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Determined leader sprints past K-12 finish line, pushed by her little ‘star’

Mother of toddler is sports standout, mentor to others

Godfrey-Lee — When Da’Jazonna West says something, you get the feeling that she’s going to make it happen, no matter what. 

“You’re going to hear my name somewhere else — watch. People are gonna know who I am,” she says. “Hopefully everyone sees me in the future as someone who has changed something, someone who is part of the solution.”

Da’Jazonna — or DaJa, as she’s better known — is a petite 18-year-old with a strong, confident presence. She’s active on Lee High School’s sideline cheer, competitive cheer and basketball teams and previously was on the softball and volleyball teams as well. She’s a student leader – a mentor to incoming freshmen, helping them navigate the challenges that come with high school and growing up. She works in nutrition services at Spectrum Health and takes classes at the Kent Career Tech Center on her way to becoming a nurse tech and eventually an RN.

That confidence she projects is hard-earned, though, which you’ll discover after spending just a few minutes of quality time with her. The eldest of six siblings, DaJa is committed to setting an example for them and breaking “the family curse,” as she calls it, of being overworked and underpaid. She has battled seizures since kindergarten, when she was diagnosed with an epileptic disorder, and gone through periods of depression.

Above it all, DaJa is making it work in the role that brings her the greatest joy in life — as mom to baby Will, who turns 2 next month. 

“I just feel like he’s my star,” DaJa says of her son, who was born the summer before her junior year at Lee. “When he came out, I could just look at him and say that he’s definitely going to be what pushes me an extra couple steps. It was like, ‘This is my child, and I have to do this.’ I don’t know exactly where yet, but he is pushing me, and it’s really a blessing.”

“People are gonna know who I am,” says DaJa West, who has high hopes for a successful future (courtesy)

Getting It Done

Growing up, DaJa always knew she was going to graduate from high school. It was never really a question in her mind. She was self-motivated by good grades, a natural multitasker and generally set a high bar for herself in everything she tried. 

But her mother, Leanna Spanks, gave DaJa the real-world motivation that would serve her well in her high school years. 

“She is an aggressor, like, ‘get it done’ — she really installed in me that you have to work for everything and nothing’s going to be handed to you,” said DaJa of her mom. “Her big role was letting me know that if you give up, you’re going to get nothing out of it but depression, so you might as well keep going.

“Don’t get me wrong, there were a lot of days (after Will was born) where I wanted to quit, just from being so exhausted and being so young. But there was never a point where I truly was like, ‘I’m not going to make it,’ because I already committed that I was going to graduate.”

DaJa was also inspired to succeed and set an example for her siblings after watching the sacrifices her mom made for others. Spanks worked 12- to 14-hour days in multiple jobs to support both her children and her siblings. As a result, DaJa said, her mom had to delay her own career aspirations.

“I don’t want my siblings or me to have to do that, to not do what they really want to do,” said DaJa. “So (my siblings) play a part in my motivation. I always just want to do better, so that they can do better than me, and then my kids can do even better. I want to set a really high bar for them, so that they can be successful and financially stable.” 

A Quiet Strength

DaJa thrived in high school. She learned how to manage her medication so that her seizures would not interfere too much with sports, homework or other stressors. She took on leadership roles among her teammates and was well regarded by both peers and teachers. 

“I admire and respect DaJa so much,” said Jody Hankis Snyder, capstone teacher at Lee High School and DaJa’s cheer coach since freshman year. “I truly believe she has that old-fashioned grit, and that’s something you don’t see very often anymore. Nothing is going to hold her down.”

Nothing, including pregnancy. When DaJa learned that Will was on the way, many people in her life told her that she’d have to slow down. Her response? “We’ll see.”

“Some people doubted me, telling me I couldn’t do everything, and that was very good motivation for me,” she said. “Just being told, you can’t do sports and go to work and get good grades and have a kid, that it would be too much on my plate — I felt like I needed to prove them wrong. And I feel like I did that.” 

In cheer, DaJa is a base, or one of the athletes who provides a solid foundation for stunts. This role requires a good amount of physical strength, and Hankis Snyder said it’s also emblematic of who DaJa is as a person. While it hasn’t been easy to juggle the responsibilities of mom, student and athlete, her coach said DaJa has never complained. 

“She never once said, ‘I have so much more than you guys that I have to deal with.’ She just did what she had to do,” said Hankis Snyder. 

“She’s a strong athlete, but it’s a quiet strength. She has a way of encouraging people to fight through anything they’re facing. And because she has helped (her teammates) through so many different things, they trust her, and her role (in cheer) is 100% about trust.” 

DaJa was one of five seniors on Lee High School’s competitive cheer team this year (courtesy)

‘I Definitely Had Doubts’

Just because others trust DaJa, it wasn’t always easy for her to trust others, especially in the first few months of her son’s life. After Will was born, she quickly realized that she’d have to lean on — and trust — a large support system if she was going to graduate and set that high bar that she’d always planned on. 

“I definitely had doubts, and feeling like ‘I’m not ready for this,’” she said of motherhood in high school. “I felt like he needed all my attention — even though he had his dad and his granny and all his aunts and uncles, I just thought he needed his mother 24 hours of a day. It was really hard for me to put trust in everyone, because if I wasn’t with him I felt like I’m not in control of the situation.”

As Will has grown, however, DaJa is learning to embrace that support team, and the roles they each play in her son’s life. She’s also learning important lessons about adult responsibilities such as budgeting and time management. 

‘I truly believe she has that old-fashioned grit, and that’s something you don’t see very often anymore. Nothing is going to hold her down.’

— Jody Hankis Snyder, teacher and cheer coach

DaJa is quick to acknowledge that parenting wasn’t what she had planned for her high school years. Being a mom to Will has meant lots of late nights and early mornings, going to the zoo instead of social events and seeing her friends less often than she’d like. She’s still a graduating senior; her friends are still her friends; she still has career goals. It’s just different.

“There’s a lot of things I didn’t get the opportunity to do, definitely. But am I upset about it? Not really,” she said. “I could have avoided not missing out on those things if I would’ve turned right instead of left, and that’s a choice I made. 

“At first I was like, ‘No, this isn’t what I wanted; it’s not how I seen my life.’ But once I had him — I had helped my mom with my siblings, but this is just, like, a different love, and I’m so blessed to be able to experience that. For (Will) to be a part of my new life is definitely a blessing, so I can’t be too mad about it.”

Aiming for Nursing Career 

With Will by her side, DaJa is poised to make a difference in the medical field. For the past two years she has taken health-care classes at the Tech Center, earning early college credit in her quest to become a nurse technician and, eventually, an RN. She also works about 20 hours per week in nutrition services at Spectrum Health, with the hope that already being in the hospital system will give her an edge when it’s time to find a nursing job.

For DaJa, the draw to nursing was equal parts problem-solving and being an agent of change. 

“I like being able to help others and knowing a solution to a problem,” she said. “And I would like to make a change with race and equality, giving people what they need instead of just basic, standard care. Everyone is not standard, and most people don’t feel like they get equal care. Most people don’t feel like the doctors tell them the truth. So, being able to open a lot of eyes that way, I just feel like that’s where I needed to be.”

Next fall she plans to attend Grand Valley State University to get a bachelor’s degree in nursing, and hopes to eventually obtain a master’s degree as well. If, at any point, she finds herself “just doing it for the money,” she has a back-up dream of becoming a detective. But in every decision she makes, Will is her north star, guiding her in the direction of helping others succeed. 

‘I want to inspire all young teens; I want to inspire young mothers. Or even if you’re older than me, I want to inspire everyone.’

— Da’Jazonna West, graduating senior

To Hankis Snyder, DaJa is not the same young woman she met four years ago; she’s now ready to take on the world. 

“I watched (DaJa) have these huge dreams and aspirations, but then everything collapsed on top of her,” said the cheer coach. “And then she just crawled herself all the way out again, and her number one focus wasn’t herself anymore. It was her son. … I respect her because she’s not letting anyone tell her what she should and shouldn’t do, or who she should or shouldn’t be. At age 18, that’s pretty phenomenal.”

Aspiring to Inspire  

DaJa doesn’t consider herself a success story (yet!), but rather a product of the support system she’s had around her — and later, around Will — from the beginning. It’s because of that support that she is so passionate about sharing her story and encouraging others. 

“I want to inspire all young teens; I want to inspire young mothers. Or even if you’re older than me, I want to inspire everyone,” DaJa said. “I want them to say, ‘Okay, she did this at 16; I can do it as well.’ And hopefully I can motivate them to find their own direction.

“If I could, I’d tell everyone that might listen to be better than yourself. Be better than you were a month ago, six months ago, a year ago, five years ago. Don’t try to compete with anyone. Stay in your lane. Right your own boat. And don’t live no one else’s dreams — live your own dreams. And you’ll be successful your way — not someone else’s way.”

Seniors on the cheer team including DaJa, center, are pictured at an end-of-the-year celebration event (courtesy)
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Beth Heinen Bell
Beth Heinen Bell
Beth Heinen Bell is a reporter and copy editor, covering Cedar Springs, Godfrey-Lee, Grandville and Lowell. She is an award-winning journalist who got her start as the education reporter for the Grand Haven Tribune. A Calvin University graduate, she later returned to her alma mater to help manage its national writing festival and edit and write for enrollment communications. Beth has also written for The Grand Rapids Press, Fox 17 and several West Michigan businesses and nonprofits. She is fascinated by the nuances of language, loves to travel and has strong feelings about the Oxford comma. Read Beth's full bio

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