NEW PALESTINE — Four charms hanging on a leather necklace around her neck represent the past, present, faith and hopes for the future.
Those charms — a cross given to her by her father, an engraved ring her late mother used to wear, the Eiffel Tower she wants to visit and a breast cancer emblem filled with some of her mother’s ashes — remind Makayla Womack to keep her challenges in perspective.
On Friday, when Womack, 18, walks across the New Palestine High School stage as a member of the Class of 2017, it will mark a milestone she thought at one point she wouldn’t reach.
Womack is finally able to move forward with purpose in her life, something not so certain just a few years ago. After losing her mother to breast cancer when Womack was 14, the teen missed a great amount of school, moved several times and struggled to find her place each time she was uprooted.
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She moved from her home in Indiana to Texas to live with her father after her mother’s passing. The two then moved to Florida, before she finally moved back to Indiana in 2016. She settled in Lawrence, where she now lives happily with her grandfather.
During her mother’s illness and in between the moves with her father, Womack hit many rough patches, she said. When her mother was sick and shortly after she died, she missed most of her middle school from January to December 2012.
In 2013, she moved to Mississippi for five months to live with a friend of her mother’s, who helped her get caught up with her schooling.
She then moved back to Texas, ready for her freshman year of high school. She made friends and excelled, but during her sophomore year, she and her father moved to Florida, and that’s where things began to unravel, she said.
She suffered from depression, and after just a month in her new home, she stopped going to school at all. She missed the whole second half of her sophomore year.
“I completely lost myself,” she said. “I’d wake up and not know what day it was.”
She felt alone and sad. She contemplated suicide.
But on a trip to visit her cousin, a senior at New Palestine High School, something changed.
Womack returned from the trip happy for the first time in years. The idea of returning to school, of finishing her education, didn’t seem so daunting. She began to talk to her father about the possibility of moving back to Indiana, where she could attend school with her cousin.
They decided moving her back to Indiana for her junior year was in her best interest, she said.
And her loved ones have seen an incredible change in her since.
“I’ve definitely noticed a difference in Makayla from back then to now,” her cousin, Kameron Womack, said. “She’s much … happier, and she’s in the right place — around her family, where she’s supposed to be.”
She ended up moving in with her grandfather and is thriving, earning mostly A’s and B’s as she prepares to head to college.
She and her mother’s father have a special relationship; they look out for each other, she said.
James Womack lost his daughter and son to cancer. His wife is in a senior living facility with dementia. He and his granddaughter have weathered those storms together, he said.
He plans to adopt her and help her to get her college education.
“I want her to have a safe place to live,” he said. “She is a joy to be around.”
He’s proud to see how well his granddaughter has grown up after losing her mother and going through several unsettling years.
Womack, who received several college offers, plans to live at home while attending Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis to study physical therapy.
But first, she’s going to take a moment to celebrate how far she’s come — alongside her classmates and friends.
“I look back at my life, and I could literally not be here; but not only am I here — I’m going to graduate,” she said.
Class list and top seniors, page XX