Spoto community rallies behind girl who suffered traumatic brain injury

Tyra Janelle Brown
Tyra Janelle Brown
Published Feb. 26, 2015

Less than a day after they learned their friend was in the hospital, they organized.

Just hours after word got out that she suffered a traumatic brain injury, they gathered.

And in the agonizing moments after a freak car accident on the Lee Roy Selmon Expressway left 18-year-old Tyra Janelle Brown fighting for her life, they prayed.

Simple word of mouth led nearly three-quarters of the 1,400-plus students at Spoto High to gather around the flag pole in the school's courtyard on that Monday morning last month. Right after third period, they pulled together in a solemn show of love and concern.

And then they went to class.

"Not one student was late to class," said Spoto math teacher Wendy Smith, fighting back tears. "I've never seen anything like it and I've taught since 1980."

Tyra Brown has touched so many students. She captains the cheerleading squad, serves in student government and holds a spot in the National Honor Society. It wasn't uncommon for her to take time out and visit with the students at the school who are affected by autism, often dancing with them.

The senior already gained admission to the University of South Florida and the University of Central Florida and told teachers she planned to become a pediatric nurse.

"Tyra is a wonderful, wonderful student," said Smith, who has taught Brown for three years and spoke on behalf of her family.

"She's a wonderful girl, a wonderful role model. She's just great. The kids all like her."

Now the kids all search for answers.

According to the Florida Highway Patrol, Brown was traveling with Makayla Anne Harrell and Brittany O. Jackson early on Jan. 11 when they stopped on the shoulder of the Selmon with a flat tire.

As they waited for AAA to arrive, another driver lost control of his car and hit their parked vehicle. All three girls were hurt, but Brown, who was sitting in the front passenger seat, suffered the most severe injury.

Smith said a solemn pall fell over the school for several weeks.

"The first few weeks, everybody was very different, very in thought," Smith said. "They just didn't quite know what to do."

"This has affected all of her teachers. It's affected the school."

If it has affected the school, imagine the impact on her family. Her mother, Frost Elementary teacher Cynthia Leeks, is single and has used up all her sick time sitting beside her daughter's bed. Teachers at Spoto and Frost are helping by donating sick days.

Brown's three older sisters, including Shakea Kindred, a first-year teacher at Valrico Elementary, and Brianna Thomas, a basketball-playing senior at Barton College in North Carolina, soldier on, as does her younger brother Oscar, a sophomore at Spoto.

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Leeks is now with her daughter at Atlanta's Shepherd Center, one of the nation's top hospitals for spinal cord and brain injuries, but she will be allowed to stay in an apartment provided by the hospital for only 30 days. After that, she may have to cover the daily costs of a hotel.

Brown's fellow students and friends want to help. Plans call for spirit nights at local restaurants, and a 5K fundraiser at the school on May 9.

"They don't know what to do but they want to do something, anything," Smith said. "They're special kids. They don't understand why this has happened."

Smith said they're seeking sponsors and hoping to challenge cheerleading squads, NHS chapters and student government associations from other schools to take a 1-mile challenge to raise money.

If you want to help, email Smith at or call Spoto at (813) 672-5405.

Kids grappling with a fading sense of invincibility and an unshakable sorrow need to know the community cares. They need to know their love for Tyra matters. They need to know they're not alone.

That's all I'm saying.