MANSFIELD — Nikki Lewis, 36, didn’t consider herself one of the “cool kids” in high school.
“In fact, I was pretty much a dork,” the Mansfield resident said. “Sure, I did run for the track team, I was in the band, but never part of the cool group.”
While growing up in Tucson, Arizona, the honor roll student-athlete said she fell for one of the cool guys in her grade.
“When you’re 16 years old and you like a guy, you start doing things, and obviously one thing led to another, and we were in a sexual relationship,” she said. “To this day, though, I still don’t even know if he ever liked me, but that’s a whole different story. I thought that having sex with that boy would make him like me, would make me cool, would mean so much more than it actually did.”
It was after their relationship ended that Lewis started having "weird feelings." Wondering what could be the cause, she researched her symptoms in a medical encyclopedia.
“The day I had to tell my parents I was pregnant was the second hardest day of my life. My mom and I cried for hours,” she said.
Sixteen and pregnant, Lewis faced an extremely difficult decision.
“I had to determine which of two options would work for me: raise a child at a young age or place it for adoption,” she said.
After doing her own research, she discussed her intentions to place the baby for adoption with her parents, the birth father and his family.
“We had a family meeting between my family and (the birth father’s), and his mom said that her sister had been trying to have a child for 14 years with her husband and couldn’t get pregnant and asked if I would consider them as parents.”
The couple was fabulous, Lewis said. Together they decided to move forward with an open adoption.
Although Lewis felt at peace with this decision, her life at that time was anything but peaceful. Her mental health, in particular, took a toll on her well-being.
“I looked much younger than 16 when I was pregnant so there was a lot of emotional trauma that came with that,” she said. “The comments, the looks, everything was awful from so many people.
"During those last few months of my pregnancy I experienced more than comments and looks. I left school because of the bullying from my peers."
Lewis decided to enroll in a teenage parent high school in Tucson during her junior year. It was a small high school offering support to new and expecting parents.
Then, in the summer of 2000 — just one month before she started her senior year of high school — she gave birth to a baby girl.
“I mentioned earlier that telling my parents I was pregnant was the second hardest day of my life. Handing her over to a new family was the hardest day of my life,” Lewis said. “She was going to a good family, and that’s what I had to tell myself.”
Lewis kept in touch with the family, receiving photos of her as a child. Lewis even had the chance to watch her graduate high school via live stream, which happened on the same day as Lewis’ birthday. Now, she’s a sophomore in college studying marine biology.
“I’m so thankful that that’s the lifestyle that she got because I don’t know what it would have been if I’d been raising her,” Lewis said. “I don’t know that she would have had those (opportunities) with me.”
After giving birth, Lewis poured herself into her schoolwork. She graduated high school in 2001, and six years later moved to Ohio, where she earned a bachelor’s in business from Mount Vernon Nazarene University.
Thereafter, she worked at Richland Bank as manager of the Lexington office. About two-and-half years ago, she began working at the Richland Area Chamber of Commerce, where she is currently the foundation manager.
“I get to do all the things I love,” Lewis said of her job. “Talking, socializing, networking and getting to work with youth — that’s my favorite part.”
Earlier this year, Lewis was named one of Richland Young Professionals’ “10 Under 40.” This award recognizes outstanding young professionals in Richland County.
Although Lewis’ path has taken unpredictable turns, she couldn’t imagine it any other way.
“Ultimately, it made me a stronger person. I can’t imagine who I’d be if I didn’t go through this,” she said. “Going through that journey made me who I am today.
"There’s no way I could have seen myself being the type of woman that I am now, as strong as I am now, but also the relationship that I have with my parents is even more special because of the issues that we went through together, and to know that they have my back no matter what.”
Lewis, who says her life is an open book, spoke candidly about her adolescence to middle school girls during last year’s LeaderRichland event.
“I’m not here to have the sex talk with you ladies, but what I do want you to learn from hearing me speak is that us women are so much more than a boy liking us, than the power of sex, and everything that comes with it,” she told the students. "You are strong, able to be whoever you want to be, and don’t need a boy to determine that."
She talked about her experiences as a pregnant teenager, saying she had to grow up faster than she ever expected and had to figure out adult situations way too young.
But if it weren’t for those experiences, she may never have realized the importance of working with youth, “that being involved in helping them become who they are meant to be really fulfills me,” she said.
“So now I am finally in the role I was always supposed to have: I run a youth program based around entrepreneurship for middle and high school students,” she said. “I really get to help young people achieve their dreams.”