In March 2013, I covered the 2013 YAIAA Cheerleading Championship, where I made this picture:
© 2013 by The York Daily Record/Sunday News. William Penn’s Q’ajaniyah Miller drops into her teammates’ arms during the Bearcats’ routine in the 2013 YAIAA Cheerleading Championship on Saturday, March 16, 2013, at Dallastown Area Senior High School. William Penn took first place in the “small” division, while Central York won in the “large” division.
Little did I know that Q’ajaniyah — whose name her teammates were unable to spell out for me — and I would cross paths again.
The YAIAA would host yet another 2013 cheerleading championship that took place in the next school year, in December. Sports reporter Matt Goul was covering a William Penn basketball game later that day, and happened to be chatting with their scorekeeper, who was upset that the William Penn cheer squad had lost their division title by a mere half-point. The conversation then revealed that one of the cheerleaders had had a particularly rough year: Q’ajaniyah had been caught in some crossfire in June and struck through the hip, yet recovered in time to rejoin the squad in the fall.
© 2014 by The York Daily Record/Sunday News. Q’ajaniyah Miller and other Tri Town Extreme cheerleaders run through a routine in the squad’s final practice of the year on Wednesday, April 2, 2014, at William Penn. Miller, 18 of York, has twice been the victim of gun violence: Her father, Ajani Miller, died via a gunshot in the pelvis in Dec. 1999, and she was caught in crossfire outside her house in June 2013. Newly graduated from William Penn Senior High School — where she was a cheerleader, class vice president and homecoming queen — and motivated by her brushes with gun violence, Miller is working to overcome financial and other issues in order to study criminal justice at The Pennsylvania State University this fall.
Matt relayed this information to me in January or February, and mentioned he was interested in pursuing the story. I encouraged him to dig a little deeper and to include me in the coverage.
The longer we worked on the story, the more we learned.
We learned that Q’ajaniyah’s father had been shot and killed two days after Christmas 1999, when she was 3.
© 2014 by The York Daily Record/Sunday News. This picture of Ajani Miller, left, his daughter Q’ajaniyah, right, and Q’ajaniyah’s cousin was taken two weeks before Ajani Miller’s Dec. 27, 1999, death. The picture hangs on the refrigerator in Q’ajaniyah Miller’s West Princess Street home, and is the only one she has of her father.
We learned that her mother moved them to Brooklyn two years later and studied to become a police officer, but another tragedy prompted their return to York.
© 2014 by The York Daily Record/Sunday News. Q’ajaniyah Miller, 18, and her mother Ronielle Kirkland stand on their West Princess Street porch and brace themselves before running in the rain to the minivan to take Q’ajaniyah to school on Wednesday, April 30, 2014. When she hesitated about whether to leave her mother and family for college, Q’ajaniyah said her mother told her: “Get out of here, I’ll be fine.”
We learned that Q’ajaniyah, profoundly affected by her father’s death and perhaps influenced by sitting in on her mother’s law enforcement classes, was determined to go to college and study criminal justice.
© 2014 by The York Daily Record/Sunday News. Q’ajaniyah Miller, 18, participates in her criminology class at William Penn on Tuesday, May 13, 2014. Teacher Stuart Krise said of Q’ajaniyah, “She’s rare in my 32 years of teaching because she’s so resilient.”
We learned that she is the oldest of her siblings — two brothers, ages 6 and 2, and a now 10-month-old sister — whom she helps care for, and for whom she strives to set a good example.
© 2014 by The York Daily Record/Sunday News. Q’ajaniyah Miller, 18, helps her brother Julius “Juju” Little, Jr., 2, brush his teeth before school in her family’s West Princess Street home on Wednesday, April 30, 2013. Q’ajaniyah, who is 12 years older than her oldest sibling, helps her mother, Ronielle Kirkland, care for her younger brothers and baby sister.
We also learned that she found strength in cheerleading, where she made friends with other girls who had lost their fathers to gun violence.
© 2014 by The York Daily Record/Sunday News. Q’ajaniyah Miller looks across the floor as she and other Tri Town Extreme cheerleaders stretch before the squad’s final practice of the year on Wednesday, April 2, 2014, at William Penn Senior High School.
Over the course of several months, we worked with Q’ajaniyah, her mother and her friends, and incrementally learned new tidbits that would shape or completely change the story. The weeks before Q’ajaniyah’s graduation presented a tough time for all involved, as she wasn’t sure whether she could afford to go to Penn State and we weren’t certain how we should end the story.
© 2014 by The York Daily Record/Sunday News. Q’ajaniyah Miller, 18, reacts after the announcer at William Penn’s commencement ceremony pronounced her full name correctly on Friday, June 6, 2014. She was named after her father, Ajani Miller, who was killed when she was 3.
In the end, I’m grateful to Q’ajaniyah for opening up to us, and glad that we all put so much of ourselves into the story. And I’m excited for her as she starts classes at Penn State in the next few weeks, and I wish her all the best.
© 2014 by The York Daily Record/Sunday News. Q’ajaniyah Miller, 18, stands with her grandmother Tina Maxfield while waiting for her mother, Ronielle Kirkland, to drive the minivan over after graduating from William Penn on Friday, June 6, 2014. Q’ajaniyah, who is enrolled to attend Penn State in State College in the fall, plans to spend this summer working on her tumbling and staying in shape for cheerleader tryouts.
You can read Matt’s story here, and view many more pictures here.