Whenever Dannielle Jones feels lonely or anxious she heads to an outdoor volleyball court at Florida Atlantic University, where she buries her feet and worries in yards of silky, gray sand.
“The air flow between the buildings makes nice breezes, and I can let go of everything. It’s freedom,” said Jones, 18, sifting handfuls of sand between her fingers.
Though a member of the school’s Student Government, an editor for the school’s newsletter and floor president at one of FAU’s dorms, the college freshman said she has never felt more alone in her life. Estranged from her parents and siblings due to alleged child abuse, the 2012 graduate of Cooper City High School bounced in and out of relatives’ homes until she stepped forward at age 17 to request her own placement in the state’s foster system.
“Then, on my 18th birthday, when no one called to say ‘Happy Birthday,’ I knew once and for all that I had to get through this myself,” Jones said.
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Jones is a natural overachiever. In high school, she was an honor student, tutored other teens, competed on the debate team and performed with the Sound of Pride color guard.
But whenever Jones talked to her family about her hopes for the future, she was cut short. At age 12 she was ordered to stop telling people about her dreams. Though her parents hold advanced university degrees, Jones said she was told she could never be a “real” college student.
“I said I’m going to prove them wrong and, so far, I like what I what I see,” Jones said.
Roshanda Cross, a social worker with SOS Children’s Villages-Florida, said Jones thrives on overcoming the odds.
“Many kids would see this kind of situation as a roadblock and just stop. Dannielle jumped the hurdle and kept running,” Cross said.
Waking up early
After Jones was placed at the foster-care residence in Coconut Creek, she woke at 4 a.m. every day to trek to Cooper City High, where as a senior she continued to get good grades.
Jones auditioned to sing a solo during her high school graduation ceremony at Nova Southeastern University. She won the spot and belted out, Follow Your Dreams by T.I.
Vickie Walters, SOS’ director of community relations, said Jones became an instant leader and mentor to younger children at the village. During chores and activities, she had a commanding presence, and aimed for perfection.
“Dannielle is very intelligent and responsible. She sat down with the younger children and organized them. She has a plan, a thought process, for where she wants to go with her life,” Walters said.
Moving to FAU
After graduating from high school, she landed a summer job at the Northwest Regional Library in Coral Springs, moved onto the FAU campus and took her first university classes. Jones plans to earn a bachelor’s degree on a pre-med track by age 21, and then pursue a career in cardiac surgery.
“The heart is the most important part of the body. It pumps everything. It connects to everything. Without it we die,” Jones said.
So far, she has earned all A’s and B’s.
Now on winter break, Jones will spend the holidays at a friend’s home. For Christmas, she would like a laptop computer for schoolwork and a sturdy bicycle so she can get around on and off campus.
Cross, who called Jones a “hardcore freshman,” said she also needs a computer printer and clothing store gift cards.
“Dannielle is adamant about her education and, at the same time, becoming quite a young lady. She deserves help because she gives it. If Dannielle had two dollars, she would give one away to someone else,” Cross said.
But the avid reader and movie buff who loves to write, dance and take quiet walks on the beach would be happy all the same to see her family resolve their problems. Highest on her holiday wish list is to be happy and loved.
“I’m not totally alone. I am not religious, but I know God. He is with me and that’s what I have to hold onto,” Jones said.