Last year was tough for Oniyah Burns.

She was an eighth-grader in the midcoast area. She had social anxiety and was bullied by mean girls at school. She considered suicide, she said.

This year is better.

Her life turned around, she and her mother said, when she enrolled as an online student at Maine Virtual Academy and began volunteering at Lewiston’s Trinity Jubilee Center.

Burns, now 15, is the daughter of Tonya Sands, who was born and raised in Lewiston. Sands and her three children moved to the Bath-Brunswick area, where they lived for seven years. She recently returned to Lewiston after getting a job with Trinity Jubilee as manager of the day shelter office and resource center.

Trouble started for her youngest daughter in seventh grade, she said. Before that, the girl did well academically and socially.


“She was outgoing, surrounded by friends,” Sands said. “She did basketball, cheerleading, hip-hop.”

Things changed in seventh grade. Her closest friends had moved away, and she was being bullied.

“She went from an extrovert to an introvert,” Sands said.

“There was a certain group of girls who just hated me,” Burns said. “One day, me and my friends were walking down the hall. A whole group was lined up across the hall so we couldn’t get past. We tried going to the left. They slammed me against the locker. It felt horrible.”

Her school work began to suffer.

“I had really bad anxiety,” Burns said. “My anxiety was making my homework pile up.”


She became terrified of going to school.

“It got to the point where I would drop her off in front of school, and she would break down crying,” Sands said.

“We tried meetings at the school,” she said. “We tried having a tutor, tried having a counselor. Nothing worked. As a mother, I felt like the school wasn’t meeting her needs.”

Drastic change was needed, Sands said, when her daughter began talking about “not being here.”

“One day, she came home from school and said: ‘Mom, I’m the biggest, tallest, darkest girl in my school, with the shortest hair. I’m uncomfortable.’” She told her mother she was thinking about suicide, “but I would never do anything to hurt myself because it would make you too sad.”

Fearing for her daughter’s safety, Sands pulled the girl out of school.


After trying home-schooling, Burns enrolled in October at the public charter school Maine Virtual Academy, where students take classes online.

So far, it is working well, her mother said.

A ninth-grader, Oniyah said she has a regular class schedule Monday through Friday. Her subjects include Earth science, English, algebra and geography. To go to class, she logs on to her computer and watches her teachers in real time. Sometimes classes are recorded. She communicates mostly through online chats.

“It’s like talking on the phone, only you’re talking on a screen,” Burns said.

She said she can get extra help or additional classes, if needed.

As a parent, Sands said she has access to her daughter’s schooling.


“I can see her work and what needs to be done,” Sands said. “Every email she gets or sends out, I get a copy.”

Initially, the mother said she was concerned about the lack of social interaction in studying online. That concern has since gone away.

The school has field trips and assemblies, at which students meet in person. The flexible schedule allows Burns to volunteer regularly at Trinity Jubilee, where she interacts with many people.

“The diversity here is unbelievable,” Sands said, adding that there are refugees from many countries who speak multiple languages. “She is getting the social piece here and learning about different cultures.”

Burns said she thought originally that she would return to public school “to have a normal life,” like going to football games, maybe the prom.

“Now I don’t think I want to go back. I like Maine Virtual Academy,” she said. “It’s good for people who like to focus on school work and not talk in class and be distracted by other kids.”


As a public charter student, Burns can participate in public school activities. And while she still describes herself as shy, her anxiety is much lower.

Her focus, she said, is on the future — a future for which she has big plans.

“I want to be a nurse midwife,” Burns said, “or a pediatrician.”

Oniyah Burns helps organize clothing donations at the Trinity Jubilee Center in Lewiston. Burns, 15, volunteers at the day shelter, helping others in need. (Daryn Slover/Sun Journal)

Oniyah Burns, 15, talks with her mother, Tonya Sands, while volunteering at the Trinity Jubilee Center in Lewiston. (Daryn Slover/Sun Journal)

Oniyah Burns, 15, sorts mail while volunteering at the Trinity Jubilee Center in Lewiston. Burns is a student at Maine Virtual Academy, a public charter school where students take classes online. (Daryn Slover/Sun Journal)

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