While many children face adversity at an early age, only a few have used it to excel the way 17-year-old Justice Collier has.
In April 1998, when Justice was just three months shy of her second birthday, she and her brother Brandon, 16, were removed from their parents after doctors at South Miami Hospital discovered that Brandon had drugs in his system when he was born. She and her brother ended up being raised by their paternal grandmother and aunt.
Justice, who still keeps in touch with her father and has not heard from her mother in three years, knows she was dealt a tough hand as a child.
“Sometimes I think about what it would be like if I had my mom and dad, and we all lived in the same house,” Justice said. “I just snap back to reality and just accept it for what it is.”
Some would call that reality an inspiration.
Justice, who is now a senior at Robert Morgan Educational Center in Miami, was awarded a $5,000 scholarship from the Miami Heat Charitable Fund, which was established in 1997 to support lower-income families. She was presented with the award during halftime of the Heat’s Eastern Conference semifinal matchup against the Brooklyn Nets on May 8.
The scholarship, which is awarded to the five applicants with the most outstanding academic performances, as well as involvement in community service, is just one of the many awards Justice has received for her hard work.
Justice was valedictorian in the fifth grade, has been on several honor rolls and received a trendsetter award from former Gov. Jeb Bush in April for mentoring first-, second- and third-graders and helping them with their readings.
Her grandmother Addie Harrison, who is a retired Mass Transit Authority driver, feels that one of the most important things she did in her life was refusing to allow her grandchildren to end up in foster care.
“If we had not stepped in, they wouldn’t have been the kids they are today,” said Harrison, 69. “When the parents are influenced by wrong, where does that leave the kid? By them being with us, it helped to change that a lot.”
Tonnette Collier, 52, is Harrison’s daughter and the founder of Sweet Vine, a youth organization in Homestead that provides outreach and prevention services for minors. Collier, who has no children of her own, considers it a blessing to have raised her niece and nephew.
“We wanted them to have a fair chance at life,” she said. “My mom and I wanted to give them a chance to develop and be loved. We couldn’t have asked for two better kids.”
Justice’s teachers at school describe her as a good role model for younger students.
Ana Logan, assistant principal at Robert Morgan, is the person who brought the scholarship opportunity to Justice’s attention.
“She’s somebody who we can all look toward — not just students here at Robert Morgan, but in life,” said Logan, who has been the assistant principal since 2010. “Take our struggles, take our challenges, turn them around and create opportunities out of them.”
One of Justice’s favorite teachers, English teacher Linda Greenfield, guided Justice in her process of applying for the scholarship.
“There are kids who come from less than optimum situations, and it becomes an excuse not to get ahead,” said Greenfield, who has been teaching at Robert Morgan since the high school opened in 2002. “She’s the absolute opposite of that. She knows what to value, she knows what she wants and she’s focused. The adversity has made her who she is.”
Justice, who graduates on May 29, will be attending the University of West Florida in August. She wants to study marine biology and hopes to find a cure for cancer, which was inspired as a result of her cousin passing away because of the disease.
She said that dealing with struggles in life can only break a person if they allow it.
“I know what the perfect example is, and I know what the imperfect example is,” she said. “I know what not to be and what to be. I know what drugs can do to you, and I know what drugs can’t do to you.
“I want to make mistakes and learn from them. I want to do things that make me shine, and I want to be my own person.”