Life lessons hit Shamel Donawa the hardest when she was growing up. But as an adult she can find some laughter and good in the tears she shed all those years ago. And she clearly remembers the first sign her life shifted onto a tumultuous path.
Her elementary school graduation in 2000 brought something the good student had never seen before on a report card: a poor grade in math.
“That first D was a shock,” she said.
From there she descended into a downward spiral. That one D turned to many, followed by failing grades as she moved through her sixth grade and into seventh when she started skipping classes and running with the wrong crowd. Things worsened after the death of her 18-year-old brother, who accidentally shot himself in 2001.
“That kind of rocked my world,” she said.
Her parents noticed their daughter needed help and reached out. Months after her brother passed, she was given a gift that perhaps saved her life: a Step Up For Students Scholarship. She and her parents chose Heartland Christian Academy (now City of Life Christian Academy) in Kissimmee as her new school in 2002.
“It’s amazing,” said the 2007 high school graduate. “It was the greatest thing that ever could’ve happened to me.”
When she first walked into that school, she immediately saw the difference. She saw no signs of cliques, which pooled like-minded kids at her old school. Still, as she walked the halls and sat in class she was uncomfortable in her new surroundings.
“Why is everyone smiling?” she wondered. “Why is everyone so weird here? It freaked me out because everyone was so nice. I was like, get out of here.”
Things quickly changed as Shamel learned to accept that the smiles on the faces of students and teachers were genuine. She started getting involved in activities like drama and chapel choir. She went on school missions to Honduras. It was there she realized the borders in her world weren’t closed. Her dream of becoming a nurse could happen, and she could help people, especially children, overseas one day.
“I started to find my place and tragedy struck again,” she recalls of a Saturday in 2003.
The father she loved so much passed away suddenly while working a construction job. His already enlarged heart couldn’t take anymore and he collapsed on the job site, where he took his last breath.
“That was the kind of the man he was – a man with a big heart,” Shamel said with a smile in her voice.
But what happened that very evening and the days, weeks and months that followed was unlike anything she ever saw in public school. One after another her teachers showed up at her house, rallying around her and her family. They offered hugs, shoulders to cry on, compassion and complete understanding.
From that moment on, Shamel, the youngest of five children, felt different.
“It just showed me how, I guess, important I was to them.”
Her school community helped her get back on to the positive path she had begun walking and she never looked back.
Shamel’s former teacher and assistant principal Maria Anthony, who has since retired, recalled how once she settled in, her former student would make a difference just by walking into a room. Shamel was even the academy’s prom queen her senior year – an honor for which the entire student body had a vote, said Mrs. Anthony.
“With just her heart she lights up a community,” she said.
Today, Shamel works at a Kissimmee area hotel as a vacation planner while she waits to be accepted into a nursing program. She completed all of her prerequisites at a local community college, but because nursing schools are flooded with applicants seeking a stable career in an unstable economy she is currently waitlisted at several schools. It’s the only career she’s really aspired to since she was a little girl.
“I’ve always been a helper, even when I was younger,” she said.
Her ultimate goal is to become a registered nurse and combine that knowledge with her love of babies and become a midwife, too. One day, she said, she might even open a birthing center.
Mrs. Anthony says Shamel couldn’t have chosen a more perfect career. She recalls seeing her help families on their overseas missions.
“She would always have a baby in her arms, or a child tugging on her leg,” Mrs. Anthony said.
But no one has a doubt that without the Step Up For Students Scholarship Shamel wouldn’t be anywhere near pursuing such a dream.
“Really, Shamel would not have gone to college without the help of people, without your program,” said Mrs. Anthony.
Whenever she can, Shamel tells others about the program and will always fondly remember her time at Heartland Christian Academy from which she ended up graduating with honors.
“I still have my robe and little tassels,” she said.
About City of Life Christian Academy (Formerly Heartland Christian Academy)
City of Life Christian Academy was founded in 1991 and has grown from 22 students to 407 under the leadership of Pastors Jeffrey and Amy Smith. Currently, there are 158 Step Up For Students Scholarship students attending City of Life. The school uses the Stanford Achievement Test annually to gauge student performance. Tuition for the 2012-2013 school year is $5,125 for K-3; $4,850 for K-4; $4,635 for K-5 through grade 5; $4,765 for grades 6 – 11; and $4,970 for Grade 12. Roughly 87.5 percent of City of Life Christian Academy graduates attend academic institutions of higher learning, and many children have received Florida Bright Futures and other scholarships and grants.