The post below is a joint project by Education Post bloggers Kerry-Ann Royes and Vesia Wilson-Hawkins who were in the nation’s capital for an education writer’s training. Both bloggers are passionate about children and families and as luck as would have it…
When traveling, the Southern hospitality goes with me. So when a lady sitting next to our table asks my partner, “did you order the shrimp and grits?’ it was on and popping. I knew she would be receptive to this good-natured Nashvillian.
In D.C. a day early for a writer’s training, I make plans to meet up with a fellow Education Post blogger – a perfect stranger outside of our digital education world. We follow through on our plan — take in some sights and wrap up the day with dinner and a cocktail at one of the happening (did I say happening?) spots in D.C.
My new fast friend, the very congenial Kerry-Ann Royes, is a blogger out of South Florida and we connect as if years, a million miles, and whole life experiences didn’t make us strangers just days prior. Kerry-Ann is a parent and power player in Broward County, FL and I marveled at the amazing story of my new Jamaican-American pal against the backdrop of the Lincoln Memorial.
But it was at the very cool Busboys and Poets where things started to get interesting. After sharing a very decadent white chocolate banana chocolate bread pudding (with the coconuttiest of ice cream), we were eager to capitalize on the unique opportunity to execute a project. A joint creation exceeding the boundaries of Facebook, Twitter, and WordPress; but one that makes sense. Enter the stranger woman, our neighbor, who left her table to get to the power strip underneath OUR table.
Interesting how one tiny thing leads to a 1,000 word blog! Turns out, the woman sitting next to us was no ordinary female. Actually, “superwoman” fails to accurately define her greatness. We explain why we’re in D.C. and she replied “I’m big on education.” Oh, boy, we’re listening.
Tonya Thomas, a D.C.-Maryland-Virginia (DMV) resident, is an angel wrapped in warrior clothing. After establishing her very clear stance on education, she proceeded to tell us “I don’t believe anyone should have to pay for college.” This vessel of brilliance and resourcefulness spent nearly an hour of her time explaining how she, a single mom and three-time breast cancer survivor, amassed enough scholarship money for daughter, Cydney, to fully fund baby girl’s entire educational career clear through to her doctorate.
I think what struck me the most is there was not one pretentious bone in Tonya’s body. She shared her life journey with a matter-of-fact awareness. Stories after story, evidence of everyday resilience, especially in parenting. “My daughter, Cydney, was a miracle baby. She was born 2 months early, 2lbs 14 oz., and detached in utero. I raised her by myself, but I watched my mother take care of 4 kids on her own, so it was fine.” She was completely tuned in to Cydney’s learning needs. “I had her in daycare, but I knew she was ready for more. So, I pulled her out and put her in a private school from age 2-4.” This allowed Cydney to enter Kindergarten at 4 years old.
Tonya was everything but the image of the single parent we are often given. Though life had given her plenty reasons to bury her head in the sand, there was none of that. There was no talk of excuses, or brokenness or handouts. Just a powerful mother, leaving her imprint on her daughter’s life.
“My daughter was an only child. I didn’t want to overcompensate or over-indulge her. I didn’t want her to become a brat, so we started doing community service when she was very young.” They donated all the new toys from Cydney’s birthday parties to the local hospital where she received early intervention treatment given to preemies. “She never really liked playing with toys, and we knew someone else’s family would really appreciate it. So, that’s how we started.” By the time of graduation from the Duke Ellington School of the Arts, Cydney had 1225 community service hours.
College was just another mountain for Tonya to conquer. “Scholarships were the only option for college for my daughter. I’m a 3-time breast cancer survivor. There is no way I could afford her $50K a year college expenses.” All the cancer battles had run through all the college fund savings, not just for treatments, but for basic needs too.
“The United Negro College Fund (UNCF) allows you to set up a profile and you get all kinds of information on scholarships. I don’t know why more people don’t take advantage of it.” The Gates Foundation Scholarship, which Tonya became aware of before Cydney even started high school, was also hosted through the UNCF. And when it came time to apply, Tonya and Cydney did their research, YouTubing other Gates Scholars. “Everybody has a sad story and the application was intense. So, we had to be get to the realness of the what Cydney had done and what they are looking for.”
They did it. They landed the Gates scholarship. But that was not enough. They kept applying. Dance, academic, community service…it didn’t matter. Cydney got into Virginia Commonwealth University with a full ride: Gates Foundation and Disney Scholar, among other grants.
All those recommendation letters, essays, teacher nominations and applications…now she can rest easy that her daughter is taken care of all the way through to her doctoral degree if she so chooses. “Now, all she has to stress about is getting those A’s.”
I don’t know how we got so lucky to sit next to Tonya in this DC restaurant on a Wednesday night. But she was a perfect reminder of why Vesia and I will keep talking about education, and shining a light in all the dark places. Tonya and Cydney deserve it.
Kerry-Ann Royes, Broward County, FL, Faces of Education Blog