Every mother worries about her children – “Are they happy? Healthy? Am I giving them their best chance in this world?”

Donnaya Cothron worried about her son, Zackery. As a single mother, she worried about being able to provide for him. She worried about him growing up without a positive male role model. She recalls, “To have to hope that your child makes it to school and comes home safe, and not get caught up in the influences of the environment, to see him just not have a plan for his life – that’s painful.”

When Donnaya noticed that Zackery was already losing direction at the young age of six, the worrying became too much and she had to act. In May of 2009, Donnaya enrolled Zackery as a mentee with Cincinnati Youth Collaborative. He was matched with Greg, a local attorney. The two formed a close bond, and the effect upon the whole family has been profound.

“I experience a sense of relief when I think about Zack and his future,” says Donnaya. “His mentor gave us a beginning.”

With Greg, Zackery was able to see first-hand the benefits of having a job and earning one’s place in life. He was able to understand the importance of doing well in school and laying the foundation for a successful future. He was able to form a lasting relationship with someone outside his immediate family, which built his confidence and gave him new direction.

Zackery with Master of Ceremonies Clyde Gray at the Dream Makers Celebration
Zackery with Master of Ceremonies Clyde Gray at the Dream Makers Celebration

Now in seventh grade, Zackery has since been named a Student of the Year by the Westwood Civic Association, and led prayer in front of over 300 guests at CYC’s Dream Makers Celebration in fall of 2014.

Seeing the positive change in Zackery inspired Donnaya to make further positive changes in her own life. She moved the family out of their dangerous neighborhood and enrolled herself in online courses.

“When you mentor a child, your intention may be to mentor the child,” reflects Donnaya. “But the family will be affected in a positive way. Without Greg coming into our lives, I really think that I would still be sitting there claiming to be a victim.”

She is now working to enter the field of social work, thanks to a deep-seated calling to give back. As she says in her own words, “My biggest goal is to go back and help others in my former circumstances, and help them realize that success does not come from blaming the world for your problems. It is an inside journey.”

Victoria Nesbitt, CYC Mentor Coordinator for the Cothron family, is an avid cheerleader for Donnaya’s story. “She has it,” she says of Donnaya. “She can get out there and inspire people in her community to reclaim their lives like she has. She just has it.”

Victoria was always grateful for the effort Donnaya put in to the mentor-mentee relationships, but over the years that gratitude has grown into deep respect. “She reminds me of me,” Victoria says. “We started in similar places, and it has been amazing working with her as she finds her way, just like I did. She is amazing.”

Donnaya takes every opportunity possible to express her thanks to CYC, Victoria, and Greg for their roles in making Zackery into the fine young man he has become.

Left to Right: ** Cothron, Victoria Nesbitt, Zackery Cothron, Donnaya Cothron at the 2015 CYC Mentor Celebration
Donnaya Cothron (far right) at the Mentor Celebration with her sons and Victoria Nesbitt

Now it is our turn to say “Thank You” to Donnaya. It takes a wise person to recognize when to ask for help, and without her awareness, Zackery would never be where he is today. Her commitment to improving her family’s circumstances has been integral to the success they have found. Donnaya Cothron, for her deep determination to give her children their best chance in this world, is February’s CYC Hero.

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CYC Heroes is a monthly feature recognizing individuals who go above and beyond expectations to serve the CYC community. Heroes come in many shapes and sizes: mentors, students, ambassadors, employees, donors, volunteers, and board members. Know someone who makes CYC stronger? Submit your CYC Hero nomination to Kate Elliott, at kelliott@cycyouth.org