A medical emergency, a call to 911 and a fireman's promise ignited Za'Niya's dream to be a firefighter

Oct 17 2023 • By Roger Mooney


NORTH MIAMI – Zabrina James had trouble breathing because of the intense pain in her left knee caused by a botched surgery nearly five years earlier. She couldn’t walk, which meant she couldn’t drive herself to the hospital, so she instructed her daughter to call for help and coached her on what to say.

Za’Niya James dialed 911 and told the operator, “My name is Za’Niya James. I’m 5 years old, and my mom needs help. Please come! Hurry! Hurry!”

Minutes later, a fireman walked into their home, looked at Za’Niya and said, “I’m going to take care of your mom, I promise.”

“And that was when I decided I was going to become a firefighter,” Za’Niya said recently.

Now 17, Za’Niya is a senior at Allison Academy in North Miami Beach. She attends the private 6-12 school with the help of a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship (FTC), which is funded by corporate donations to Step Up For Students.

Za'Niya James was 5 when she decided she wanted to be a firefighter.

“I am so happy that I found the scholarship,” Zabrina said. “She got a much better education. I love it. I love it. This is our last year and it's served its purpose. It absolutely served every purpose. “

Za’Niya has received the FTC since she was in the first grade and has attended several private schools near her North Miami home. Feeling that Za’Niya’s previous school was not meeting her academic needs, Zabrina enrolled her daughter at Allison Academy for the 2022-2023 school year.

Since she is admittedly quiet by nature, Za’Niya said it took her a few weeks to warm up to her new surroundings. Once she did, she knew she had found a home.

“Everybody just felt like family, like friends,” she said. “All my friends, they turned into family to me.”

As that developed, the teachers and administrators at Allison Academy began to see the traits that led Carolyn Longstreet, the school’s technology assistant, to nominate Za’Niya for the Outstanding Student Character Award at last year’s Rising Stars Awards event, sponsored by Step Up For Students.

Za’Niya has the ability to connect with all her schoolmates and makes it a point to greet new students. She assists the middle schoolers in physical education classes. A straight-A student, Za’Niya tutors students in any grade. She is quick to volunteer to help clean around the school grounds.

“She’s a very well-rounded student,” Longstreet said. “I would say ‘stoic’ is the proper word to describe Za’Niya. She’s stoic. She’s somebody who is there and present, and you can feel her presence.”

Principal Shaidy Fernandez added: “She has this energy about her. People tend to gravitate to her. And I think that’s because she’s very humble. Then she has this smile when she flashes it, it tells you, ‘I got your back. It's going to be OK.’ ”

Zabrina described her daughter as a “very respectable young lady.”

Za'Niya doesn't mind sacrificing her time to care for her mother, Zabrina (left), who often has trouble walking because of injuries suffered in a car accident nearly 17 years ago.

Za’Niya, who was seated on a couch inside Fernandez’s office, listened as her character was praised by her mom, Longstreet, and Fernandez. Asked for her reaction, she just offered a shy smile.

Za’Niya was raised in a home where compassion was required. She was only three months old and buckled into a car seat when the vehicle Zabrina was driving was rear-ended on the Florida Turnpike by a pickup truck that was traveling 100 mph. Her car careened through a set of traffic barrels, through palm trees, and finally stopped in a retention pond. Zabrina’s left knee was fractured in two places. Za’Niya was unharmed.

“She’s my miracle baby,” Zabrina said.

Zabrina said surgery to repair the knee did not work, and years spent trying to take pressure off the joint while walking has damaged her right knee, leaving her disabled and, on days when the pain is too intense, unable to walk.

Za’Niya’s dad, Winston, passed away from a heart attack in 2020, leaving Zabrina a widow caring for her only daughter. Winston and Zabrina had been married for 20 years. Winston cooked and cleaned the house, drove Za’Niya to and from school, and helped her with her homework.

“He was my legs, my arms, everything,” Zabrina said. “When I didn’t feel my best, he filled my role.”

Tears rolled down Zabrina’s cheeks as she talked of the sacrifices Za’Niya makes to help care for her mother, spending days at home rather than joining her friends at the local mall.

“I tell her all the time, ‘Thank you,’ ” Zabrina said, “and she always says, ‘Thank you for what?’ ”

Za’Niya knows Zabrina’s medication schedule and how to administer it if her mom needs help. She knows how to contact neighbors if her mom needs assistance. And, because she was prepped ahead of time, she knew exactly what to do that afternoon 12 years ago when her mom told her to call 911.

And because of that call and the confidence the fireman showed when he came through the door, Za’Niya wants to help others in the same capacity. She’s looking into the steps needed to become a certified firefighter and EMT.

“That’s what she wants to be and I’m going to stand by her until the end,” Zabrina said.

A talented musician who can play the clarinet and bass drum and is learning the guitar, Za’Niya has toyed with the idea of studying music in college. Yet, she admitted any chance of that was likely dashed the day firefighters visited her middle school. She was awed by the powerful fire truck parked outside. And when a fireman placed a helmet on her head, well, game over.

“I felt I was the biggest and best person in the world,” Za’Niya said. “No one is going to stop me.”

Roger Mooney, manager, communications, can be reached at [email protected].

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Roger Mooney