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March 3, 2024 10:45 pm

UMO alumna named 2023 Texas Mother of the Year

University of Mount Olive alumna Aisha Atkinson, shown with her son, Aries, has been named the 2023 Texas Mother of the Year.

MOUNT OLIVE — Mother’s Day is a time of celebration, love and recognition and this Mother’s Day will be extra special for one University of Mount Olive Alumna.

Aisha Atkinson, from the class of 2013, has been named the 2023 Texas Mother of the Year. Atkinson is the 71st woman in Texas history to receive this prestigious honor.

Atkinson, 34, is a distinguished teacher of English language arts and an elementary instructional coach in the greater Houston area. She graduated with an undergraduate degree in secondary English education from the University of Mount Olive in 2013, where she was the valedictorian of her graduating class. In 2020, she earned a master’s degree in educational administration from Texas A&M International University.

Atkinson is a member of the Texas Council for Teachers of English Language Arts’ 2022-2024 Rising Leader cohort, committee chair for the Special Education Parent Advisory Committee of Fort Bend Independent School District and a contributing writer for Education Week, the George Lucas Educational Foundation’s Edutopia and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s Teacher2Teacher and Principal Project. She is a passionate advocate for the inclusivity and representation of multilingual and neurodivergent learners.

Atkinson, along with honorees from other states, were recognized during the 88th National Convention of American Mothers Inc. in Omaha, Neb. in April. At the conference, Atkinson also received the Barbara Thompson Gift, in which $2,500 was awarded to the Texan nonprofit of Atkinson’s choice.

“This is an incredible achievement for Aisha,” said Rhonda Jessup, UMO Director of public relations. “Her dedication to teaching and advocating for students of all backgrounds and abilities is an inspiration to us all.

Atkinson’s story begins in Frankfurt, Germany, where she was born to James and Rose Atkinson after nearly 15 years of challenges with fertility. At a very early age, Atkinson had a deep interest in reading and writing and a heart for community service. It would be well into adulthood that she would finally discover how she would go about achieving that.

In 2009, Atkinson enrolled at the University of Mount Olive and thanks to a devoted professor who saw her potential, Atkinson became the first second-semester student to enter the university’s Honors Program. “Dr. Linda Holland-Toll’s move to do what was equitable to me would forever alter the trajectory of my life, for without her I would’ve never had the opportunity to travel abroad, gain exposure to state, national, and international challenges, or even be eligible for some of the teaching assignments I would have post-graduation. What I learned from Dr. Holland-Toll was that instructional leaders always move to do what is in the best interest of students. That lesson, to this day, remains at the epicenter of my heart as a leader. By the time I graduated from UMO, the Honors Program opened its admissions process not only to spring enrollees, but to transfer students as well.”

Throughout her academic experience at UMO, Atkinson endured quite a few hardships, but she never allowed the challenges to stop her from moving forward. “These challenges helped to shape my character and I learned valuable lessons that would inevitably contribute to the leader I am today,” she said.

In 2013, Atkinson began her first teaching assignment in Wayne County. In 2015, she relocated to the greater Houston area. Two years later, her life was forever changed. She gave birth to her son, Aries Reign Williams, at just 23 weeks of pregnancy. At one pound and 11 ounces, he was considered a micro-preemie. Following a 150-day NICU stay, three brain surgeries due to the rare condition known as hydrocephalus, and one heart surgery, Atkinson’s son was finally released to go home.

Aries was later diagnosed with multiple disabilities including but not limited to quadriplegic cerebral palsy, autism spectrum disorder and epilepsy. “Becoming Aries’ mother pushed me to become a better advocate not only for him, but also for myself,” she said. “It also forced me to become more involved in the political challenges that impact maternal and pediatric health and wellbeing.”

In 2018, Atkinson served as a lobbyist for the March of Dimes at the Texas State Capitol Building, effectively lobbying for the PREEMIE Reauthorization Act, a law signed into law by then-President Donald Trump. In 2020, she volunteered at her son’s campus as the parent representative for the Special Education Parent Advisory Committee and was elected by the community-at-large to serve as the chair of the Communications Committee.

“Over the years, I have shared the story of my birth experience and the journey of raising my son across many platforms including podcasts, news publications and webinars. I also manage an Instagram account (@KingAriesReigns) to chronicle my son’s journey as well and have connected to hundreds of other mothers who love children like my son and just need to see themselves in someone else to know that they are not the only one.”

Fast forward to 2023, Atkinson was surprised to learn that her mother, Rose, had nominated her for Texas Mother of the Year. “Since having Aries, my mother has witnessed how much I’ve had to learn and sacrifice while raising a child with special needs,” Atkinson said. “She had no expectation that I would win, rather she wanted to give me some encouragement and let me know in a special way that she thought I was doing a great job as a mom.”

When it comes to the honor of being named Texas Mother of the Year, Atkinson is working to shine a light on the joys, as well as the challenges of being the mother of a disabled child. “Most importantly, I want other mothers like me — mothers who are doing everything on their own for their children — to see themselves represented in a positive, meaningful light,” Atkinson said. “I want them to know through my triumphs that they can accomplish anything they set their hearts out to do.”

Atkinson responded to questions from UMO Director of Public Relations Rhonda Jessup regarding motherhood.

Q. In your opinion, what makes a good mother? A. A good mother is unquestionably a person who loves a child through their journey of life.

Q. The debate over stay-at-home or working mom has been going on for years, what are your thoughts on the subject? A. I believe both spheres of motherhood have a place in society and provide benefits that serve the betterment of children and families. During the early years of my childhood, my mother was a stay-at-home mom and returned to work when I was in the third grade. While the pressure of balancing it all certainly had an impact on my mom in regards to stress, the change in her work status didn’t reduce the love she had for my brother and I. In my own motherhood journey, I have always been a working mom in Aries’ life. For Aries, he gets to see his mommy working towards her goals while also pausing to show great love and care for him. I think, due to his experiences as a child with disabilities, he has a deep understanding that it truly takes a village to raise a child. From teachers and paraprofessionals to therapists and medical specialists, I have the benefit of having many individuals support me through the working mom life.

Q. How do you balance work, family responsibilities, and other activities? A. Prioritizing, triage and grace. Raising Aries has taught me these three things. I have to prioritize what’s most important, I have to make the best decision for what can be put on hold and what needs to be handled immediately, and I have to give myself grace in knowing that I cannot and will not be able to accomplish everything in a single day.

Q. What role does faith play in your life? A. Without faith in God, my son wouldn’t be alive. Faith, when he was born and the days leading up to his NICU graduation, was all that I had to cling to. When the doctor shared with me that Aries only had a 20 percent chance to live and that I was young enough to “try again” later, I prayed for God to prove that doctor wrong. I prayed for my son to not only live, but to live a life that would go on to change the hearts and minds of many. Faith continued to play a role in my life, when my son was diagnosed with cerebral palsy in 2018 and then autism spectrum disorder in 2020. I prayed for God to help me make peace with the possibility that my son would never walk. I leaned on Him to help me keep my joy the day we picked out his wheelchair and to give me strength for every brain surgery my son has had to endure. I cannot imagine being able to make it through the many hurdles of our lives without having belief in a higher authority.

Q. What is your favorite Bible verse and why? A. My favorite Bible verse is Galatians 6:9, “And let us not grow weary while doing good. For in due season we shall reap if we do not lose heart.” Little known fact, I actually decorated my UMO graduation cap with this verse. This piece of scripture holds great meaning to me as I journey through life, making an effort to do my best and be my best. Sometimes, doing what’s right isn’t easy. Sometimes, it’s just plain hard. Sometimes, you just want to give up on hopes, dreams, relationships solely because it’s so hard to remain persevering through the many mountains and roadblocks we come across in life. But, as scripture reminds us; as God has shown me though my own life — breakthroughs and miracles happen when we choose to lean on faith and refuse to give up.

Q. What advice would you give young mothers who feel inadequate? A. Don’t believe the social media hype! There is no such thing as a perfect mom. The sooner that you embrace the facts that you will make mistakes, that the family portraits will seldom ever look exactly the way you want them to, and that you are deserving of grace, the sooner you will find yourself feeling like the best version of yourself as a mom. You’ll also find yourself feeling a lot happier too!

Q. Tell me about an eye opening mom moment that helped you grow as a mother. A. When my son was diagnosed with cerebral palsy in 2018, I was initially very devastated. I will never forget how deeply it hurt me to hear that my son would likely never be able to walk on his own. But, then, I remember catching the gaze of my son while he laid in my arms. Deep within his eyes, I could see how much he loved me and how his love was so unconditional. Aisha, as she was in that moment, was more than enough for him. I realized then and there, that I had to discard this sorrow and reciprocate that same love to him as well. Regardless of whether he would ever walk or not, my role was simply to love him through the journey of his life.

Q. It is hard being able to equip our children to be kind, yet stand up for yourself; to be courageous, yet to be cautious; to be humble, yet to strive for greatness – how do you guide or advise your son to navigate the problems and opportunities that young people today face? A. I expect my son to be a leader in our community for acceptance and kindness. During times when he has been discriminated against due to his disabilities, we talk about the “why” of the situation and”how” we can show others a different way to do things. In addition to our conversations, Aries and I also do a lot of reading together. As an educator with a literacy instruction background, it is important to me to teach my son empathy through the experiences of characters in the books we read together. As we encounter some of the challenges faced by the protagonists, I ask close reading questions on character motivation and interactions, and give Aries an opportunity to respond in his own way. I also provide my insight and affirm his answers as well. This really helps to build character, I feel and to also teach my son that he can always come to me with his problems.

Q. What activities do you and Aries enjoying doing together? A. Aries and I love to sing and dance! Music plays such an important role in our lives, especially because Aries; despite being nonverbal, communicates through song. Our favorite song is “I2I” by Tevin Campbell from the Disney film “A Goofy Movie.” I always joke with Aries that someday, he will grow up to be like Max — the too-cool teenager, and that I’ll be Goofy, the parent still trying to love him anyway.

Q. What is the best advice you have ever received in motherhood and how have you applied that in your own mothering skills? A. There is a lot of advice I’ve received over the years, but the most important has been to give myself rest and to rest often. As mothers, we often run ourselves ragged trying to accomplish too much in a single day. It’s okay if the house isn’t spotless, it’s okay if you could only prepare one side for dinner instead of the two you planned, and it’s okay if you have to cancel something to be present for yourself or even for your child. What’s not okay is burning yourself out. Take the afternoon nap on the weekends (we call them “community naps” in my home, everything cuts off and we rest for 40 minutes in quiet solace). Eat a bowl of ice cream on the couch while watching your favorite show on Netflix. Relax in your tub, read a book…do whatever brings your mind and heart to rest. Your child deserves a healthy mom, and adequate rest is an essential part of mindful health.

— From University of Mount Olive Public Relations