Coast Guard Aviator.

            Lieutenant La’Shanda Holmes is the first African American woman to become a helicopter pilot in the United States Coast Guard, a unique dual federal law enforcement and military organization. Holmes describes her first experience hovering in a helicopter as “pure magic.”

Graduating magna cum laude from high school, Holmes started her college career at Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia; never dreaming her career path would take her to the sky. Originally from Plainfield, New Jersey, she grew up in North Carolina. La’Shanda’s options were seemingly dismal at best. Losing her mother to suicide at the age of two was just the first of many of painful experiences. Shortly after her devastating loss, she was adopted by her aunt. Her aunt later remarried a man who was abusive, and a few years later, La’Shanda was thrusted into a foster care system that would offer her abuse, neglect, and instability. Ms. Holmes quickly learned that she had to make a decision to use life’s hardships as fuel to lift her out of poverty, loneliness, and depression. As a seventeen year old on the cusp of aging out of the foster care system, La’Shanda finally found her family in Linda and Edward Brown.

While working at a career fair in college, the young La’Shanda found herself talking to a Coast Guard recruiter. And the rest they say is history — literally. While she was considering a career on the water, she met a woman named Jeanine Menze who was the first African American female aviator in the United States Coast Guard. La’Shanda’s future career path in the sky was clear. No doubt about it, finding a mentor in Lt. Jeanine Menze, shifted La’Shanda’s goals and gave her the confidence she needed to soar.

Fast-forward six years to the White House in Washington, D.C.,  I was with a group of White House Fellows and their significant others, as we tried to pack into the East Room to hear President Obama speak about the 50th anniversary of the prestigious White House Fellowship Program. As the president began to speak about how this program changes the lives of those who are fortunate enough to become a fellow, he began to tell the story of La’Shanda Holmes. While it was not the first time I had heard her name, it was remarkable to hear the 44th president share a former foster kid’s success with a room of the country’s most respected leaders. As a former foster child myself,  I found myself  clapping and crying tears of joy. It was pure magic.

This young woman is a military officer, helicopter pilot, White House Fellow at NASA, and role model. Ms. Holmes spends her time doing remarkable things for the U.S. Coast Guard, and continues to speak about her journey in an effort to inspire young kids to reach for the stars. Additionally, she serves as an advisor to Connect Our Kids, a nonprofit organization that is committed to bringing 21st century technology to the foster care system. This is a woman who understands how her path in life benefits society for the greater good. And I am quite certain, for La’Shanda Holmes, the sky is not the limit.


How long were you in foster care and how many families did you live with?

I was in foster care from age 16 until I aged out of the program at 21. Because it is difficult to find placement for a teenager, I stayed in a total of about 5 places between my junior and senior year in High School before leaving for college.

Losing a mother is devastating and living with a foster family is scary. (I know the feeling.) What was your greatest comfort growing up?

My greatest comfort was prayer. My situation had become pretty depressing and the isolation was overwhelming – so I turned to God. I felt like I had nowhere else to go and that all of these things had to be happening for a reason. I refused to think that God allowed me to endure tragedy, pain, abuse, or neglect for it to just end with depression and isolation. So I prayed often – every day and throughout the day. Through that, I started to find things to be grateful for: my health, my sanity, my hope for the future. It didn’t take long for those prayers of pain to turn into prayers of praise. Prayer comforted me in ways I had never imagined or experienced before.

How do you bring courage to a challenging situation?

Fear is a powerful thing. How do you overcome it? By facing it! The only way you will know how brave, smart, strong you are is to step out into the scary and uncomfortable space you’ve never been and tackle fear head on. Fear isn’t always a bad thing – it’s only bad when you let it stop you in your tracks. Identify fear, then strategize your plan to conquer it (or at least grow from it).

If you could tell your younger self one thing, what would it be?

You are worthy. You are beautiful. You are favored.

How was your mentor helpful to you?

About a month before entering Officer Candidate School at the Coast Guard Academy, I had the opportunity to meet then LT Jeanine Menze – the Coast Guard’s first African American female pilot. She was stationed in Clearwater, Florida as a duty standing pilot flying C-130’s. Until that point I had never looked in the sky at an aircraft and thought I could fly. Flying had never even crossed my mind as an option of what I could do in life. It wasn’t until I met Jeanine – a brown girl like me –that I considered it. Jeanine completely changed the perception of what a pilot was in my mind, so I knew I could at least give it a shot.


j. jane side notes:

the j. jane project

La’Shanda and I on our way to the White House. Please note: I was six months pregnant with my Samuel Lincoln.

U.S. Coast Guard

Lt. Jeanine Menze, the first African American female aviator in U.S. Coast Guard history pins a set of aviator wings on Lt. j.g. La’Shanda Holmes, who became the first African American female helicopter pilot in the Coast Guard during an April 9, 2010 winging ceremony. (U.S. Navy photo by Ens. Ryan Trespalacios)

Learn more about La’Shanda Holmes here and here.  This amazing woman is an outstanding role model for us all. Share her remarkable story with those who are looking to inspire those children who are forced to overcome unimaginable odds. As La’Shanda said, “Flying had never even crossed my mind as an option of what I could do in life. It wasn’t until I met Jeanine – a brown girl like me –that I considered it.”

Every day we have an opportunity to help mentor those around us.