Makaya Whitehead has high hopes and big dreams

Posted 1/8/21

There is potential in every person, yet some seem to have it bursting from them almost from birth.

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Makaya Whitehead has high hopes and big dreams


OKEECHOBEE — There is potential in every person, yet some seem to have it bursting from them almost from birth.

There are some who instinctively recognize potential in others. This is the story of the coming together of several “recognizers” and “one” from whom it bursts.

Makaya Whitehead recently had the exciting experiencing of a family trip to NASA, organized by Deputy Jack Nash, Sheriff Noel Stephens and the Sheriff’s Department. What made them conceive this trip for this young woman?

Most of us can remember the many times we changed our minds about “What do I want to be when I grow up.” But Makaya has kept to her dream of doing something in space.

Her mother, Denise said, “Like many little kids, Makaya really wanted to be an astronaut. To help her understand what that meant, we watched a launch of the Shuttle Endeavour when she was very young. She sat for hours in front of the TV waiting for the launch and again the next day to watch it dock at the space station and to see the astronauts board.

“She checked back day after day to see what was happening on NASA TV and then watched as the shuttle came back for a landing. She was so fascinated she insisted I would wake her at 3 in the morning just so she could hear the sonic boom as the shuttle was coming in to land.”

As she grew older, space was still important but so were expanding interests like learning to play the violin, earning Community Service Hours at Okeechobee’s Trail of Hope Dog Rescue and the Treasure Coast Food Bank. She said, “I like to meet and help other people and loved working with the dogs, but school was also getting more interesting.” She even went with her parents on a Rotary Club service trip, to Haiti. She did a project about a woman astronaut and dressed up as that woman for Halloween.

In fifth grade she began playing the trumpet which, today, is still a big part of her life. Her love of trumpet earned her placement in advanced bands in both middle and high school. One day her mom, Denise, was asked to go over to Indian River State College to pick up some music for the middle school band director. At IRSC, she mentioned that she didn’t think her daughter was getting challenged enough. So the director of the Port St. Lucie Community Band told her to bring Makaya over and join their band.

By 7th grade she began playing with that band within a group of advanced adult musicians of all ages. This led to her participating in rehearsals every-Wednesday for monthly community concerts and not getting home until 10:30, but Makaya said “Surprisingly it didn’t affect my school work. Being part of the band is like taking a college music course.”

In high school she joined the Okeechobee High School Marching Band and about that time, also picked up the flugelhorn which she describes as a “more-difficult type of trumpet, but with a fantastic tone.”

Marching band practiced three nights a week from after school until 5:30 p.m. Her concert band practice, held on Wednesdays, ran until 5:30 p.m. after which she would hurry to Port St. Lucie for the communityband practice.

She was in marching band for four years where she earned First Seat, Section Leader and Brass Captain and also performed solos. She received a full ride Scholarship at IRSC from Band Director John Southall, who had taken her under his wing. Makaya said, “The band presents three major Awards for Seniors – the John Phillip Souza Award, the Director’s Award and the Louis Armstrong Jazz award – which was presented to me.”

In her “spare time” she was a member of Interact Club – a Rotary Club for High School students. In a 2018 State-wide Science Competition she took second place. In her Senior Year, through her membership in the school’s UN Club, she went to a conference in Sarasota searching how to solve international trafficking of guns and other weapons. This stimulated an interest in the UN and she considered a UN internship program.

She learned the UN program did not offer housing, yet the NASA program did, so she may have leaned a little more to a probable career choice.

She is often called on to play the trumpet at events and causes around Okeechobee. In high school her band director came to her with a request from North Elementary to play taps for their Veteran’s Day ceremony. That’s where she met Jack Nash, Community Relations and Training Division Specialist from the Sheriff’s office. Since then she has been asked to play Taps and The National Anthem for many ceremonies, events and veteran’s funerals and even at the Grand Reopening of Walmart.

She has also worked with the Okeechobee COunty Sheriff’s Office placing wreaths on Veterans’ graves during Wreaths Across America each December This helped foster a deep appreciation for the veterans of our community. When asked to play for a veteran, Makaya just does not refuse.

Working with Makaya on a project at the sheriff’s department, OCSO Col. Gary Bell found out Makaya’s birthday was upcoming in April and wanted to do something special. He talked to Sheriff Noel Stephen and found they were both thinking on the same page. It would be a reward for all the good Makaya had done with the Sheriff’s Department as well as in so many areas of the community. Nothing was immediately decided, but the thought was pursued.

Her mother said, “At the Law Enforcement Memorial Service, in early 2020, Jack came to me and said that several of the deputies and Sheriff Stephen knew Makaya was a graduating senior and wanted to honor her through the ’Adopt a Senior’ program that was happening on Facebook.

“We expected a small gift basket and maybe a picture with the sheriff. But when Jack and I started talking about Makaya’s interests, the discussion took on a different life.” Col. Bell contacted the sheriff’s office in Brevard County which contacted the 45th Space Wing at Patrick Air Force Base. On hearing about Makaya’s work, they wanted to donate their services to her.

Nash made arrangements, through the sheriff’s office, to provide Makaya with an August trip to the American Police Hall of Fame and Museum, a tour of the American Space Museum and the Astronaut Training Experience at Kennedy Space Center.

They also scheduled a meeting at Patrick Air Force Base’s 45th Space Wing Detachment, the group responsible for all NASA and private launches along the east coast of the U.S. They hoped to have a meet-and-greet with astronauts and the possibility of a video chat with the crew currently working on the International Space Station. But COVID burst on the scene and completely closed visitation at Patrick, cancelling most of those options. The Police Museum would still be open and while the American Space Museum was also closed due to COVID, mom, Denise, reached out to them and garnered a tour a few weeks before the museum’s scheduled September Re-Opening.

On Aug. 21, Makaya and her parents arrived at the American Police Hall of Fame & Museum in Titusville, FL, the nation’s first law enforcement museum and memorial dedicated to American law enforcement officers killed in the line of duty. On Friday they toured that museum. Makaya enjoyed searching for patches from the Okeechobee Sheriff’s and Police Departments on the walls where there were patches from all over the country. She also learned a lot of history of law enforcement in the US, in Florida, and also the Wild West.

Later that day, even though the American Space Museum (ASM) was still closed to the public, the museum staff and directors gave the family a special, private tour and even had Makaya participate in their daily live Facebook broadcast. Denise said, “The Community Liaison, Mark Marquette, really took his time with us and did an amazing job of showing us around and making the day incredible for Makaya. He even pulled and presented Makaya with information and memories of that first shuttle mission which had triggered her initial space interest.

The Museum’s on-line page said: The museum is rich with space artifacts, stories and equipment, from Mercury through the present, as well as a dynamic educational program. We focus on the personal aspects of this history, with docents who have personal connections to the space program. On their website, the American Space Museum posted the following:

Saturday, Makaya and Denise spent the day at the Astronaut Training Experience at Kennedy Space Center. This was a fun day of participating in simulations and training exercises and learning a little more about the International Space Station. Makaya enjoyed the microgravity chairs and the simulations related to driving the Mars Rover. The Kennedy staff even talked to her about the NASA internship program for which she plans to apply.

Denise said “Over the past several years, Makaya has gone back and forth on her career aspirations. Just when I think she is heading in a different direction the idea of working with NASA returns. Here it is 12 years later and she still has me up at 3 a.m., but now it is to drive her to Cape Canaveral to watch SpaceX and ULA launch their rockets.” United Launch Alliance (ULA) is an American spacecraft launch service provider that manufactures and operates a number of rocket vehicles that are capable of launching spacecraft into orbits around Earth and to other bodies in the solar system. ULA also launches commercial satellites.

“Makaya understands,” Denise said, “what is really important in life and what family and friendship means. She is loyal and knows the value of giving back to her community. I have to say, I couldn’t be more proud of Makaya and the amazing person she has become.

“Her current interests are working for NASA, SpaceX or the United Nations. I know she will be successful in whatever she chooses and we encourage her to really explore what each path looks like as she tries to figure the next steps in her education and career.” Makaya is currently attending Indian River State College to earn an AA in Linguistic Anthropology.

Deputy Nash said “Makaya’s hopes are quite amazing. To have that drive and show the kindness that is in that young lady’s heart, I hope someday my daughter shows the same qualities that are in Makaya. If you’re not happy around her, something’s wrong with you.”

Makaya Whitehead, NASA, astronaut