By Elyse Wild | Photography by Two Eagles Marcus
When identical twins Monica Sparks and Jessica Ann Tyson are together, they generate an exhilarating energy, one that elevates everyone around them. Hours pass in minutes as the pace of conversation quickens while they excavate topics ranging from current events to shared experiences and everything in between. Their wit is acute, their laughs infectious, their gazes bright and sincere, and they will graciously treat you as a cherished old friend.
To many in the community, the sisters are unmistakable: Tyson is the co-owner of The Candied Yam, a local restaurant that serves Southern cuisine, and president and founder of an award-winning event planning company that evolved into a PR firm, JA PR. Sparks is the founder and host of Radio For Divas, a 24 hour talk radio network aimed at empowering women. Combined, it is difficult to find a board or organization with which they haven’t been involved.
Next month on August 7, both of their names will be on the ballot in the primary election for Kent County Commissioner in their respective districts: Sparks is running on the Democratic ticket to represent the 12th district, while Tyson is running on the Republican ticket to represent the 13th district.
Sparks and Tyson are glowing pillars of our community; their story is one that illuminates the ceaseless power of love and hope, and it begins in the darkest of places.
I Am Somebody
Sparks and Tyson spent the first chapter of their lives in Lansing, MI. Born to a heroin addicted mother who was unable to care for them, the girls were left to fend for themselves, often scavenging for food in garbage cans. Their malnourished bodies and appalling living conditions quickly caught the attention of adults who worked at the kindergarten center attended by the girls; at age 4, they were put into state care and placed in a foster home. For many children, being placed in foster care is the beginning of a better life. For Sparks and Tyson, it presented a deluge of horrors to overcome; they faced chilling abuse and neglect at the hands of the adult who was charged with their care.
“We were told everyday that we were ugly, that we were nobodies,” Tyson expressed. “From ages 4 to 7 and a half, that was our narrative.”
During that time, Tyson and Sparks were cruelly kept from food. They recall being forced to watch their foster parent eat an entire Domino’s Pizza as they sat hungry and unallowed to look away; if they did, they were beaten. The girls’ only meals were eaten in the early mornings at school when free breakfast was provided, and they continued to be malnourished.
Though they had very few items of clothing at the time, Sparks wore one shirt over and over again — a shirt that served as a potent symbol of defiance against a figure who was determined to shatter her spirit, and one that foreshadowed the life that awaited her on the other side of suffering.
“It was green,” Sparks smiled. “And it said on it, “I Am Somebody.”’
A Rich Life
At age 8, the girls were adopted out of the foster care system by a Kalamazoo school teacher named Joyce Ann. Joyce was single at the time and looking to adopt a baby, but she felt compelled by God to take in the twin sisters. For Sparks and Tyson, there is no doubt that divine intervention brought them to the woman who would raise them as her own and give them a life so rich that all of the abuse they endured would fade to memory.
“It was like stepping into a fairytale,” Sparks recalled. “We walked into the house, and there was a cake with twins on it that said, ‘Congratulations.’ She drew us a bath and showed us our closets with these beautiful, organized clothes. It was incredible.”
Shortly after the girls were put in her care, Joyce Ann took them to church, and the trio caught the attention of the minister, a Purple Heart Korean war veteran. Joyce Ann and the minister began dating, and married four months later; the family was complete. The girls were introduced to a world they had never known; one in which they would flourish. They learned to garden, cook, volunteer, took organ lessons and horseback riding lessons, participated in girl scouts and debate club and more.
“It was such a blessing to have the good parents that we had, I don’t know what would have happened without them,” Tyson expressed.
Additionally, the girls were encouraged to be themselves and develop their own personalities and interests, as opposed to losing their individuality to the fact that they are twins.
“Our parents were very cognizant of making sure we knew who we were and celebrating that,” Sparks said. “They were undoing all of the damage that was done when we were little. You can love people through damage. You can give someone a life full of the things that create good memories, full of exposure and experience, and it’s why we have such full lives now.”
Jessica Ann Tyson (above) is running for 13th District Kent County Commissioner, on the Republican ticket. Monica Sparks (below) is running for 12th district Kent County Commissioner on the Democratic ticket.
In 1993, Sparks became a licensed real estate broker and began investing in real estate. She built a real estate empire worth more the $4 million, which she lost when the housing bubble burst in 2008. At a crossroads, Sparks meditated on her experience to figure out what her next move was.
“I had to think of what I could glean from real estate to bring into the rest of my life,” she said. “And it was marketing; in real estate, I was always marketing and networking.”
In 2010, she launched the Monica Sparks Show on iHeart Radio and in 2013 started Radio for Divas, a 24-hour talk radio network on which women share their expertise and experience to lift each other up. The network provides a vehicle for the altruism instilled in Sparks by her parents.
“I couldn’t ask for anything more than to give women a platform,” Sparks smiled. “My favorites are when we do a radio-thon and are able to take a check to an organization that needs it to do good. There is no better feeling in the world than giving to people who can’t do anything for you.”
Like her sister, Sparks’ involvement with West Michigan runs deep: Although she is no longer active in real estate, she developed more than 30 State of Michigan approved continuing education classes and teaches the courses for agents and brokers renewing their licenses. Additionally, she is a certified SCORE (a national 501c3 with more than 10,000 volunteers to advise small business owners) business mentor. She is currently on the planning commission for the City of Kentwood, is the former zoning board of appeals commissioner for the city of Kentwood, has been a member of the Wyoming Kentwood Chamber of Commerce and West Michigan Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, among many others. Tyson praises Sparks for her dedication to the community.
“She has such a great heart,” Tyson expressed. “She supports other people and is authentic. She will always come through and show up for people who need her.”
Jessica has always had an aptitude for organizing exceptionally memorable parties.
“I love spending time making things the best they can be,” Tyson shared. “I am very detail oriented. I love helping people have a wonderful time.”
In 2003, she started her own event planning company, Events by Jessica Ann, which evolved into JA PR Group. In 2016, Tyson partnered with Jerome Glenn to open The Candied Yam, an upscale soul food restaurant that focuses on fresh ingredients and family recipes. To Tyson, being able to provide families with delicious food to enjoy together is of the utmost importance.
“Mealtime grew to mean so much to us,” she said, recalling the magic ritual that surrounded dinner after she and Sparks were adopted: The table was decadently set and food was cooked fresh straight from the garden.
Eleven years ago, Tyson started the Grand Rapids Legacy Luncheon to celebrate black history month, recognized outstanding community members and to give scholarships to selected high school students who are facing financial barriers on their way to college. To date, Tyson has given away more the $100,000 in scholarships to students in need through community partnerships.
Spark’s speaks to her sister’s tenacity to give back, no matter what the obstacles.
“She is not going to back down,” Sparks said. “I appreciate her strength. She is strategic, and she cares about people.”
While their politics and personalities differ (and compliment each other), Sparks and Tyson share an important quality: benevolence. From working every week to deliver fresh fruits and vegetables to those in need to helping less fortunate classmates with basic necessities, their adopted parents instilled in them an awareness of vulnerable populations and a commitment to help to the fullest extent of their ability.
“Our mother groomed us from early on to be involved,” Sparks said. “It is natural that we would both get into politics as a way to help others.”
Since their views diverge on most topics, the sisters bring the same asset to their campaigns: The ability to listen and love the person behind the politics.
“No one person can be the spokesperson for everyone,” Tyson commented. “You have to be able to listen and have compassion for all people.”
Sparks nodded in agreement. “As a community, we need to stop labeling each other, and instead, be gracious and listen.”