VHS graduation marks fulfillment of 16-year-old promise

VERNON ­ – High school graduation season is a time to celebrate past achievements and look to future possibilities. For one local family, this year’s commencement ceremonies also represent the fulfillment of a promise made 16 years ago.

LaWanda Peterson Bland was an 18-year-old Vernon High School senior when her mother, KaWanda Stewart, passed away in December 2005 at the age of 33. Nearly overnight, Bland’s role in her family shifted from eldest sibling to mother and matriarch as she stepped in to raise her six younger siblings, whose ages ranged from one to 17.

Stewart, a single mother, was diagnosed with breast cancer the summer before Bland’s senior year. Bland says the disease had significantly progressed by that fall when she was honored as a member of the VHS Homecoming Court.

“It had gotten bad at that point, so we knew she probably didn’t have much longer,” said Bland. “But she made it her mission to get dressed and walk me down the field that night for homecoming.”

Stewart passed away just a few months later – but not before Bland made a promise she would spend the next 16 years keeping.

“Mom was in the hospital and really didn’t know what was going on,” she said. “I remember saying, ‘If you can understand me, squeeze my hand.’ I got a little bit of a squeeze, and that’s when I told her, ‘I don’t know how we’re gonna do it, but we’re going to be ok.’”

Bland vowed she would not only make sure she and her siblings could stay together, but also that each one would graduate high school. The youngest sibling, Samuel “Sammy” Martin, will graduate Friday, May 27, from Vernon High School, making that vow a promise kept.

Shortly after Stewart’s death, Kristi McDonald, an older cousin, came to live with the siblings in their Caryville home to help out, keeping Martin while Bland attended school during the day and worked in the afternoons.

Bland says the community rallied around her young family, even establishing a bank account where monetary donations could be made.

Despite the challenges, Bland excelled in school, serving as senior class vice president and student council president and being active in the Beta and drama clubs. She would ultimately graduate with honors before going on to Chipola College and earning her associates in business. Today, she serves as the Visitation Program Supervisor for Anchorage Children’s Home.

“Education was important to our mother,” she said. “I wanted to attend Bethune-Cookman University, and we had plans to visit the campus. At that time, I didn’t know what I was going to be, but I knew it was going to be something big.”

Bland, now 34, says while she gave up her dream of attending Bethune-Cookman University, she realizes her “something big” can be found in the success of her brothers and sisters: Thomas Peterson, a consumer at the Arc of Holmes and Washington Counties; Giovoinni Martin, a football coach with the Vernon Recreation Department; John Works, Jr., a teacher and head basketball coach at VHS; Ta’Laci Works, a corporal with the Department of Juvenile Justice; Ja’Kevia Works, a fulltime mother to a son and twin girls and Sammy Martin, a member of the VHS class of 2022.

John Works, Jr. is the fourth eldest of the siblings and was 14 when Stewart passed away. He says Bland not only served as a caregiver to the large family; she also inspired them to band together.

“It took a toll on us, but she made it seem like an easy transition,” he said. “She stepped up and made sure we would get to stay a family. We got the structure and discipline we had when our mom was alive, but we were still able to be children.”

Works, who earned his bachelor’s in general studies with a minor in sports management from University of West Florida, is now preparing to begin work on his master’s degree in educational leadership.

“It shaped me in a very dramatic way, just watching her become the mother of six children,” said Works. “We all stepped in and did our part. I am proud of every one of our brothers and sisters. We could have become another set of statistics after losing our mom. We could have ended up in the streets, but instead, we pulled together and achieved our goals. Watching as we each graduated from high school showed me that there would be trials and tribulations, but as long as we stuck together, as long as we had faith in each other and in God, we could do anything.”

Bland also credits her high school sweetheart and husband of six years, Devarian Bland, with stepping into the role of father figure for the younger siblings in addition to the couple’s three-year-old son, Kaden.

Bland says while the years were difficult, they also served to bring the siblings closer.

“We all talk several times a week,” she said. “They still all step in and help each other.”

She adds that she doesn’t regret her promise or the decisions that followed.

“This is my love letter to my siblings,” she said. “They didn’t ask for this; I didn’t ask for this. I didn’t know how I was going to do this. But we’re done. We did it. A lot of people didn’t think I could do it or felt like I shouldn’t have done it. I just want my brothers and sisters to know that everything I did, all the sacrifices, all the stuff they weren’t able to do because we didn’t have the money or the time – even through all of that, they all turned out amazing. I love them all so much, and I did it for them. And if I had it to do again, I would do it over a million times.”