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Fort Walton Beach mother, daughter with sickle cell anemia appreciate 2020 blessings

Savannah Evanoff
Northwest Florida Daily News
Allison Morris and her daughter Samariah Reign Brown, 5, are thankful for the time they can spend together.

FORT WALTON BEACH — For many people, 2020 was a year of struggle, a seemingly endless cycle of new and creative challenges no one expected or wanted.

But for Allison Morris and her daughter, it was a come-up season, a time when every obstacle was met with only resilience and determination, and resulted in one of their most fulfilling years as mother and child.

More:Fort Walton Beach High has reported the most COVID-19 cases among Florida high schools

Morris and her daughter, 5-year-old Samariah, have spent more time together in 2020 than ever. Samariah has sickle cell anemia, so she is in the high-risk category for the coronavirus.

Morris now shares Samariah’s virtual education adventures on Facebook. She spends her days helping her daughter learn the kindergarten curriculum while working remotely. She chauffeurs Samariah to theater rehearsals, local museums and the library. They do Zoom conference calls with friends and masked entryway meetings to socialize.

And while Samariah has always been Morris’ entire world, now she is with her every single day — and she loves it.

“I don’t want anyone to think we’re at home sad and crying all day,” Morris said. “No, we enjoy every moment we have together. A lot of people don’t get to spend time with their kids. I’m spending all the time with her. You can be happy where you are. We are the queens of bounce back.”

Allison Morris and her daughter, 5-year-old Samariah Reign Brown,  have made the best of a trying 2020.

In 2020, they have found much happiness and accomplishment.

Samariah performed in her first play, Emerald Coast Theatre Co.’s “Annie Kids,” graced the stage in three pageants and won her first pageant title: Tiny Miss Coastal Christmas.

Morris said her daughter has a darker skin complexion than most of her friends, and she has always wanted her daughter to know that is part of what makes her beautiful.

"She was the only African-American girl in the play, the only one in her age group for the pageant as well," Morris said. "Representation matters. I want her to be proud of who she is, just like anyone else. I don’t want her to feel like she’s alone.”

This year, Morris upgraded their lives from a tiny, hot apartment with a window air conditioning unit to a larger, town home with central air conditioning, excelled at working remotely and is amid launching a business that holds deep meaning to her.

More:COVID-19 cases and deaths continue to climb in Okaloosa County

For Morris and her daughter, 2020 has been the come-up.

And, for that, Morris is happy. Because her daughter is everything.

2020 a blessing and a curse

Like everyone else, Morris and Samariah started 2020 filled with hope.

After traveling to Atlanta to see her friend in an opera performance that was canceled because of the coronavirus outbreak, Morris felt that shift.

“That’s when it hit us that everything was going to change, as far as traveling, seeing people and just being amongst the living,” Morris said. “That’s when everything changed.”

Morris knew COVID-19 would put Samariah at risk. Because of her sickle cell anemia and the weak immune system that accompanies it, Samariah could die from the virus.

Sickle cell anemia is a genetic blood disorder in which Samariah’s red blood cells change shape when she is exposed to different conditions, such as high or low temperatures or when she is under stress, Morris said. She isn’t even supposed to enter a non-heated swimming pool because it might trigger an “extreme pain episode.”

Morris and Samariah’s father carry the trait, but Morris didn’t know it until Samariah underwent a screening and was diagnosed as a newborn.

“People who have it compare it to ice picks being stuck into areas it affects,” Morris said. “Basically, her cells start sickling, so they change shape. Instead of being round, they form a sickle; like a crescent moon. The cells start building up and it restricts blood flow to whatever area the cells are sickling at. She has a lot of hip pain, joint pain, her arms. We can’t pinpoint why it’s those certain areas.”

There is little Morris can do to help in those moments.

“I just try to hold her because she is in pain,” Morris said. “I try to manage it at home. Most of the time in an extreme crisis, she is inconsolable. She is crying. I try to give her a warm bath. We just try to go through anything to comfort her.”

Samariah was hospitalized over Mother’s day weekend in May of 2019 and missed performing at her ballet recital. She has been hospitalized during episodes twice a year her whole life — at least until 2020.

Samariah attended virtual school through Wright Elementary School and had little to no contact with other people. 

More:Elementary school parents adapt to challenges of virtual learning

“This year was a blessing and a curse because we were home,” Morris said. “We haven’t been around anybody, but she hasn’t gotten sick this year. She hasn’t had any episodes. She has been in little pain. We haven’t had to go to the hospital.”

Morris has prioritized her health, too.

“I’ve never taken more vitamin C, turmeric or elderberry,” she said. “I would never want to get her sick. I cook a lot more. It makes you prioritize what’s important. Is it important for me to go out or is it important for me to not give my daughter this virus?”

‘Yes you can’

While Morris and her daughter have spent 2020 mostly in their home, Morris didn’t want Samariah to miss out on childhood experiences.

She not only takes her on field trips to places such as the Gulfarium Marine Adventure Park on Okaloosa Island, but also enrolled her in the children’s theater program at Emerald Coast Theatre Co. and various pageants where she could still social distance.

“For her age group, they just walk,” Morris said. “They have a pattern they have to walk in; that’s mainly what she practiced. She likes it.”

In the Miss Coastal Christmas pageant at The Island Hotel on Okaloosa Island, Samariah wore two glamorous holiday gowns. Morris cried the whole time, she said.

“I felt emotional,” Morris said. “She just has such a positive attitude. I feel like with the pageant, it just helped with her confidence. She had a couple moments where she was like, ‘I can’t do this,’ and I was like, ‘Yes you can.’ All the emotions came together.”

What meant even more was that Samariah’s father, who lives in Atlanta, was able to watch. He is a proud supporter of the arts, Morris said.

“He’s not there for all the small moments, but he's there for the big moments, which is very important to her,” Morris said. “She wants him at all of her endeavors.”

De'Carlo Garcia is partnering with Allison Morris to start a consulting agency to help incarcerated and previously people start their own businesses.

Overcoming in the era of COVID-19

Like her daughter, Morris found personal achievement.

Along with securing them a nicer home — after their application initially was denied — she also brainstormed a new business with her friend De’Carlo Garcia. Gulf Coast Supplemental Institute, a business consulting agency to serve incarcerated and previously incarcerated people who want to be trained and develop skills to be entrepreneurs, will launch Jan. 1.

Morris said she has a passion for helping people who don’t have many options. She was once there.

When Morris was a 19-year-old University of West Florida student, she was charged with aggravated assault with a deadly weapon with no intent to kill. She said it was a crime she didn’t commit.

“I was in college; I had never been in trouble before and I’ve never been in trouble since,” Morris said. “This was a real charge.”

After two years of intermittent court dates, Morris spent 44 days in jail during the holidays in 2004. It was one of the lowest points in her life.

“I was there for Christmas and New Year's,” Morris said. “That was an eye-opener, because it was something I never envisioned myself being in. I was a pre-law major at the time, so the guards laughed and said, ‘A pre-law major here.’ They thought it was a joke.”

While her life has since returned to a sense of normalcy, Morris realizes some people never escape their past. Many people incarcerated have children and need help to break the cycle and achieve financial success.

Allison Morris enrolled her daughter Samariah in the the Emerald Coast Theatre Co.'s children's program.

“If it’s a felony, most of the time they don’t hire you, so you end up doing something you have to do instead of something you have the skills to do,” Morris said. “It’s something you might be great at, but they don’t want to take that chance on you because you have a record.”

Morris plans to host workshops for incarcerated people to teach them about starting their own businesses.

“Even while you’re in there, you can still develop your mind,” she said.

Now is a good time for anyone to start a business, she said. God is at the core of her own business.

“My advice is to start that business, do something you've never done before and take this time out to plan and pray for the best results,” Morris said. “You won't be disappointed as long as you get up every day and keep moving. And when you feel like you can't get up, turn some music on and dance. You will feel silly at first but you're moving. Go outside and breathe, watch the sunset, let someone in during traffic. Do the simple things that can start a snowball of blessings.”

Living in the moment

To some, 2020 was a calendar of crossed-out events; but for Morris and Samariah, it was a blank slate, a chance to build a better future.

Morris loves being in Samariah’s life because of the way 2020 unfolded.

Morris’ own mother was “hands on” with her but worked a lot, she said.

“One of the things she expressed to me is she wished she had spent more time with me as a child,” Morris said. “I spent a lot of time with my grandmother. My grandmother taught me how to read. My mom came home from work and my grandmother would be like, ‘Oh, she did this. Oh she did that.’ She missed those moments at work.”

Everyone doesn’t get the opportunity to spend time with their children, Morris repeated

“At the beginning, I didn’t,” Morris said. “I watched her live her life through the lens of her village —– her babysitters and teachers. Now, I’m showing her how to write her name. We’re expanding on different concepts of kindergarten. It’s beautiful. I couldn’t ask for anything more.”