Helping youth avoid life’s dangers, toils, and snares

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Danyelle Custis, center, is surrounded my members of her nonprofit for young women, The Set TRUTH. Submitted photo.

Danyelle Custis’ Set TRUTH group guides young women

By Stefanie Jackson – Danyelle Custis knows what it’s like to start over. She’s done it three times. Today, she wants to help others avoid the same pitfalls. 

The Eastern Shore native had her first child at 16. While still a teenager, the grandparents who raised her died, leaving her and her sister to fend for themselves. 

As an adult she was the homeless mother of three children. After the second time she moved to Virginia Beach — she was offered one of her former jobs — she decided to dedicate her life to helping others. 

Custis was inspired to start The Set TRUTH, whose mission is to “Support, Encourage, and Teach young women life’s truth,” after she married her current husband, Equan Custis, in September 2019. The group includes young women aged 15-21 from Hampton Roads and the Eastern Shore. 

The couple joined a church, and Danyelle developed a close relationship with its pastor, Michelle Donaldson.

Before Donaldson died of cancer, she had written a note of encouragement for Custis reminding her of her natural ability to connect with young people and how “kids love you and listen to you.”

Custis passes along encouragement to the girls of The Set TRUTH through a group-text chat, regularly reminding them that “every day is a new day.”

Having experienced the loss of family and friends, break-ups, custody battles, health problems, homelessness, and other personal traumas starting from a young age, there isn’t much to which Custis can’t relate.

—A difficult upbringing

Custis was born Danyelle Kellam, grew up in Painter, and graduated from Nandua High School in 1993.

She and her sister were raised primarily by their grandparents, Arthur and Mildred Major, as the girls’ father was in the military and their mother struggled with drug addiction.

She felt uncomfortable and unable to talk about sex and other personal issues with her grandparents, so she lacked guidance in some areas of her life, she admitted. 

She became pregnant and at age 16 gave birth to her oldest child, Devontae Colona, who is now 29.

After her grandparents died, Custis and her sister, both teenagers, were left on their own. Custis said she was a “hot mess” who was on welfare, borrowing money that she didn’t repay, and stealing to eat. 

She got her first chance to start over when her aunt suggested she move to Virginia Beach.

Custis made the move and started working three jobs so she could get her son back, who had been placed in the custody of his grandmother.

One of Custis’ three jobs was as a certified personal care assistant, which she loved. She grew personally attached to her clients and sometimes bent the rules to allow them to enjoy activities such as trips to the dollar store. She never missed a day of work.

When Custis was approached one day by her supervisors, she thought she was going to be disciplined. Instead, they told her how impressed they were with her job performance and dedication and offered her a promotion to staff coordinator, which she accepted on the condition of finding someone to fill her former position.

In 2001, Custis adopted the baby of a friend who left the child, named Zahrai Larkins, at Custis’ doorstep. Custis unexpectedly became a mom for the second time.

She later experienced a surprise pregnancy and had a third child, Journey Giddens, who is now 15. 

Custis and Journey’s father had a place together in Virginia Beach but divorced and went their separate ways.

Custis said she was careless with her finances and became homeless for about seven months, during which time Journey’s father volunteered to care for his daughter until Custis could get back on her feet.

She got her second chance to start over after one of her personal care clients died and his son unexpectedly gave Custis $4,000, telling her that his father “wanted you to have it.”

Custis immediately began driving around, looking for a home for rent. She found a duplex for $1,200 a month and called the landlord at 7 a.m. He gave her 30 days to get the bills in her name. “I thought I had a mansion,” Custis said.

Three years later, her health declined, and she had an episode that rendered her unable to walk, drive, or work at her personal care assistant job. She underwent physical therapy.

Another aunt invited her to return to the Eastern Shore. Custis worked at Perdue until she got a call from her doctor telling her she could return to her job as a nursing coordinator.

Custis immediately left work and went back to Virginia Beach, where she started over for the third time.

Again she drove around until she found a place for rent, securing the rental by giving the landlord her entire income tax refund. She lives in the same home to this day.

— Helping others

She does a lot of listening and advising at Set TRUTH meetings, which are typically held at the beginning and end of each month, with an outing in between.

The bimonthly meetings are held at a Virginia Beach hotel, where the young women, mostly ages 15 to 21, discuss topics such as their plans for going back to school and facing related challenges. Some of the members have jobs and/or children in daycare.

The young women are welcome to discuss difficult personal issues – such as dealing with an alcoholic parent – which are kept confidential.

These heart-to-heart conversations make The Set TRUTH “near and dear” to Custis, who knows what it’s like to be afraid to confide in a trusted adult after experiencing trauma. In her youth she was sexually molested and never told anyone at the time because she feared no one would believe her.

Now, in her mid-forties, she finally feels able to talk about it.

She hopes to spare others some of the hardships she has endured.

Through her nonprofit, Custis can help provide the upcoming generation of women the extra support that she didn’t always have when she was young.

Set TRUTH gatherings aren’t always serious. The girls have fun too. For example, Custis has taken them back-to-school shopping and out to eat. At least one girl never had a meal at a sit-down restaurant before joining the group, Custis said.

The monthly meetings also provide the young women educational and skill-building opportunities such as learning financial responsibility and job interview readiness.

Next they would like to take an overnight trip to Washington, D.C., to visit the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

The Set TRUTH has grown to 11 members, eight from the Virginia Beach area and three from the Eastern Shore, and Custis is looking for a van to transport the entire group on outings.

She also wants to do more for kids on the Shore, including coordinating with local law enforcement to hold a Stop the Violence event. 

It’s similar to National Night Out, in which law enforcement officers and community members come together for a family-friendly event with games, activities, and food, but it also features special guests who speak out against violent crime.

Most of The Set TRUTH’s current expenses are paid by Custis and donations from family. Her six closest friends are the 501(c)(3) nonprofit’s officers.

Running the nonprofit is a labor of love for Custis, who says she will continue her work “until God calls me home.”

To learn more, visit the Set TRUTH Facebook page.

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