Ransom Everglades graduate overcomes tragedy with help of school

Mya Wright with her mother Donna Thomas-Jones on graduation day.
Mya Wright with her mother Donna Thomas-Jones on graduation day. Courtesy of Ransom Everglades School

Mya Wright is a shining example of the adage that it takes a village to raise a child.

In Mya’s case, that village is Ransom Everglades School, where the 17-year-old graduated on Friday after seven years marked both by tragedy and by her determination to succeed no matter what.

“Whether it was in the classroom, and things were new and were being thrown at her quickly,” or problems at home, “she wasn’t going to let it deter her,” said Rachel Rodriguez, the head of the middle school at Ransom Everglades. “To see the grit that she has with anything that she wants to do is pretty spectacular.”

Mya grew up with a single mother who constantly worried about being able provide for Mya and her three brothers. For the first few years of Mya’s life, her family moved around frequently — from her grandmother’s house in West Grove to Liberty City to a short stint sleeping in a car before settling in a house near West Grove’s Frances S. Tucker Elementary School.

But while her life at home was a challenge, school came easily to Mya, who caught the attention of both her teachers at Frances Tucker Elementary and the staff at Breakthrough Miami, an academic enrichment program for low-income students founded by two graduates of Ransom Everglades. In the fifth grade, the staff at Breakthrough Miami encouraged Mya to apply to Ransom Everglades for middle and high school. Mya was accepted and offered enough financial aid to cover the tuition.

Despite the economic differences between Mya and many of her peers — about 17 percent of students at Ransom Everglades are on financial aid — Mya said she didn’t feel out of place at school. “I felt like finally I was part of an environment where people actually wanted to learn,” she said. “I felt very much at home.”

Mya joined the swim team and started playing water polo, where she progressed from just knowing “how to stay afloat” to becoming a vital team member.

She also befriended the students who didn’t have anyone else to talk to and made an effort to include everyone, Rodriguez said. “She was wise and she was grateful and she was interested in everything that people did,” Rodriguez said. “She’s just an inclusive, warm person.”

Mya’s mother, Donna Thomas-Jones, also became an integral part of the school. Since she wasn’t able to contribute financially, she threw herself into volunteering. “Because I had so little to give, I made it my mission to volunteer for everything,” she said.

Then, when Mya was in the seventh grade, their world turned upside down. Thomas-Jones suffered a stroke and ended up in the hospital for several months. Too young to be left alone, Mya lived alternately with her oldest brother, Rodriguez and two teachers at the school while her mother was recovering. Thomas-Jones eventually returned home, but she was unable to speak or walk for many months and unable to return to work. In between school, water polo practice and homework, Mya took care of her mother, wheeling her to church and to the grocery store and giving her baths.

Mya wasn’t alone, however. Other Ransom Everglades families frequently stopped by the house to check in, drop off food and make sure the pair had everything they needed. “Those parents would get mad if they found out I needed something and didn’t call,” Thomas-Jones said with a laugh.

When Mya entered high school, the family’s misfortunes continued. Thomas-Jones had to have emergency gallbladder surgery and was hospitalized once again when Mya was in ninth grade. The following year, Mya’s older brother Pernell was diagnosed with schizophrenia. Not long afterward, he committed suicide.

“That was the worst year for me ever,” said Mya. “I don’t know how many times I broke down and cried because it just hurt.”

Mya got through the year by throwing herself into her schoolwork. She had promised her brother that she would excel in school and she was determined to succeed. “I felt I had a commitment to him to be the best I could be,” she said. Mya has since taken Advanced Placement classes, studied Japanese and become one of the captains of the water polo team.

When it came time to apply for college, Mya wasn’t sure she wanted to leave Miami. After everything she and her mother have been through, she was afraid to leave her mother alone. There are days when Thomas-Jones still struggles to talk and she frequently needs help getting around the house.

But when Mya got a scholarship to attend Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts from an organization called The Posse Foundation and a family at Ransom Everglades offered to help pay for her other expenses, Mya’s mother encouraged her to take the opportunity.

“I believe she’s on her way,” Thomas-Jones said. “I’m determined she’s going to do great things.”

Mya plans to study psychology so she can go to medical school and become a psychiatrist. She wants to help people struggling with schizophrenia. Mya also has some other, more personal goals. “I want to be happy. I want to travel around the world. I want to take my mom with me,” she said. “My goal is to take care of her.”

Kyra Gurney: 305-376-3205, @KyraGurney