Hats Off to the Future: Woman overcomes adversity with hat business

Savannah Vasquez
Nina and Michael Gayles ready to ride their Destin route.

You’ve probably seen them riding their bikes along Hwy. 98, Airport Road or Main Street. Ninalizia ‘Nina’ Gayles and her adoptive father Michael are hard to miss as each don multiple Chinese straw hats while they ride along the roadway.

“When we came here last June, we had one (hat) we had bought as a souvenir in Ohio,” Nina said of the initial idea for the hat business. “Everyone kept stopping us and asking, ‘Where did you get that hat? Is it from a store around here?’ So I found a niche market and decided to start selling Chinese hats.”

Nina and her father came to Destin nine months ago from Alabama with just a few possessions in their station wagon, but high hopes to start a new life on the coast.

 “This is an adventure for us,” said Michael. “We are looking to God to provide. But we don’t ask for anything or want to be a burden on anyone, we want to forge our own path.”

Michael told The Log that he and his ex-wife had worked for 20 years as therapeutic foster parents in Alabama, eventually adopting Nina three years ago due to her extreme circumstances. He explained that in the process of serving as foster parents to her, they discovered a dark history of abuse that she had endured throughout her childhood.

“With the other foster children we knew that it was temporary until they could be placed back in their homes, but with Nina we knew something was different about her. We had her paperwork but we could see her heart crying out. We adopted her.”

“It was hard, it was a hard life,” Nina said of her childhood. “It was mental abuse and physical abuse…My hope is that not as many children will go through the same thing, and that people will be able to see something and help get children out.”

Besides her hat business, Ninalizia’s Hats LLC., Nina has also begun the process of writing an autobiography in the hopes that others will be spared the traumatic events that happened to her.

“It’s really hard trying to write it because I start thinking about that again and I get paranoid,” Nina said, adding that the project will take a few years to complete.

 Although it is a delicate process, Nina said the main purpose of the book is to inspire hope in others that may have experienced a hard life like her own.

“It is to never lose hope, never loose faith, never stop looking for the light at the end of the tunnel,” she said. “Because God is always there for you.”

“Really, it’s about a little girl that fell through the cracks in the Child Welfare System,” said Michael. “But now she is determined not to be condemned by what happened to her. She wants to make life better for other people.”

With this positive outlook, Nina said she is also optimistic about her new business and life on the Emerald Coast.

“I’m hoping the hat business will take off,” said Nina. “I’m hoping it will kick off and keep going.”

Find Ninalizia’s Hats on Facebook or call 376-9553.