WASHINGTON — Dreonna Richardson is 18 years old. She's just graduated from Ballou Senior High school in Southeast Washington. She's gentle and quiet but she notices a lot. She hasn't had an easy life.
"My mom had her nine kids, she was a single mother. We saw our fathers here and there, but she was our mom and dad," Dreonna says.
Her mother was using drugs, but Dreonna didn't want to believe it. Even when her mother left them home alone for hours. Or when child protective services started visiting. Not even when she found drug paraphernalia in a kitchen drawer.
"My big brother and sister, they kept on telling me and I'm like 'No, my mother don't do drugs.' 'cause because it was my mom, I wasn't going to believe she was doing drugs. I was too young and naïve," she says.
Her mother was using a lethal form of PCP and was in and out of prison and rehab for several years. Overnight, as her mother's addiction worsened, her eight siblings were split up and went to live with different relatives. At 11, Dreonna went to live with her father and grandmother.
It wasn't long before she noticed her grandmother behaved differently sometimes. She spoke to herself often and yelled at strangers.
"I was like, 'Why is Grandma talking like that?' I thought it was funny, like I thought she was being funny, but she was serious. One night I came down stairs and I heard her yelling and screaming and she was crying. And I tried to hug her, but she gave me this look and I backed off. It was scary for me because it was like a cold look, like she went to a whole new person, she looked kinda evil in the face."
Her father explained that her grandmother was schizophrenic.
"I couldn't even pronounce it. Like I was like, 'What is that?' I never heard that term before," she says.
Sometimes her grandmother's behavior was embarrassing. Like the time her two best friends came over after school.
"So, they come we was upstairs and all we heard was her screaming and throwing stuff, like it was one of her worst days, and I'm like, 'Wow, bad day to have friends over,' but that was kind of new for them and they were really scared and they talked about it in school like 'Dreonna's grandma scared us and I hopped in her arms like Shaggy in Scooby Doo' and they making jokes."
Neighborhood children were cruel, taunting her grandmother as she walked by.
"Kids throwing rocks at my grandma's window calling her a witch and, you know, calling her there names 'cause they didn't understand the disorder themselves, they didn't understand what was going on," she says.
Dreonna says what none of them saw was how funny and loving her grandmother was.
"Every Easter she'd get all her grandkids, we'd gather around her in the kitchen and she would let us help her bake our own personal cakes. She'd let us choose our own flavor and she would bake with us. She loved her grandbabies, you couldn't tell her enough of her grandbabies. She would let us all sleep in her bed if our parents would allow it. When she on her good side, like I feel like that's her legit self. The evil thing, that's the schizophrenia, but like, my grandma was actually very kind-hearted, she, she had the sweetest smile," Dreonna says.
Dreonna was doing very well in school, getting a 3.5 GPA, thanks to her father's prodding. He was very involved in her education, attending every parent-teacher conference and making sure she finished her homework every day. Dreonna started reading everything she could get her hands on.
"It just takes me to a different place, like I would be in my room and lock myself up and read. When we got a break or like in lunch time I would go sit in the back of the room and I read. Just read all over the place. It's awesome I get so much from books. I love school, I love school, like, it's just something about it. Not only do I get my education, but I meet people, I have mentors and I just learn so much. I love learning new things. I just want to find out everything in the world," she says.
Dreonna's empathy has opened her heart to possibilities. She has dated a boy with autism. She asks homeless people about their lives because she can't bear to see everyone else walking by. She knows several people with mental disorders in addition to her grandmother — relatives with bipolar disorder, ADHD, depression. Her personal experiences have made her want to learn more.
"I just want to study it, 'cause my family is a bunch of crazy people, but they're also awesome people and I don't think people see that they are very funny and they just fun to be around they're very protective and loving and I feel like well if they're crazy, I'm crazy," Dreonna says.
Dreonna's family isn't unusual. One in four adults experiences mental illness every year and one in 17 live with a serious mental illness. She feels studying the causes of mental illness will help bridge the gaps in understanding.
"My main goal is to build like a bond with these people and to let them know that, you know, there is still happiness in life even while you got this disorder," she says.
She is still mourning her grandmother's recent death from cancer, but Dreonna knows she will be her inspiration when she studies clinical psychology at Bennett College in North Carolina on a full scholarship. She says she's learned that helping others is critical in life because even when people do have something wrong with them, "No one wants to be stuck in that black hole. Everyone wants to be happy."
Kristen Sorensen contributed to this report. Special thanks to Julie Alderman and Adriana Usmayo.
Information from: WAMU-FM, http://www.wamu.org