unit that she used to store her books. At the same time, she was a full-time student, struggling to survive.
“For six months, that’s where I slept while I was on the online division of Everest University,” she said.  “But no matter what, I stuck with my education.”
She eventually found an apartment she could afford in Orlando, and found work while she pursued her dream of starting her own business. It wasn’t easy.
“There were times when I really wanted to quit,” she said. “And I didn’t. I’m still not quitting. I’m a self-motivated person, but even I still need to be motivated at times.”
Hankins had tried to convince a large publishing house to publish her novel, but got nothing but rejection letters. Then she decided to do some research on self-publishing, and finally decided that was the way to go. She brought copies of her book to the ambassadors program and sold 14 copies after it was over.
Hankins is also the vice president of Advocate4Justice, an organization that advocates for the rights of people being released from prison, trying to successfully integrate back into society.
“I believe in what the organization stands for,” she said.
The key to shifting from living in a cramped storage unit to running her own company, she said, was the fierce determination not to quit, or get discouraged, and to keep fighting for what she wanted.
“It takes initiative, motivation, and persistence,” she said. “But if you do care, you’re going to do all of those things. Take a moment to care about the next person.”

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