I was introduced to Sofia Mehaffey by fellow writer Chris Cronbaugh. Going into the interview, I knew nothing other than she was Chris’s cousin. She requested we meet at The Good Life, a local fitness club. My first question: “Why did you want to meet here?”
“I wanted to meet here because this is such a part of my life. I have a big focus on fitness and wellness and health. It has a lot to do with my family.” She explained how she never got the chance to meet her father before he died. It wasn’t until much later that Sofia actually connected to his side of the family. By that time, only one of her father’s siblings, Sofia’s Aunt Dede, was alive.
“I’m very thankful that I got the chance to meet her, because she passed away within a year, and it was food related. It was diabetes. It was gout and heart disease and all of those things that are brought on by ill health.”
Sofia wants to make sure she lives long enough that her grandchildren not only know her but get to spend quality time with her. As we spoke, her youngest of three children, a baby girl named Estelle, sat on her lap.
Sofia is a woman who appears to have her life totally together. She’s confident, clearly intelligent, and is in great physical shape. But her life today, she says, is a lot different than it was a decade ago. “Ten years ago I was unrecognizable as a person. Like, if you looked at pictures of me then, if you met me and heard me speak then, I was completely different.”
“How so?”, I asked her.
“I was living a very different life. I was on federal assistance, government housing assistance, welfare, food stamps. And one day I decided that my life had to change. And I just had to do better for myself. I had to do better for the kids, and I knew that I could because I’d seen it done before. I knew that members of my family had done it before, so there was no reason I couldn’t or I shouldn’t. And I couldn’t live life unhappy anymore. I knew that was my responsibility. I think that’s a huge part of growing up, sort of taking that on and realizing that what this is is what I make it.”
Usually it takes something big to spur someone to that kind of change. I asked Sofia if there was some incident or even a particularly bad day that motivated her to move toward a new life.
“There was,” she answered. “I’m just not going to disclose it! It’s not for public knowledge. But you know, once I had that situation, I decided I was going to be a different person. I was never going to lie again, never going to cheat, never going to put myself around people who were not good for me and were not going to help me out in life and were not about good things for their own lives. And once I made that change, that choice, I feel like things just sort of started clicking. And I’ve noticed throughout my life that the more I make those kind of choices, the more good things happen.”
After making that decision to change her life, Sofia went back to school and became the first person on her mother’s side of the family to attend college. She started at Kirkwood, then graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in Political Science from the University of Iowa. In 2013 she completed her MBA at Mount Mercy.
Her three children and full-time job keep her very busy, and both are reminder of how important it is to stay healthy. She currently works as a Claims Examiner at Transamerica. “So I read death certificates all day long,” she explains. “That reminds me every single day–fifty times a day–eat well, take care of yourself.”
When I asked her who had helped her along the way, Sofia answered, “Everyone.” Her mother and her mother’s twin sister were “a huge driving force and inspiration”. Her younger sister helped a lot too. She would come live with Sofia during the summer so she could watch the children while Sofia went to classes. Her husband Devin, she said, “basically got me through grad school” when she was ready to give up. Devin’s mother also gave a lot of her time to Sofia and the kids.
As for the grit it took to turn her life in a new direction, Sofia knew she had it in her. Though she never met her father, she has heard his story, an African American man who rose to prominence as a high-level executive at General Electric in Manhattan during the 1970s. But his accomplishments were largely a reflection of the women in his life. His grandmother moved to New York as a single mother of two. She started working as a maid, saved up enough money to buy a restaurant, saved some more and bought a laundry. Eventually she created a small business empire that allowed her to put her daughter through nursing school and her grandson, Sofia’s father, through private school and on to graduate degrees.
“I’m so inspired,” Sofia says, “by her and my mother and the other members of my family. I think that’s where a lot of my drive comes from to do the things that I’ve done.”
Her main goal in life these days comes down to this. “I really want to make an impact on the wider community to give people hope. I don’t want people to ever give up on themselves at all. I don’t want people to give up on their health, their education, and their goals. And any way I can, I want to promote people who are trying to improve themselves.”
-Story by Courtney T Ball, photos by Ben Kaplan.