Born to Run Poverty, Homelessness and Hunger Couldn't slow down Brionna Thomas

Most incoming college students spend their final months at home planning what to pack. They shop for school supplies, stylish clothes and cheap furniture to furnish their dorm and fight back tears on move-in day as their parents say goodbye.

Brionna Thomas spent her final months before college living at her high school athletic secretary’s house. She potty-trained his 2 year old and watched as he held back tears when he dropped her off at Wiley Hall.

Most college students look forward to parties and friends and being away from their parents for the first time.

Brionna Thomas looked forward to having a consistent place to sleep, food on her plate and a father figure in her life.

Brionna Thomas isn’t your ordinary college student.

With 13 conference medals, four school records and nine All-America accolades to her name, it’s no mystery as to why everyone in Big Ten track & field circles recognizes the wide-smiled, joke-telling, glasses-wearing phenom in the Purdue uniform.

But beyond that, few truly know Brionna Thomas.

She was 17 years old when her grandparents asked her and her four siblings to move out. The family’s financial troubles, evictions, gang activity and endless moves from city to city were finally too much. It was then that Brionna Thomas realized she had to take on the world alone.

Thomas, a law and society senior who proudly calls Fort Wayne, Indiana, home, has had dozens of addresses. She needs more than two hands to count on her fingers all the schools she’s attended. She’s stayed with foster families while unsure of exactly where her mom or siblings were. Yet, through all the retelling, you never see the dimpled pearly-white smile that hides the great person from her tumultuous past fade from Thomas’ face. Her jokes never cease to be told and the warmth of her heart never stops wanting to give back to those around her.

Thomas was born in Champaign, Illinois, on March 21, 1996. She is the fourth of five children born to a single mother, Arlana Ford. The five children grew up in a household with absent fathers and most, including Bri, have met their birth dad only once, if at all.

Not long after birth, Thomas, her mom and three older brothers headed to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in hopes of finding better opportunities for the family. But it wasn’t meant to be and a few years later the family, with the addition of a younger sister, relocated to Fort Wayne.

Little did Bri know, that would initiate a seemingly endless cycle of moving back-and-forth between Milwaukee and Fort Wayne. It’s the wild, yet understandable, reality of a family with five children raised by a single mother struggling to find consistent work and money.

Gaywood Street. 38th Street. 41st Street.

The sequence was wretched. Find a box or duffle bag for your stuff, leave your friends and extended family and start over. Over and over again.

It happened so frequently. Brionna struggles to remember all the schools she went to and for what grades, let alone the countless places she lived or stayed. She remembers at least 25 addresses before graduating high school. Brionna recalls stints in four different schools in Milwaukee, but can’t remember their names. In Fort Wayne, the same story – four schools – though for slightly longer periods of time. She remembers most of first, second and third grade at Arlington Elementary, then Holland Elementary for parts of fourth and fifth grade.

She also remembers the week in elementary school, around third grade, when she was forced to live in a foster home for the first time.

An incident occurred and the children were in need of a place to stay, as Ford was briefly unable to take care of the family. It was a week that would help shape the person Bri would become. Bri had two choices: resist the unwanted change or accept the difficult situation and be optimistic about what the challenge would bring. A third grader, instead of learning basic multiplication and cursive, was faced with a life-altering problem.

Bri chose the second option. She didn’t like being away from her family, especially with the uncertainty surrounding the situation, but instead of revolting, she put on a smile and developed a deep appreciation for the care she was given. Bri was grateful that a family in Fort Wayne was there to take her in, house her and feed her as if she were their own child.

A week later, Brionna returned to her family with the trademark ear-to-ear grin on her face. She returned with a new warmth in her heart, as for one of the first times in her life, she was faced with the very best the world has to offer in a time of the very worst. Brionna learned gratitude. She began to realize the importance of giving back and doing something for those around you because, as she now says, “there’s always someone in need and you can be a blessing.”

Not bad for a third-grade education.

Anthony Street. Lillie Street. Pleasant Run.

Though the addresses continued to change as the family moved house-to-house and apartment-to-apartment, Thomas was able to spend next couple years at Holland Elementary. That was until fourth grade when Ford decided to take Bri and her younger sister back to Milwaukee, while leaving the boys behind with Thomas’ grandparents, Arlinthia and Derrick White.

Bri spent the first few months trying to make new friends, a difficult task for someone questioning whether it’s even worth the effort since she didn’t know how long they’d stay. But she did try and eventually met someone she considered to be a friend.

The friendship was short-lived.

It was Christmastime and Bri’s grandparents had mailed a package of brand new clothes – a prized luxury among a dresser of third-hand wardrobes. That afternoon, Brionna invited her new friend to come over to play with her and her sister. The three had fun hanging around the house, including Bri showing off her new gift.

Later, long after the friend had gone home, Ford asked Bri to lay out her new clothes to wear the next day at school. When Bri couldn’t find them her mom became upset. She had just gotten a nice gift, how could she lose it before even trying it on? That’s when she realized what happened: Her “friend” stole it.

Bri was able to get her outfits back. But, the friendship was over as was her desire to ever again try to make a friend in Milwaukee. She was done with Wisconsin. She didn’t like the people or the apartments and desperately wanted to move back to Fort Wayne. Her home.

Just weeks later, Ford ran into more financial trouble and needed help with the girls. Bri’s grandparents called and told her and her sister they could come back and stay with them. So, Bri and her sister, a second-grader, packed their belongings in two duffel bags and headed to the Greyhound station, bus tickets and transfer instructions in hand, to await their lonely seven-hour journey.

Oliver Street. Prestwick Street.

Brionna was enthusiastic about a more-permanent home with her grandparents. She was back with her siblings in one place and that was a refreshing change. While her grandparents were stricter – she had to clean, do chores, earn all A’s and B’s in school, and stay out of trouble – there was a roof over her head and a loving family inside.

Unlike her older brothers, behavior had never been an issue for Bri. “It’s what you’re supposed to do,” she says. However, one day in fifth grade, some friends pressured her into stealing Reese’s peanut butter cups – her favorite – from a local gas station. Bri skulked down the candy aisle, lifted her loot and, as she snuck it into her sweatshirt pocket, looked up and saw her grandpa, on his bike, staring at her through the window. Bri panicked and slowly put the candy back on the shelf, but she knew it wouldn’t matter. She walked outside where her grandfather told her that if she didn’t want to be in huge trouble, she better beat him home.

It was Bri’s first major win as a runner. She bolted home, crossing streets and cutting through fields, and stepped foot in the kitchen moments before her grandpa’s bike wheeled into the driveway. She made it. Still, her guilty conscience was too heavy. She confessed the crime to her grandma. Any punishment was better than the guilt and Bri knew that never again would she put herself in that situation.

Purdue University provided security, teammates, reliable friends and role models. Brionna Thomas provided a true leader. (Photo credit: Dennis Au)

Amherst Drive.

A self-proclaimed tomboy, Brionna started playing basketball, football and baseball with the the middle-school boys. At first, it was just recreational. But then the boys’ coaches took notice, especially in football. They watched as she strutted off after beating the entire team in a race. They couldn’t help but see her as their new star running back. Bri was rougher, tougher and faster (and two years younger) than most of the boys on the team and they wanted her. The coaches offered her a spot and she was intrigued. But, one conversation with her mom ended that. Ford didn’t want Brionna to get knocked around on the gridiron.

So it was back to the playgrounds. That’s when she caught the eye of the middle school gym teacher and track coach, Kathy Scott. Even at 12 years old, it was clear to Miss Scott that Thomas had some real talent.

There was just one problem. Brionna didn’t want to run. She didn’t know anything about the sport and was worried she’d have to quit if she had to move back to Milwaukee. She was already racing and beating everyone at recess, so why did she need to practice every day and be on a team? She said no to Scott's offer.

Scott didn't give up. She saw Thomas’ potential as an elite sprinter and wanted to pull out all the stops. She recruited Thomas’ cousin, who was a member of the track club, to persuade her to join the team. It worked. Brionna, now in eighth grade, would finally start running.

And she was an instant success. No one else on the team, the Fort Wayne Express, could believe how fast she was, including teammate Symone Black, who grew up to earn plenty of collegiate All-America honors of her own.

Within the first three months of running track, Bri qualified for the USATF Junior Nationals in the 100-meter and 200-meter dashes. She wasn’t fazed. Bri figured that’s what she’s supposed to do. Her teammates had to convince her that it was a really big deal. There was just one problem with that – all the added attention made her nervous for the first time as an athlete.

Bri hopped in a van with her teammates and headed to West Virginia for the meet. Though she didn’t win either race, which she attributes to her new feeling of nervousness, she medaled in both.

Her teammates were blown away. This new girl comes in, runs for three months, and is a national medalist in two events. How is that possible?

The answer was simple. Her entire life had been running back and forth. That running was hard, not this.

Winchester Road.

Bri’s passion for track carried through the summer and into high school. She was off to another new school where the track coaches were well aware of the talent walking, running, really, through the doors. They were on her the very first day, but this time the convincing wasn’t as tough. One of Brionna’s brothers was already on the team, so this was an easy choice.

Her first year was storybook. Thomas’ report card was filled with A’s and B’s and she was one of the best-behaved students in class. She was so disciplined that the teachers didn’t believe she really was related to her older brothers, who often caused trouble and were suspended multiple times.

That year, Thomas was introduced to a coach and athletic administrator at the school named Jacob Sharin. Neither had any idea about the bond that was beginning to form. Sharin saw the incredible athlete she was, but beyond that, he saw her for the incredible person behind the bright smile and blazing speed.

Brionna’s dominant freshman year on the track culminated in a trip to the 2011 Indiana High School State Championship. She finished runner-up in the 200 meters and was third in the 100. Again, she blamed nervousness for not winning. It was her first time racing older competitors.

The losses didn’t sit well. Brionna decided she would never again be denied her rightful spot on top of the podium.

As a sophomore in 2012, she delivered. Bri broke nearly every 100- and 200-meter record at not just Wayne High School, but the entire Fort Wayne area. She won conference titles, sectional titles, regional titles, and then, state titles. Bri swept the 100 and 200 at the IHSAA State Championships – the first girl in the state to win both at the same meet in four years.

The next go at USATF Juniors, she triumphed. Brionna won national championships in the 100, 200 and 4x100-meter relay. The team even had her run a leg of the 4x400-meter relay, which took second. Again, Brionna’s teammates couldn’t believe it. Their teammate was the best in the country. But she didn’t understand what the big deal was. That’s what she was supposed to do.

Brionna Thomas was officially introduced to the track & field world. And vice-versa.

Soon after her gold-medal haul, though, Bri returned to Fort Wayne and approached Sharin in distress. Her time at Wayne High School was over as further financial trouble struck her grandparents, so she had to move back in with mom.

Sharin previously had no idea about his star’s home life. Sharin had no idea that behind the smile of the nicest, funniest, most talented person he’d ever coached had such a bleak home life.

Thirteen Big Ten Conference medals. Nine All-America honors. Four school records. All that's left for Brionna Thomas' résumé is a victory at the NCAA National Championships.

35th Street. 41st Street.

Bri didn’t want to go back to Milwaukee, but knew another move was inevitable. She argued and pleaded half-heartedly. She packed her bags, stuff with medals and trophies, and reclaimed her role of passenger on the ever-familiar route of a bus ride to Milwaukee.

She was miserable. She missed her friends and family in Fort Wayne and longed to return. Her grades dipped and she wasn’t playing sports. It took the full semester, but eventually Bri’s pleading secured a return to her grandparent’s home in Fort Wayne.

Back at Wayne, Bri was behind in class. She missed some of the required courses and needed to put in extra work. Otherwise, she’d face the realities of not being able to compete in track or having to repeat her entire sophomore year. Bri didn’t want that, so she did everything she was asked. She stayed late, made up missed homework, met with teachers and caught up, just as she was supposed to do.

Sharin was thrilled. Not only was one of the best sprinters in the state back to compete for him, but the wide-smiled girl who brightened everyone’s day was back in the hallways of Wayne High School.

As teachers and classmates watched Bri earn A’s and B’s in the classroom and win race after race on the track, few had any idea what her life was like when she’d go home. They didn’t know about the trips to the food banks and church pantries as she went with her grandma to fill the bag with donated food. They didn’t know about the syrup sandwiches and other “struggle food” after five hungry kids raided the pantry. But how could they? Bri’s smile never faded, her grades and behavior never slipped and her race times only got faster.

Her junior year was much of the same. Win just about every race, do well in school and move a few times, though just in Fort Wayne. Bri won more medals and trophies as she repeated as the state champion in the 100- and 200-meter dashes and made finals in three events at USATF Juniors.

Those medals, and most of the other awards and trophies she’d ever won, though, would soon be gone.

Some were lost during the endless moving process – left in a box or bag that was misplaced. Some left in unpaid storage units, likely sorted through and then thrown away. Others were picked through during evictions.

Behind the smile, Brionna remembers those days.

She’d come home from school to find everything out on the porch and lawn. Everything she’d ever owned, at least what hadn’t already been scavenged, was scattered in such a way that the bright red letters on the door spelling “EVICTION NOTICE” went almost unseen.

Just about all that’s left of those 12 regional and 11 sectional championships, 12 conference titles, four state and three national crowns, numerous MVPs and other awards, are the memories.

Smith Street. Spatz Street.

As she entered her senior year, Bri was back with her grandparents. Her mom and grandpa had an argument and her mom left. The five kids were living with the Whites, but the burden was growing to be too much. That winter, her grandparents told Bri and her siblings that they had to move out by the end of the school year.

The news came like a gut punch. They didn’t know where they’d go. Normally, they’d move back in with their mom, but she didn’t have her own place anymore. No one would take five kids aged 16 to 23. Suddenly they realized they’d all be completely on their own for the first time.

With her bright smile concealing a heavy heart, Bri went to school and shared the news with Sharin.

He didn’t miss a beat. Almost immediately, he asked Bri if she would like to move in with his wife, Whitney, and two young kids. He also decided it was time for her to take the recruiting process seriously, something that she had not paid any attention despite the vast interest from programs, so that she would have somewhere to go and the opportunity at a bright future.

The recruiting letters had been flooding in for months from just about every school in the country, but Bri didn’t even open them. She wanted to go to college, but had no interest in the process. How could she look forward to what would inevitably be another move?

Sharin changed that.

He sat down with Bri. They opened the letters and filled out the questionnaires. Together, they answered and returned phone calls, set up college visits and got through the NCAA Eligibility Center process. Sharin worked with her to narrow her list to four schools – TCU, Kansas State, Indiana and Purdue.

Then it was time for her trips.

With Sharin’s help, Thomas made official visits – by herself – to her final four schools. She liked the warm weather at TCU, the staff at Kansas State and the close proximity of Indiana and Purdue. It made the choice tough, one that Sharin remembers Bri constantly swaying back and forth. One day she’d say she was going to TCU. The next, she’d burst through the door touting Kansas State. She even thought about staying home and running for local NAIA powerhouse Indiana Tech.

After weeks of wavering, Sharin finally sat Brionna down and told her it was time to make a decision.

It was Purdue. Bri and Sharin loved how genuine head coach Lonnie Greene and assistant coach Angela (Goodman) Elliott were throughout the recruiting process. They were helpful and accommodating. It also helped that Purdue is just two hours away from home – Fort Wayne. And, important to Bri, Purdue beat Indiana in the dual meet between the schools.

Bri called Greene with the news. She committed to his promise of a bright future at Purdue and the goal of turning the program into a perennial power.

Bri’s senior year wound down and her storied high school track career didn’t end the way the movies would script. A nagging hamstring injury sidelined her most of the year and forced her to miss the state championships. In the back of her mind, she was also reluctantly counting the days until she and her siblings would have to move out of her grandparents’ house – the first time they’d have to move out when their mom wasn’t there.

Graduation came and Bri was showered with awards. Her 3.3 grade point average and dominance on the track even earned her the prestigious Sertoma Award, given to one senior at each Fort Wayne high school for excellence in scholastic, character, good morals, personality, cooperation, sportsmanship, citizenship, leadership, extra curricular and athletic participation. She smiled.

Underneath that smile, though, Brionna was heartbroken because it was time to move out.

But Sharin and his family were there.

They took Bri in as if one of their own family members and moved her into the basement. She had to do some chores during her three-month stay, including cleaning and babysitting, but they were there for her and she enjoyed nearly every minute.

Bri was the new big sister to the Sharins’ two boys. She played with them, looked after them and changed the 2-year-old’s diapers. She hated the diapers. But, as is Bri, she took it as a challenge. Bri decided it was time to potty-train, which only took a few weeks before she had changed the last diaper.

Martin Jischke Drive. Campus Suites Boulevard. McCormick Street. Malibu Drive.

The summer months flew by and it was time to head to college. Moving was nothing new, so going to a place where she knew there would be a steady roof, food, roommates and a father figure in coach Greene was exciting.

As the Sharins made the two-hour drive west, it nearly felt as if they were dropping off their own child. She’d stayed with them just three months, but made an everlasting impact. The Sharins fought back tears as they helped organize Brionna’s room and said their goodbyes in the dorm directly across the street from Rankin Track & Field.

For the first time, Bri had her very own home and behind the smile, she was happy.

Bri made an instant impact at Purdue, too. She broke three school records, won three Big Ten medals, including one gold, and made it to the NCAA Outdoor Championships as the anchor leg of the 4x100- and 4x400-meter relays in her first year. And she didn’t just show up at that meet. The freshman from Fort Wayne showed out. Live on ESPN, she chased down the best sprinters in the country and earned first team All-America honors in both events.

She won plaques and medals to restart her trophy case.

As a sophomore and junior, the success continued. More All-American honors, conference medals, first team All-Big Ten nods and school records, all while earning A’s and B’s in the classroom.

Now, with all her success through three-plus years at Purdue, Brionna may need a trophy room.

Through the roller coaster of vicissitudes, Brionna has never lost her smile. She’s grateful for everything and everyone in her life – her mom, grandparents, siblings, the Sharins and other family and friends. She smiles for her present and her future because she knows life won’t be hard forever. Despite coming from nothing, Brionna sees everyday as an opportunity to rise up and take advantage of what she’s been given.

She’s done just that at Purdue. With just a couple months left in her academic career, Brionna is approaching graduation with a GPA above 3.0. She wants to find a career that will help her be set – have a house or apartment, a car, food and not live paycheck to paycheck. More than that, she wants to find a job that will help people in one way or another. Through all the struggles, Bri smiled and saw the good in people and now wants to be that good in someone else’s life.

It’s no coincidence that everywhere she’s been, people know Brionna Thomas.

And the more she continues to be a blessing in others’ lives, everyone will know Brionna Thomas.

Most college students graduate with the experience of a lifetime and look to make a name for themselves.

Brionna Thomas will graduate with a life full of experiences hoping the name she has made can help everyone.


Written by Matthew Staudt, photography by Charles Jischke, videos by Cory Palm

Report Abuse

If you feel that this video content violates the Adobe Terms of Use, you may report this content by filling out this quick form.

To report a Copyright Violation, please follow Section 17 in the Terms of Use.