“God Will Vindicate Us...” Denise Hunter Sets The Record Straight

The high profile reassignment of Pastor John Hunter from First AME—L.A.’s oldest and most storied congregation—to Bethel AME San Francisco in late October ignited a firestorm of controversy in the AME church. Articles and allegations in the L.A. Times added fuel to the flames. As did harsh words, scandal, a lawsuit, and an official challenge, much of which had been directed just as much to First Lady Denise Hunter as her husband.

Ironically enough, just six months ago, Denise Hunter had been named one of the city’s most fascinating Angelenos in L.A. Weekly’s People 2012 issue and “a rising Democratic darling” relative to her grassroots campaign skills and connections.

It is easy to see why Hunter scored high marks for her tireless community advocacy given her roll in First Lady Michelle Obama’s local “Let’s Move” campaign, the produce market she established as a venue for fresh fruits and vegetables in the community, the key role she played in Kamala Harris’s successful bid to become the state’s first female attorney general, and efforts like First AME’s Annual Back to School Giveaway and Health Fair—which drew over 5,000 attendees yearly.

Not afraid of controversy, she partnered with Supervisor Mark Ridley Thomas last year to spearhead an STD prevention program to address the alarming rates of Chlamydia in South Los Angeles affecting black and Hispanic youth. Concerned for the images of blacks and the church on television, she backed Cedric The Entertainer in his letter writing bid for a second season of the TV Land Network’s “Soul Man” TV series.

Today, the image that most concerns her is that of mother, Christian and respected political consultant, which she feels has been mischaracterized in the press.

For his part, Pastor John Hunter has filed a three-part challenge with the AME Judicial Council, which has already ruled in their favor on two of the three causes for action and is awaiting a ruling on the third.

In the meantime, L.A. Focus sat down with Denise Hunter. Her lawyers instructed her not to discuss the December 6 lawsuit First AME Church filed against both she and her husband, and have instead provided a statement. She was free, however, to set the record straight on many of the other allegations and mischaracterizations that had been dogging the couple.

When did you and your husband first learn you were being moved?
We learned we were being moved at the close of the Southern California annual conference—October 29—in a public forum at the same time as everyone else.

What was the reason given for the move?
There was never a reason given for the move, which was most disconcerting for us. The discipline of the AME church requires a pastor be given a 90-day notice he is going to be moved and receive in writing the reason why. This requirement in the discipline was never met. What happened in our case was that Bishop Kirkland basically sent out a form letter to all of the ministers in the Fifth District that said you’re subject to being moved without any specificity.

Did you accompany your husband to San Francisco?
No, I wasn’t feeling well and had planned to go the following week.

What do you think of the treatment of your husband by Bethel AME church members?
For people who call themselves Christians, it is unconceivable to me to treat someone the way they did, particularly in challenging someone’s assignment.

There were any number of ways they could have communicated their concern about his assignment that weren’t so harmful — a telephone call, email. But to know he was coming, pick him up at the airport and then arrange a public meeting in the lobby of a hotel in front of his 12-year old daughter… No one can tell me this was appropriate behavior.

In that sense, I believe it was meant to be a media spectacle to disparage my husband.

What was interesting was that he said they drove him around for what seemed an inordinate amount of time and he questioned what was taking so long only to find out later they were still gathering at the hotel and needed additional time for the others to get there.

Then on the following Sunday morning, to physically block him from entering the church. This is unprecedented for the AME church. We are not a church where members block pastors from entering. That’s not a part of our culture or how we behave.

Were there any conversations between your husband and Bishop Kirkland precipitating the move or in advance of the move?
Each of us had an independent conversation with Bishop Kirkland. My husband had to show up at Bishop Kirkland’s office because there were rumors of him being moved and he was concerned Bishop Kirkland was not returning his calls, so he went to his office to have a conversation. It was during that conversation that Bishop Kirkland said he was praying about the future and would sit down with he and his presiding elder about my husband’s future. At no point in his or my conversation with Bishop Kirkland did he ever say we were being moved.

I understand that you have a contract with FAME Corporation?
Yes, I do have an employment contract with FAME Corporation.

Your husband filed a challenge with the AME Judicial Council—what was he hoping to accomplish?
Since the move was in violation of the AME doctrine and discipline, the challenge was to have the move vacated.

The AME Judicial Council has partially ruled in your favor, what does it mean?
The AME Judicial Council ruled that the officers and members of Bethel AME Church violated the discipline in their behavior as it relates to blocking Pastor John from being able to exercise his ministerial duties, to have access…keys. The Judicial Council said there actions were out of order and not consistent with the regulations of the AME church.

They also ruled Presiding Elder William Finney was out of order. He had basically supported the church by saying Pastor John could enter the church, but not the pulpit and would have to sit in the sanctuary.

The third part is Pastor John’s challenge of Bishop Kirkland for violating the Minister’s Bill of Rights as it relates to the 90-day notice, the personhood and dignity of a pastor statute and his moving my husband to a church that was not comparable or equal to the one he was moving from as required. On that they have not ruled.

What does the ruling mean?
It affirms the fact that what they did was wrong and puts us in a position to be able to seek further remedies and other avenues of recourse.

What is the most difficult part of this transition period for you?
One, having my 12-year old child observe people who call themselves Christians behave badly and to be willing to do it in front of her. It’s most disappointing that we’ve gotten to a place where we don’t even realize how our actions affect children —no sense of modeling Christian behavior at all.

Secondly, with so many lies and misrepresentations, that people who know the truth have been silent. There have been a few who have had the courage to stand up and speak what is true, but for the most part, we’ve had people tell us in private that they know what’s being said is not true, but won’t say it publicly.

More than anything, it hurt that we never got a chance to say goodbye to people we worked and labored with for the last eight years—people who we’d become very close to us. That was just egregious to me.

What of the reports you were fighting to keep the church owned house?
Absolutely untrue. Normally, the pastoral family is given 30 days to move out of the residence.  Because of the sudden way we found out we were being moved, we asked for —and were granted—an additional 30 days by the trustees of FAME voted on and we operated within that timeframe. Despite that, someone came out and posted a 30-day notice on the gate— taking pictures of it in a very dramatic nature. Even as we were moving out there were members sitting outside watching us move and monitoring our actions. It’s just a very hostile and unchristlike environment that has been created.

How much of what’s being said do you believe is tied to past allegations of sexual harassment, improper use of the church credit card and a federal tax investigation?
I think all of this is a rehash of false allegations and it’s unfortunate anyone would feel—as they take over the helm of a church—the need to disparage the character of the previous pastor instead of moving forward with an agenda of their own. Bashing the character of John and Denise Hunter is a short-lived ministry.

The L.A. Times has referred more than once to a federal tax investigation into your finances—which you have stated did not happen…
I have no knowledge of a federal investigation into our finances. This is a rehashing of back taxes that were due and things being blown completely out of proportion to further an agenda of those who keep making these allegations.

What of the apology the L.A. Times reported your husband made for charges put on the church’s credit card for personal items?
My husband never apologized as an admission of wrongdoing. What he was sorry for—and the apology related to—was all of the negative press that came about because of these allegations. How much he regretted the negative attention it brought to the church.

Was there a demand made of the L.A. Times for a retraction of past inaccuracies?
Yes, there was, and in fact one of the things that happened was the church took out a full page ad in the L.A. Times where they refuted what was being said and gave their support to my husband, saying that they were very satisfied with his leadership and that there had been no wrongdoing. To this day, the L.A. Times refuses to acknowledge that or at least include it in their stories. I have no idea why.

And of the claims that you insisted on living in a $2 million home in Encino rather than closer to the L.A. community, why did you choose to live in Encino?
When we came to L.A. there was no housing and no housing preparations had been made. A committee was assigned to find housing for us and we tried everywhere …Ladera Heights, Baldwin Hills, but for various reasons, they fell through. When we moved to Encino, we were at our wit’s end. We had been in temporary housing for close to ten months and just wanted to settle down. Not knowing anything about Los Angeles, we didn’t have a certain neighborhood in mind. The home we chose was voted on and approved by the church board in what was a transparent process.

Why do you believe people have mischaracterized you and your husband?
Most people only know what they’ve seen in the L.A. Times or heard from people rehashing what they read in the L.A. Times. People who don’t really know anything about Pastor John or me.

I also believe as I’ve said that there are those who have an agenda. When we came to Los Angeles, I felt like members felt they had to choose between John Hunter and Chip Murray. That there wasn’t the opportunity to be able to embrace both and that there were those who were fueling that fire. I think that started a lot of this and set the foundation for a lot of the negativity you’ve seen play out.

What of the reports of declining membership under your husband’s leadership?
I don’t know of any decline in numbers. I always felt like we had very good attendance at FAME. No one mentions the fact that over 3000 people joined the church during the tenure of Pastor John and that’s documented with names. Nor that politicians were vying to get there and speak to the congregation, which wouldn’t have happened if we didn’t have numbers.

How was the church doing before the move?
The recession was affecting it, just as it was every church in America, but the church was holding its own and on an up tick.

How do you believe you moved the church forward—what were you and your husband’s biggest accomplishments during your eight-year tenure?
Our annual back-to-school initiative drew upwards of 5,000 every year and close to 40,000 kids have been given school supplies and shoes during the time we were there. We started a produce market and when the recession hit, we did our own stimulus program for church members and gave out more than $50,000 to FAME families in order to support them through their crises. Whether it was helping them to hang onto their homes or keeping their utilities on, it was about meeting the needs of our members.

How is all of negative press affecting you and your family?
Obviously, it takes an emotional toll on you when people are saying things that aren’t true and mischaracterizing who you are, particularly in this electronic age when whatever is being said about you is all of a sudden around the world and there is little opportunity for you to be able to tell your own story.

What would you like to see happen?
Truth, justice, fair treatment for my family, but also for people to remember the commitment we made to this community. That we invested our heart and soul into the work we did. Finally for people to judge us by our deeds, not L.A. Times articles.

What do you think is the biggest misperception people have of you and your husband?
That we are takers and not givers. We are givers and I am very proud of the fact we are givers.

How is your husband handling this?
He’s handling it as well as he can but I know the spiritual and emotional toll it’s taking on him. For the record, he is still the official pastor of Bethel AME, but presently has health restrictions that limit his travel. But he certainly misses ministering to people and leading worship on Sunday morning.

For someone who has been a member of the AME church for his entire life (his father was a bishop), it has been a mainstay in his life and to see this happen this way has impacted him negatively. We go to church every Sunday, but it’s with pain recognizing that he’s currently not able to do that which he has done for almost 30 years.

How would you like people to see you?
As someone who first and foremost loves God more than anything (she breaks down crying) and has served Him to the best of my ability.


Q&A: Kerry Washington

New York native, Kerry Washington is arguably one of today’s most powerful black actresses since breaking out in “Save The Last Dance,” “Ray,” “Fantastic Four,” and “The Last King of Scotland.” Now, the 35-year-old stars in ABC’s “Scandal” (making her the first black female lead in ­a TV drama since 1974) and in the film "Django: Unchained" alongside Jamie Foxx, Samuel L. Jackson and Leonardo DiCaprio.

Q: You play Broomhilda von Shaft, a slave who gets sold to an evil plantation owner. How difficult was it to step into her shoes?
A: I couldn't have done this movie without Jamie. I think there is something beautiful about the fact that the film is about a husband and wife being reunited after being separated. And the audiences also get to see us being reunited. I think there is poetry in that. But the places we had to go emotionally I would not be able to go with an actor that I didn't respect, admire, trust and love. Even days when we weren't working it was good to know you had that person in your corner.

Q: What is your response to the controversy surrounding your character in “Django”?
A: I can see how it’s not particularly feminist to play the princess in the tower, waiting to be saved. But as a black woman—we’ve never been afforded that luxury. There was no man coming to save you. In some ways, this telling is a statement of empowerment… And I felt  it was fascinating that this director (Quentin Tarantino) who has never been intimated by brutality and evil was going to tell the story because that meant this wasn’t going to be a sugar coated representation of what slavery was.

Q: What was it like returning to the set of “Scandal”?
A: When I went back to play Olivia Pope, I didn't know how to walk in heels any more because I've been running barefoot in the woods for six months. I didn't know how to stand like her or what it was like to wear pants anymore. It was like having to go two centuries in two days and what those two centuries meant as a black woman. To be from somebody who wasn't even considered a human being in our constitution to arguably one of the most powerful women in the country because she put the president where he is.

Q: You’re very wise in your interviews, when did you begin to think about acting as a craft instead of as a way of making money?
A. Thank you. In a way it's always been that way for me. I fell in love with acting at a young age and the part of it that was about the money and the fame made me think acting wasn’t something I wanted to do. In college I learned I didn't have to have the goal of being famous or rich, but I could pursue making a life for myself doing what I love to do.


Newtown Massacre Puts Mental Health Back In Spotlight

With last month’s tragic shooting in Newtown, Ct, a light has been shined not only on gun control issues, but on mental health issues. An estimated 26.2% of Americans face some form of mental disorder and mental health experts have long lamented the numbers of those in the black and Hispanic communities that have gone untreated.

Those like 20-year-old Phillip Freeman.

His family knew something was wrong for years, but was at a loss as to how to help him. His condition worsened after surviving a nearly fatal car accident and his mother scheduled an appointment for him to see a psychiatrist. However, on the day of his appointment, he locked himself in his room. A week later, his mother changed tactics and had the psychiatrist come to their house for an on-sight evaluation. The family was optimistic.

Then during the holidays, his belligerent behavior escalated into an altercation with one of his sisters.

“It was so scary,” his sister Camille said. “Watching him kick my sister while she was on the ground.”

The police were called and Phillip was taken to a psychiatric ward. Hoping that he will now receive the help he need  s, the Freeman family is left wondering if things might have turned out differently if they’d sought professional help sooner.

According to a report by the Office of Minority Health, African Americans are 20% more likely to report having serious psychological distress than Non-Hispanic Whites. The same report shows that 8.7% of black adults have received mental health treatment or counseling and 6.2% received prescription medication for treatment, compared to 16% and 13.9%, respectively for white adults.

“There’s so much need in our community,” says Henry Turner, Director of Programs for the NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) Urban Los Angeles.

Psychologist Dr. Michelle Cuevas with the South Central Los Angeles Regional Center for Persons with Developmental Disabilities, Inc. points to a prevailing stigma in urban communities.

“There’s the mentality that I can deal with this on my own or we don’t share our family skeletons, so it’s a silent struggle,” says Cuevas, adding that most families don’t know how to help loved ones they suspect may have a mental illness.

“The first step is assess whether there’s an imminent danger, in which case you should definitely call 911,” says Turner, whose organization provides education, support and advocacy for the families of people with mental illness.

If it is determined that there is no need to call 911, it’s still important to recognize the seriousness of the situation. Especially if your loved one is undergoing a psychotic break.

“Their ability to process information has been impaired. They may or may not be experiencing hallucinations and delusions,” says Turner, who stressed that loved ones should call the Los Angeles County Mental Health Crisis Hotline (800) 854-7771 for assistance.

The crisis hotline “can dispatch a mobile response team or psychiatric evaluation team to come out and do an onsite assessment to determine if hospitalization is needed,” Turner explains.

“It is a public service that is available to anybody,” says Cuevas, who advises calling a crisis emergency team “if you’re worried that your family member is going to harm themselves but you’re just not sure.

“If you see that there’s children involved, you have to call 911 because ultimately you’re responsible too.”

Because what seems like a minor problem can worsen, experts say it’s important to seek help in those instances as well.

Cueves advises concerned individuals to look at the symptoms like if the person in question’s moods, behaviors or patterns have changed in recent months.

“Usually the time frame is 3-6 months,” she explains, but it can be years depending on the age of the family member or whether there was a recent crisis.”

Also some medical conditions can exhibit symptoms that look like mental illness. Honesty is important. If you’re accompanying your loved one to the doctor, make a list of symptoms so as not to overlook something of importance during the appointment.

A physician can rule out any physical conditions and may even refer the patient to a mental health professional or facility such as the Didi Hirsch Community Mental Health Center.

“The California Psychological Associa-tion is well known and they have tons of resources online,” say Cuevas, including a directory of psychologist or clinician or a mental health practitioners.

Turner urges family members to write out all the symptoms and incidences they’ve observed in their loved one.

“If you know the facility where they are being treated or the doctor, send [your report] via registered mail. Without that, all the psychiatrist has is the self-report of the patient and what they observe in their own clinical experience. About half the people get misdiagnosed initially.”

If your loved one is willing, Turner advices asking them sign an information release form so that their doctor can discuss the patient’s progress, or lack there of, with you.

If your loved one is resistant to the idea of seeking professional help, Turner says to “couch the argument differently and not mention mental health at all. ‘You seem tired and fatigued lately. Let’s see if we can get some help for that.’ ”

Seek help for children while they’re still young, particularly since so many of the services are free.

“Legally you have the control when you’re dealing with a child—once they hit 18 you have none,” says Turner.

“Unless you’re presenting a danger to self or others, or are greatly disabled—which is a high bar to cross, then it’s within your right to refuses service. So you’re limited if they’re over 18 and don’t want to comply.”

There’s the strong desire of being able to say that one’s child is “normal.”

Says Cuevas, “The first key step is to recognize that if we don’t have early intervention now, those symptoms that we’re playing off will exasperate.”

“This is not an illness where you can keep your head in the sand,” says Turners. “In the world of mental illness, love acts. You have to act.”

Who To Call if You Need Help:

Crisis Response Teams/Helplines

  • L.A. County Psychiatric Mobile Response Team (PMRT) • (800) 854-7771
  • Compton PMRT • (310) 668-5150
  • Didi Hirsch Crisis Line • (800) 273-8255
  • Long Beach/South Bay PMRT • (310) 534-1083

Community Mental Health Centers

  • Kedren Mental Health Center (South Central) • www.kedrenmentalhealth.com • (323) 233-0425
  • Didi Hirsch Community Mental Health Center (Culver City, Inglewood, Mar Vista, Los Angeles, and more)• www.didihirsch.org • (310) 390-8896
  • Hathaway-Sycamores Child and Family Services (Pasadena, Altadena, Los Angeles, Lancaster, and more) • www.hathaway-sycamores.org • (626) 395-7100 • This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
  • L.A. Child Guidance Clinic • www.lachild.org • (323) 766-2345 • This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. • Rancho Los Amigos Pacific Clinics (Downey) • www.rancho.org • (562) 401-8181

Mental Health Agencies

  • California Psychological Association • www.cpapsych.org • (916) 286-7979 This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. • L.A. County Chapter • www.lapsych.org • (818) 905-0410 • This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
  • L.A.County Dept. of Mental Health •(800) 854-7771  dmh.lacounty.gov • This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
  • Mental Health America of Los Angeles • www.mhala.org • (888) 242-2522 • This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
  • National Alliance on Mental Illness • NAMI Urban Los Angeles • www.namiurbanla.org  • 323) 294-7814

Thompson Candidacy Shakes Up Baptist Ministers’ Conference

Just who will determine the direction of the city’s oldest and most respected Baptist ministers’ organization—The Baptist Minister’s Conference of Los Angeles & Vicinity— will be decided on January 7 when the group’s 200-plus members hold their election.

For some the election, pitting incumbent president Dr. Marvis L. Davis (New Bethel Baptist Church, Venice) against Rev. Xavier Thompson (Southern Missionary Baptist Church) is seen as a battle of youth versus tradition. For others, it is a question of who can move the group—seen as stagnant by some—forward.

“It was not some sporadic decision that I woke up one morning and said I want to run to president. It was as if I was drafted to run by a contingency of pastors who felt the conference was becoming inconsequential,” said Thompson. “That conference from an exponential standpoint was on an unprecedented decline. I’m running because of the fierce urgency of now and because I believe I’m led by God.”

“He’s ready. He’s capable of doing the work that’s needed to take this conference to the next level,” said Pastor L.A. Kessee of Thompson.

To win, Thompson will have to defeat an amiable Davis, who was elected president of the group in 2009 after having held key roles in the Western Baptist State Convention and the National Missionary Baptist Convention.

In his appeal to the group for three more years, Davis stated, “Let us complete the work. Let me complete my task. I’ve been a faithful servant. I have served with humility, honesty and integrity.

“Your president’s a progressive leader,” Davis continued. “I’ve surveyed the past. I simplified the process. I’m steadfast in the purpose, safeguarding the future. Look at a man for all seasons. In three years, look at what we have we have done to serve this present age.”

“He has done a wonderful job and there is all indication that he will be re-elected,” said Rev. J. B Hardwick.

While addressing the group, Davis publicly cautioned Thompson to wait his turn.

“I’m saying wait, Elisha. Elijah will pass the mantel,” said Davis, with reference to a scripture passage in 11 Kings. “It’s Davis’ time. It’s Davis’ hour. It’s Davis’ season. It’s Davis’ harvest.”

Thompson, whose grandmother would, on occasion let him stay home from school to attend the weekly conference with her when he was a boy, would be the youngest president ever elected.

Said Thompson, “I recognize and realize that this conference has not set a precedent for men of my age to be the president.”

He believes his five-fold mission of assessment, adjustment, attendance, assistance and adoration will move the group forward.

“No business, no ministry, no organization—be it secular or sacred—can continue the same methodology today that it did years ago and expect to maintain its relevancy, its potency and its magnetism,” Thompson states. “Our dreams must be greater than our memories. I want to take our conference that I love to the highest level possible.”

In local church news, Dr. Ronn Elmore has been selected as the interim pastor at New Dawn Christian Village. The church had been left without a pastor with the recent resignation of Rev. Alex Pineda. That following the passing of Founder/Pastor Frank Wilson in September 27 of last year... Dr. Austin F. Williams, pastor of True Vine Baptist Church, announced that he will be retiring this year, though the date that his retirement will commence has not been set.


Don B. Welch Presents “The First Lady of Zion”

Writer/director/producer and author, Don B. Welch returns to the L.A. stage this month with his stirring production of “The First Lady of Zion.” Starring Vanessa Bell Calloway, Flex Alexander, Chico Benymon, Jackee Harry and Kenny Lattimore, the musical tells a riveting story about one woman’s struggle and desire to preach the gospel during a time when it was not widely accepted.

“I wrote this play 10 years ago but I am most surprised at the number of women who still have a problem with women preaching,” Welch said. “I think it’s just crazy. It’s ludicrous to me.”

The writer and producer of nineteen plays has been lauded many times over for his soul-reaching plays such as “My Brother’s Keeper,” “The Divorce” and “The

Bachelorette Party,” knows all to well how difficult it can be to overcome criticism.

Twelve years ago, the Philadelphia native relocated to Los Angeles. He had already gained some success locally and felt it was time to expand to another big city.

“When I first came to L.A. my friends would introduce me to other people in this industry and they would laugh when I said I wrote for theater, because this is a TV and film town,” he said. “Today some of those same people are asking me for jobs.”

What they didn’t realize then was that Welch had one of the biggest superstars in his corner.

“I moved here because of Will Smith. He said, ‘Don when you want to move into other areas of the industry, you have my assistance.’ And for twelve years Will has been a support system and a lifeline,” he said.

"The First Lady of Zion" can be seen at The Wilshire Ebell Theater, in Los Angeles on January 12 and 13. Tickets are on sale now at ticketmaster.com, or you can call The Ebell Box office and Inglewood Tickets at (310) 671-6400.


High School Job Leads to Chick-Fil-A Franchise for Ashley Derby

If you would have asked me three years ago, ‘Where do you think you’re going to end up?’ this probably would have been the last city on the planet I would’ve thought,” says the owner/operator of the downtown L.A. Chick-Fil-A, located on the USC campus.

“God works in mysterious ways and presents opportunities behind some doors that you just have to be bold enough to walk through.”

Since moving to L.A about a year and half ago to open the eatery, Ashley Derby says that she has fallen in love with the city. But more than an opportunity to establish herself in a new city, Derby sees her position as a chance to make a difference.

“I love being able to provide someone with an income,” says Derby, “to provide someone with their first job, and being able to help mold and grow them.”

Interestingly, Derby could be describing her own growth with the fast food chain. The Spelman alum, who’s been with Chick-Fil-A since she was fifteen, turned that preverbal first, low-on-the-totem pole job into an opportunity that launched her career as an entrepreneur.

“My job description was pretty much taking orders on the registers and cleaning up in the dining room,” Derby says of her start with the company.

At that early age, she learned “the basics” of making a better future for herself: coming to work on time, wearing the proper uniform, and doing what was asked of her.

“It was an invaluable thing that a lot of kids don’t get today, but I really benefitted from,” says Derby.

The Atlanta-native stayed with Chick-Fil-A through high school and into college during which time she was promoted to the supervisory role of team leader. Seeing her strong work ethic and drive, the restaurant’s operator asked her if she’d ever considered owning her own Chick-Fil-A.

“Oddly, I’d never even thought that was something that I could do,” says Derby. “I didn’t know that was an opportunity available to me.”

After explaining to her what it took to do his job, the restaurant operator stressed that she should think long and hard on whether or not this was something she wanted to do. It would take a big time commitment. But he also offered to help her.

She decided to go for it and switched her major from theatre to economics.

“After I graduated from college, I started working fulltime, dedicated to getting my own store,” Derby explains. “I went through an intern program for about a year and a half where Chick-Fil-A sends you out to run some of their corporate-owned stores around the country.”

Next came a round of over ten different interviews before she was given the green light to start the process of purchasing her own store, which would cost an initial investment of only $5,000. A colleague suggested that she look into opening a store in Los Angeles.

Derby was reluctant to leave her hometown.

“I was like there’s no way I’m moving to L.A. That’s crazy.”

After doing her research and talking it over with her husband, with whom she celebrates her two-year anniversary this month, Derby made the leap. It proved a wise decision. As one of the few Chick-Fil-A locations in the county, the SoCal market is rife with potential.

“If it weren’t for [the restaurant] operator that I worked for, I would never be in this business,” says Derby. “If he hadn’t seen something in me.”

Now the 28-year-old looks to pay the opportunities she received forward to her own employees.

“I know that most of my team isn’t going to be with me in the long term,” she says. “A lot of them have their own aspirations and dreams to become doctors and EMTs and lawyers. I’m here to support them 110% just like I was supported. That was something that was given to me and I feel to obligated now give back in return.”

Recently, Derby’s story has come full circle as a young man she mentored for a year is now taking part in training program to become a Chick-Fil-A operator.

Says Derby, “It’s really great to be able to provide that expertise and guidance for someone who wouldn’t have it otherwise. It’s very rewarding.”

First Ladies High Tea
November will mark the 20th Anniversary of our Annual First Ladies High Tea, honoring the contributions of female leaders and women of faith to the Los Angeles community. For more information, visit www.firstladieshightea.com
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