UC journalism student Alberto Jones shares his BOLDLY BEARCAT story about surviving abuse to chase his dream of becoming the next Oprah
That’s the name he eventually gave an expansive home outside of Dayton, Ohio. He was just 6 years old in 2003 when he arrived at the seven-bedroom ranch. The UC journalism student recalls the day his social worker pulled into Betty Jones’ driveway. On the walk to her doorstep, his young, wide eyes swept across more than 5 acres of property and a neighboring farm.
“I felt like I was at a mansion,” he says. “She lived next door to a stable. They had goats and all kinds of animals. It was just like every child’s dream to live in such a nice place.”
Alberto remembers the colorful jumpsuit Betty wore that day and that she immediately offered him something to eat. He remembers her soft, warm hands and calling her “Mom” from the very first time they met.
Betty Jones was a 66-year-old single mother and a retired surgical technician who would eventually foster 38 children, eight of whom she would adopt, including Alberto and his two younger brothers — all after having raised seven biological children of her own.
“I took care of children that nobody else wanted,” says Betty, now 80. “When you foster a child they tell you not to get attached, but I got attached to all of them.”
She took in Alberto and his brothers Alero and Alante after they had already endured the hell of brutal parental abuse.
Born on the west side of Dayton to a mentally ill mother and a mostly absent father, Alberto entered the foster system at age 1. He and his younger brothers bounced between the system and their biological mother until he was in kindergarten.
“She would abuse me,” he says of his birth mom. “Once, she hit me in the head with an iron skillet, and because I passed out, she thought I was intentionally not getting up, so she started hitting me with the buckle part of a belt.”
When his teacher saw the bruises, the school contacted the police, and the boys were placed with their father, but things only got worse for them.
“He and his girlfriend were very evil,” Alberto says. “I remember we were mimicking them, and they made us throw all of our toys away.”
Once after Alberto stole a cell phone in first grade, his father broke a broomstick over his head. “Each day, he would beat us,” Alberto recalls. “He would say, ‘We are going to have daily beatings.’”
Alberto says his father would make them lie about how they got their injuries. The abuse continued, he says, until 4-year-old Alero was severely injured.
“I remember my brother had done something, and my dad was shaking him and yelling at him in his ear,” says Alberto. “He slammed him hard on the bathroom floor. His eyes rolled back in his head, and he started defecating on himself. I’ll never forget it. I was right there.”
Alero ended up in intensive care in a coma and with brain damage. He would eventually have to learn to walk and talk again. He would never recover fully and remains developmentally delayed to this day. When police questioned their father, he claimed Alero fell and hit his head on the toilet. After eventually admitting what he did, he was arrested on charges of child endangering and sentenced to prison, where he would serve four years.
Meanwhile, the state filed for permanent custody and placed the boys with Betty Jones.
“I’ve always had a connection with that woman,” smiles Alberto. “It was meant for her to be my adoptive mother. She is my heart. My earliest memories of her were just of her accepting me for who I am.”
As promising as things seemed for Alberto at his new home — and with his new mom — he became the victim of a whole new kind of abuse and a nightmare that would last from ages 6 to 12. Unbeknownst to Betty, people from the neighborhood began sexually abusing him.
“They would molest me and rape me,” he says. “There were so many different incidents. They would lay me in the grass. They would threaten to kill me. It was bad — really, really bad.”
In a cruel twist, the dream house and all that land at “the kingdom” became the ideal environment for his abusers to take advantage of him. Young Alberto was terrified to tell anyone because he feared he might be removed from Betty.
“I was very close with Mom, and she asked us several times if anything like that happened to us, but they kept threatening to kill me,” he says. “I wasn’t strong enough to say, ‘Hey Mom, this is what is going on.’ I didn’t know what would happen.
“I was voiceless as my innocence was being taken from me.”
Despite the abuse, Alberto thrived academically. By age 10, he tested into the gifted program and even won a speech contest that included elementary, middle and high school students. He spoke at the Optimist Club in Jefferson Township, Ohio, and wowed the crowd with an impassioned speech about the bullying he had endured in school for being different from the other kids.
“I was different because I was ambitious,” he says. “I did my best to stay true to who I was. I was outgoing, and I was also very feminine as a child. I think it was because I never really had a father figure in my life. I was heavily teased.”
Betty later told him there wasn’t a dry eye in the room after his speech.
“After that competition, I knew that I could connect with people on an emotional level with something that I wrote myself,” he says. “I beat all those high schoolers at 10 years old, and that is when I knew that I had a gift.”
Alberto remembers getting past his nerves while delivering that speech by pretending it was only Betty in the room. It’s the same tactic he’s used in countless speeches since, even today as he shares his story on campus.
Around the same time as that initial speech, Alberto remembers being influenced by the book “I, Tina,” the autobiography of Tina Turner, who overcame abuse on her way to success.
“I’ve always been inspired by her,” he says. “She is like a ‘shero’ to me. At the time, I was dealing with being abused, bullied and all the foster care stuff. I wanted to embody her boldness.”
In eighth grade, Alberto and Betty moved from the big house, and he finally told her about the sexual abuse he had endured in the old neighborhood. The two of them ended up seeking counseling together while he was in high school, though he still struggled with severe depression and anxiety. He even considered suicide at one point.
By the 10th grade at Wayne High School north of Dayton, Alberto had set his sights on studying journalism and at the University of Cincinnati, mostly because he could stay close to Betty. “That was a rocky year, but it was a lot of self discovery and self growth, too,” he says. “It was not until my sophomore year that I began to seek help and truly begin to establish my voice.”
By his senior year in high school, Alberto began to share the story of his abuse. Classmates voted him “Most Likely To Be Famous,” and he graduated as vice president of his class. He even won a $5,000 scholarship from the Children’s Defense Fund called the “Beat the Odds Award,” which prompted a front-page feature in the Dayton Daily News. After that, love and support — including financial support — began to pour in from all over.
His first year at UC, Alberto attended a UC Board of Trustees meeting for his reporting and writing class and immediately noticed Kamree Maull, an African-American UC student who had a seat at the table as the undergraduate student trustee. He had been appointed by the governor of Ohio to a two-year term.
“I literally walked up to him and said, ‘How can I get into your position?’ Kamree mentored me, and a year later, I was in that position. That was a full-circle moment for me.
“It has been the most wonderful opportunity,” he says. “I feel so blessed to be in service to the university. I get to advocate for students, and I’m really big on developing awareness on diversity and inclusion issues at UC.”
Alberto says he has forgiven his abusers, including his biological parents. It was something he had to do to move on. He would rather set his sights on serving others. “I believe that through my experience I have developed my purpose in life — to motivate and inspire the world around me,” he says.
Besides becoming a student trustee, Alberto also revived UC’s Association for Black Journalists, a coalition for underrepresented journalism, electronic media and communication majors. Alberto’s reputation as a passionate leader and advocate extends across campus, from the journalism program in McMicken Hall to the African American Cultural and Resource Center (AACRC), his favorite place on campus.
“I’ve dealt with a lot of students who have had a challenged background,” says Ewaniki Moore-Hawkins, director of the AACRC and one of Alberto’s mentors. “Some people take that pain and fall down the same path. Others take that pain and turn it into triumph.
“He suffered greatly, but somehow — and he will say because of God — he was able to muster up the strength to turn his life around. He wants to be that voice for other people who have suffered abuse and don’t know how to exercise their voice.”
Moore-Hawkins told Alberto the first time she met him that she thought he would be famous someday. “There is something about the tone of his voice and the presence of his personality that is just extraordinary,” she says. “It is like he is destined for bigger things.”
That scenario fits perfectly into the narrative Alberto envisions for his life — to become a multimedia journalist, a motivational speaker and one day the owner of a media empire like Oprah Winfrey.
The fourth-year journalism student may have taken a significant step toward his ultimate goal this year when he won a summer internship with NBC’s “Today Show” at 30 Rockefeller Center in New York City. He applied in 2017 and wasn’t selected, but he reapplied this year and landed the opportunity. He has also completed gigs at television station WCPO and radio station WVXU in Cincinnati.
“Since I was a child I always wanted to know more about the world around me,” he says. “Every morning I would watch TV news — including the ‘Today Show’ — with my mother, and we would talk about issues of the day.”
Jenny Wohlfarth, Alberto’s faculty advisor and UC journalism professor, says he is an anomaly.
“He has broken out of what the statistics say he could or should do, and that’s remarkable,” she says. “He has proven that you can go against the grain of your story.”
He is the only journalism student to win a departmental scholarship three straight years, Wohlfarth says.
“Even before I knew his story, he was a remarkable person,” she says. “There is this drive and this ambition in him that is kind of magical. Then when you hear the story, it is like ‘Holy Moses!’ I’d hear this stuff, and it was just staggering.”
Wohlfarth adds Alberto has always said he is going to be the next Oprah, and his advisor has never questioned his drive.
“It sounds a little dreamy,” she says. “But when you meet someone like Alberto you kind of think, ‘Yeah, why couldn’t it be?’”
Alberto is convinced that his story is just beginning to be written. “Since I’ve come to UC, I don’t feel like I’ve just been blossoming — I’ve been flourishing. And I mean that in the most humble way. I’m just so thankful.
“I still struggle at times, but on the grand scheme of things, I know that God has great things in store for me.”
As editor of UC Magazine, John enjoys the opportunity to put a human face on a large institution by telling compelling stories of the University of Cincinnati's incredible community of alumni, faculty, staff and students.
Additional Credits: Thanks to designer Kathy Warden, photographer Joseph Fuqua II as well as web developers Kerry Overstake and Rebecca Sylvester for helping to develop and present the content contained in this piece.