Reflections on four area women who break the traditional mold to uplift their community
I was recently blessed to get to know four unique, beautiful and brilliant women from our community—amazing individuals who are redefining what it means to shape and influence the community around us. They are thinking and living “outside the box,” breaking out of the traditional mold, and uplifting the communities, businesses and families in our region—and each of them has been a big inspiration to me.
From Humble Roots
Born and raised in Peoria, Alecia Collins grew up on Madison Avenue on the north side of town. She came from a humble household, raised by a single parent with her brother, and attended Kingman, Longfellow and Woodruff High School. Alecia credits her mother for instilling in her a strong work ethic, encouraging the paper route she had from fourth through eighth grade. This was the beginning of a lifelong drive that has helped catapult her to great success.
Alecia credits her mom for putting her and her brother into year-round sports, as well as age-appropriate jobs throughout high school. Her mom kept the siblings occupied with fruitful activities, both short- and long-term. Although her family came from a lower income bracket, Alecia says she and her brother were happy and never aware of it.
After working as a pharmacy tech at CVS for more than a decade, Alecia opened her own commercial cleaning company, Maid on the Run, about five years ago. She later envisioned and formed Lady A Entertainment, bringing events, speakers, celebrities and her own motivational speaking to the stage. She has brought a number of successful comedians, actors and speakers to Peoria—including Joe Torry, Reginald Ballard, and the famed entrepreneur and actress Vivica A. Fox, who spoke to more than 600 women at a seminar in July. She also put together a beauty and health expo this past October.
Alecia is easily transformed from her cleaning attire into dresses worthy of a red-carpet premiere in Hollywood. Her inner beauty matches her outer beauty, and she brings her leadership to others through her motivational speaking, as well as the love she pours out to all who meet her.
A Legacy of Authenticity
Banu Hatfield and her husband Mike are the owners of Zion Coffee Co. at 803 SW Adams Street in Peoria’s Warehouse District. Banu has brought her philosophy of living with heart and soul directly into the community, having brought her dream of helping others through coffee to life.
She and I conversed about college degrees, jobs and the large home she and Mike used to live in as they were climbing the corporate ladder. Her face then lit up with a contagious smile, eyes beaming with joy as she explained how they downsized to a humble 1930s bungalow and got rid of many of their physical possessions. This huge change in their lives stemmed from the loss of Mike’s mother. “I saw Mike and his family surrounding his mother in her last days,” Banu says. “I realized I was viewing a legacy, and I began to wonder what my legacy would be.”
Life began to change quickly once the Hatfields decided to downsize and live debt-free. A daily Starbucks habit led to the acquisition of an espresso machine, which eventually led to the purchase of 1,000 pounds of coffee beans and a family trip to Guatemala that changed the course of their lives forever. They connected deeply with several of the country’s small, family-owned coffee farms, which led to direct business with them, cutting out the middle man to leave more profit with the farmers. After several years of online sales, pop-up events and local farmer’s markets, they launched Zion Coffee Bar earlier this year and it has been highly successful.
Banu brought the concept of minimalism to the décor and ambiance inside Zion—a setting that thrives on connecting people face to face, bringing many diverse walks of life inside for their wonderful coffee, tea, food and special events. Zion has hosted a number of unique events, including a monthly supper club, a local “maker’s market,” and Zion Out Loud, monthly community gatherings with the idea of bringing people together for shared experiences and meaningful conversations.
Banu has brought true authenticity to this beautiful place, and that’s why people keep coming back: for old-fashioned, personal connections and face-to-face interaction in a hectic, overscheduled world. She and her business will continue to pursue quality over quantity, living and interacting genuinely with heart, soul and mind.
Uplift in the City
Molly Rice was born in Peoria, attending Woodruff High School, Illinois Central College and Bradley University. After working for several years with different social service organizations, then at Bradley, she moved to the small town of Rushville, where she met and married Mike Rice, a single father to three daughters. After learning about a shortage of foster parents, they became licensed in 2013. They had room to house more children, and they both had a drive to help others.
As their family grew, Molly wanted to move to a bigger city that better represented the children coming to live with them. In 2015, they purchased an older home in Peoria that needed some tender loving care, and they are working to turn it into the gem it was over a century ago. But in June of 2016, there were two drive-by shootings near the home of their closest neighbor. While that family moved out, that did not stop the empty house from being firebombed just eight days later. “We were scared; the kids were scared,” Molly recalls. “We saw the burnt rubble daily until it was demolished and filled in, and the owner offered to sell me the lot for a dollar.”
“I asked our youngest child what she wanted to see in the empty space, and she said a Peace Garden,” she adds. Later, they were able to acquire yet another empty lot from the city. Through donated materials, community volunteers and hard work, Molly and her family have turned nearly half a city block into the Peoria North End Urban Garden. They grow food for their neighbors, use seeds for nationwide seed exchanges, and even received a grant through the nonprofit Pollination Project.
With raised beds full of tomatoes, basil, dill, all sorts of peppers, corn, potatoes, and even some accidental pumpkins, kids from all around the neighborhood come together to work on planting, weeding, watering and harvesting. The Dream Center has come several times on its Mission Days, while students with Bradley University’s Service on Saturdays come about once a month. Even city officials have been known to swing by. Molly says she wants people to see the real needs in our community, and she hopes others will help in their own ways to uplift Peoria.
A Connecting, Peaceful Energy
Julie Vonachen has been in business in Peoria for over 20 years. After changing locations a few times, she is presently located in the historic Sunbeam Building at West Main and Sheridan Road, where Moon Dancer Boutique has become much more than a retail business. Her store is filled with unique clothing and curiosities, art, hand-crafted jewelry, stones and crystals, incense, candles, and other items that lead to peace, love and wellness. You can feel that peaceful energy when you walk into the shop.
In the early days, Julie attended all kinds of classes, seminars and workshops about building a successful retail business. It was often a struggle, but a book she read changed the way she viewed business—and life—forever. “I opened a book called A Return To Love by Marianne Williamson, and immediately knew it would change my life,” she explains. “It was based on the principles of ‘A Course in Miracles,’ a nondenominational spiritual practice that teaches how to change fear to love. I changed the way I viewed myself, others, my business and my definition of success.”
Julie brings positive energy to more than just her business. Finding people in an emergency situation, she will call on her Moon Dancer family to donate their time, talent or treasure to help them. I can’t tell you how many times I have seen her post a heartfelt appeal about this person or that. During a difficult time in my own life, she helped me, and she did so freely and without judgment. I hope that I can pass that same energy and spirit on to others.
“With the insight from that book, I changed from the philosophy of what can I sell you today, to what information God supplied me as to my divine purpose as a connector,” Julie says. “I have big-hearted customers. Every week we put out that need… to help homeless families needing to relocate, food, shelter… We also call out for prayers, positive thoughts and energy, all of these actions we call the ‘Moon Dance.’ These are people who love and share their light, soul and action with others.” iBi