Her Story: Summer 2020

Motivating Stories from Local Women

Every woman has a story to tell, and no two stories are alike. Meet the women who have persevered through challenges and tribulations and come out the other side stronger than ever. These unique individuals have seen their fair share of adversity but continue to inspire those around them with the lessons they have learned and their love of life. Read on for four truly motivating stories by the women who experienced them firsthand.

Photography by Emily Long / Photos taken on location at The Westin Chattanooga



Do you have a story to share? Click here to tell us how you have experienced adversity and continue to maintain a positive outlook on life.


Ashley Onusic laughing at the Westin Chattanooga


Ashley Onusic

North Chattanooga

I thought the peak of my journey to self-love/awareness was in my adolescence. But while I experienced freedom from body shame, I had truly only scratched the surface of understanding my value. 

In my mid-20s, I was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease. This trial and the journey it was about to take me on would awaken an even deeper seeking of truth and understanding within me.

I had no clue what an autoimmune disease was at the time. My life quickly altered, and doctors were prescribing what the rest of my life would look like. Fear of the unknown quickly arose, and not being able to have control welcomed anxiety. All of a sudden, I had to rediscover this new body and how it was fighting against itself. I felt myself go back to that young girl that felt disconnected with her body. This time, it wasn’t only my external self that felt foreign to me, but it created self-doubt about who I was and what my purpose would be. Am I worthy? Am I gross? Do I have value?

I leaned into these questions, and God began showing me it was okay to know and love myself. He was revealing that healing needed to take place deep within so that the internal would reflect positively in the external. I began to understand I had the power to shift my self-talk from negative to life-giving inner dialogue. I was learning that I was incredibly strong, vulnerable, and compassionate – qualities I would have never allowed myself to own previously. 

In hindsight, this journey was harvesting a renewal. A Crohn’s disease diagnosis transformed into a new beginning. It taught me the power of compassion, community, curiosity, and leaning into my gifts and imperfections. It transformed the way I speak and care for myself and the value I see in others.

It has also sparked an undeniable passion to serve women and help them know their worth. Now I have the honor of walking alongside women who are journeying through autoimmune wellness, self-love, and empowerment as a life coach.

I am grateful for my story.



Jessica Cliche walking and smiling outside the Westin in Chattanooga


Jessica Cliche

East Chattanooga

I was born in the United States and moved to Guatemala when I was 4 years old. My father is a surgeon, my mother a nurse, and I learned early on the value of helping people. Guatemala is a beautiful country, but many people there are extremely poor. They struggle with access to health care and education, and they deal with social issues and language barriers that I didn’t have to. My father made sure I was aware of the many struggles around me, as well as my privileged life.

When I hit my mid-20s, I started to feel restless and unhappy; I needed a change. I was ready to move and experience something new, so I moved back to the United States. I worked in restaurants, schools, did babysitting jobs – anything I could do to make ends meet. For the first time in my life, I experienced the challenge of communicating in English, a language I wasn’t proficient in because the language I used most was Spanish. I was someone nobody knew, starting all over in a society I didn’t understand.

One year after moving here, I was diagnosed with systemic lupus, and the prognosis was not good. But I decided to stay here, because I was not going to be controlled by a disease. Lupus will challenge you in many ways, forcing you to navigate the complicated medical system and become your own advocate.

Lupus doesn’t define me, but it has enabled me to truly appreciate my health, my body, and my life. I learned to be resilient and recognize better days are ahead. I also understand the value of help and helping others. I now guide and support others with their struggles through a nonprofit community organization. I believe there is a lesson behind the setbacks, and it all depends on the perspective we choose to have and the lessons we want to learn. The person you see struggling today may be you tomorrow. It’s strange; the people who I thought were so different from me were more like me than I could have ever imagined.



Jennifer Nicely smiling at the Westin in Chattanooga


Jennifer Nicely

North Chattanooga

I have spent 20 years of my career raising funds for CHI Memorial. I frequently talk with patients about their experiences and work with physicians regarding funding needs to better care for patients. One of the high points of these years has been the work I’ve been a part of to create the MaryEllen Locher Breast Center.

Never could I have imagined that I would be the one to hear: “You have breast cancer.” But I did get that call on February 19, 2019. Our family was immediately thrown into a whirlwind of medical appointments, tests, and a steep learning curve on the world of oncology – and I thought I knew this stuff! Chemotherapy, radiation, and multiple surgeries followed. At the end of January 2020, I was able to stand on the stage at the Pink! Gala and announce I was cancer-free. What a feeling!

Through that difficult year, our family was overwhelmed by the love and support we received from friends near and far, including acquaintances and some people we didn’t even know. We had meals delivered, thoughtful gifts, flowers, cards, texts, calls, and lots of prayers. Despite all of the bad that goes along with having cancer, we tried to find the good at every turn and focus on being positive.

I now stand on the other side with a completely different appreciation for this community, which gives so generously to make places like the MaryEllen Locher Breast Center possible. I can truly understand what our patients are experiencing – I got to sit side by side in chemo, saw others going through the same thing in the lobby for radiation every day, and make new friends as we talked about handling side effects and tips for how to tie your head scarf.   

I hope I am now a more compassionate person and able to much more quickly and comfortably reach out when I hear of a friend going through a health crisis. I am thankful for the friend who told me to look for the blessings – they were there all along! 



Lauren Higgins, MS, BC-DMT smiling at the Westin in Chattanooga


Lauren Higgins, MS, BC-DMT

St. Elmo

When I was a young adult, a perfect storm hit my predisposed brain, and I developed an eating disorder. I felt out of control in my post-9/11 world, and I sought to control my body in response. I quickly became obsessed with food, weight, and exercise. In trying to gain control of something, I ended up losing control and harming my health, relationships, and life. I wasn’t sure how I would graduate college as I spent all my time in my disordered behaviors.

Fortunately, I had great support and wanted help. I started seeing a therapist and a dietitian with eating disorder experience. I also found dance. For a naturally curvy girl, dance never seemed accessible to me, but then I stumbled into a belly dance studio. The movements felt wonderful. I began to see beauty in myself and other natural bodies learning to move. Over time, I became much more interested in my chosen art than the number on the scale. I learned how powerful my body was when I listened to her. I needed food to fuel my body for dance, and I needed rest to restore my brain for college. Love of belly dancing trickled into loving all types of movement and body awareness. I learned to listen to my hunger and fullness cues, and I noticed how my body felt when I needed to set boundaries. 

Eventually I graduated and obtained a master’s degree in dance/movement therapy, and now I’m able to help adults struggling with eating disorders and substance abuse. I’ve found that in addition to talk therapy, dance/movement therapy and yoga can be used to connect the mind, body, and spirit in healing.   

Lessons I learned from this experience were that our bodies are a source of wisdom, life is much richer in recovery, and your worst times can set you on a brand-new path. If you’re struggling, I hope you’ll reach out to someone. Trust that you can someday use your struggle to help someone else. This is a scary time in our world, but our struggles can be our greatest teacher if we support each other.  HS


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