Fairmont teammates embrace Makira Webster (second from left ) after she gave a powerful speech on the troubling things she has endured past two years to Fairmont students last Friday at the school. Tom Archdeacon/CONTRIBUTED

Archdeacon: Fairmont standout encourages others in face of staggering loss, pain

Makira Webster took the microphone, looked up at her fellow students and the teachers gathered in Trent Arena just before Thanksgiving break for the school’s annual HumanKind Day – an initiative that brings diverse groups of teens together to discuss a variety of social issues – and she got right to the point:

“Some of things I’ve experienced are:

• “I was sexually assaulted at the age of 10.

• “I lost my mom Oct. 2, 2017.

• “I lost my boyfriend, as you probably know, last (school) year on March 4.

• “And then I was sexually assaulted again Sept. 14 of this year.”

 

Some in the crowd gasped. Some shifted uncomfortably. All listened with rapt attention. One boy near the top of the stands ended up in tears.

Makira wasn’t baring her soul and sharing her deepest pain for some kind of voyeuristic Dr. Phil moment. Nor was she mining for comfort or pity.

She simply wanted to tell students how she had coped — and continues to do so — with the staggering burdens in her life.

She talked of gaining strength from her late mom, as well as her classmates and teachers — “I need all of you,” she stressed — and especially from the girls basketball team, which occupied the front couple of rows in the crowd of a few hundred people.

Makira wanted to reach out to those in need and tell them how they could get help, whether it was simply by talking to friends or seeking her out or contacting the school’s new Hope Squad, formed to help dissuade students from suicide.

That was something her boyfriend — a popular athlete at the school — might have benefited from before he took his own life.

The night before her school speech, she sat with me in the gym after practice and shared much of what she was going to say and why.

“If I’m willing to tell my story, then they can, too,” she said. “You can’t hold these things in. You’ve got to find a way to get them out and deal with them as best you can.”

She said the only person who really knew what she’s been through was Maddy Westbeld, the 6-foot-2 star of the Firebirds team who is committed to Notre Dame next season.

“I hadn’t told anybody about a lot of this except Westbeld,” she said. “She’s my best friend. She knows everything about me.”

After Makira’s speech, Westbeld talked about their bond: “She’s my best friend, and she’s one of the strongest people I have ever known. I don’t know how I’d be able to go through the things she has.

“I don’t know if I would have the morale, the ability, the strength to talk in front of all those people and tell the story the way she did and then offer guidance and help and positivity to everyone. She’s pretty amazing.”

Before Makira had addressed the students, Fairmont principal Tyler Alexander was saying the same thing: “She’s just an amazing kid. And she has a pretty awesome message to deliver.”

Fairmont point guard Makira Webster gives powerful speech on the troubling things she has endured past two years to Fairmont students last Friday at the school. Tom Archdeacon/CONTRIBUTED

After her talk — once she’d answered some heartfelt questions from the crowd and then received a long round of applause — Makira was hugged by her teammates who had been awed by what she had just done.

A day later, some of them embraced her on another basketball court — at Lakota West High School — when she scored a career-high 15 points to help lead Fairmont to a 55-29 rout of Division II power Roger Bacon in the season-opening game at the 24-team Journey to the Tourney invitational.

And the day after that — last Sunday — Makira helped guide Fairmont to a 53-46 overtime victory against Hamilton Heights Christian Academy of Chattanooga, Tennessee, which was ranked No. 2 in the nation in the USA Today poll and featured a pair of 6-foot-7 players and a guard headed to the Kentucky Wildcats.

Fairmont countered with its own standouts: 6-foot-3 Madison Bartley, a Belmont University commit, and especially Westbeld, who scored a career-high 36 points and had 12 rebounds and eight steals.

‘Best mom in the world’

While Westbeld and Bartley are Fairmont’s highest profile players, Makira is the engine of the team, said Firebirds coach Jeremy Finn.

“When she’s running the show we’re really good with our bigs,” he said. “She brings a lot of energy. She gets excited over anything and everything.”

Westbeld agreed: “Whatever she’s feeling like is what the team feels like.”

Yet with all that’s happened to her, the 18-year-old’s outlook could be dark and defeated.

It’s not, she said, because of one woman, Nicole Webster, her single-parent mom and the person who was her “best friend.”

“If you’d think of the best mom in the world, you’d think of my mom,” Makira said quietly. “She was great.”

Before Nicole died two years ago from colon cancer, she was a regular at Fairmont basketball practices, team functions and games. Even when she was going through her debilitating rounds of chemotherapy, she showed up to support her daughter.

“There’s one thing she really ingrained in me,” Makira said. “She said if you’re upset, if you’re struggling, if you’re down, don’t let the other person see it. Just mask it. If you let people see you at your weakest point, you’re never able to come back up.

“She passed on a lot of things to me. Not just about being strong, but being determined and being positive.”

Makira said her mother’s own sports career had been cut short when she had her first child at 16, so she wanted better for her kids.

“I could never get an attitude with her because she’d always say, ‘I’m not worried about your attitude. You better worry about mine!’” Makira said. “It was her favorite line.

“If I tried to cry or something, she’d say ‘Fix your face! You can’t be soft.’”

She and her mom are best known for their impromptu dance sessions, many of which were captured on video and appear on Makira’s social media accounts.

Her Twitter page features a video of them — especially her mom in a gray house dress dabbing and mixing in old school moves — doing their own choreographed routine to “Rolex” by Ayo & Teo.

It’s been viewed more than 46,500 times.

“We made that in the wintertime of my freshman year,” Makira said. “My mom already had been sick five or six years. She was weak from chemo that day and actually had just thrown up. But after that, to kind of lift her, I said. ‘You wanna dance? Let’s go dance!’ And next thing I know she’s doing all that goofy stuff and laughing.”

She said watching the videos now lifts her. And yet she finds herself missing her mom every day.

While Makira now lives with her older sister, Jasmine – “I call her my Super Big Sister” – she said she still has times when she feels alone.

“After games, when I see all my teammates run to their parents, that’s not an option for me,” she told the Fairmont students.

“And you guys probably come home at night and have dinner with your parents. When I’m by myself, I’m burning oatmeal and catching soup on fire trying to make meals, ‘cause I don’t know how to cook.

“I hardly ever talk about it, but it’s a big thing. I don’t have a parent to come home to. You guys have to have an appreciation of what you have. It’s important to take care of your parents because they take care of you.

“There’s times were you’ll argue with them, but at least you are able to have communication with them … The argument’s not gonna last but five minutes ‘til your mom says ‘Dinner’s ready!’ I miss all that.

“I miss the simple things like when you go to bed and you can say, ‘Good night, mom…. I love you, mom.’”

Makira Webster with her mom and best friend, Nicole Webster, who died of colon cancer Oct. 2, 2017. CONTRIBUTED

Painful experiences

One thing Makira said she kept from her mom — and almost everyone else — was her sexual assault at age 10.

“It took place at my home the first time, then multiple different locations, about 15 to 20 times,” she told the Fairmont crowd. “I never reported it. I never told my mom.

“The same thing had happened to my mom. It was so extremely personal. I was too scared to tell her.”

When Makira spoke to me the night prior, she tried to explain: “The reason I never reported it was that I know God handles those types of things. So I’m gonna stay in my lane. ”

She said she no longer “has communication” with him.

She said the recent assault was by someone she considered a friend.

“To me, it was like, ‘How can I let this happen again?’” she told the crowd. “’Why can’t I find a way to get away from it?”

She said she recently talked to her school counselors about the incidents and, since her speech, she had some teachers reach out to her.

The one boy she said always treated her well, the one she trusted the most, was her boyfriend, who played basketball and baseball for the Firebirds.

She mentioned him by name to me and in her speech, but he will not be named here because he was just 17 when he died.

She smiled a lot as she told me about some of the things they used to do together — including bowling and going to football games — and she sent me photos of them dressed up on special dates.

She talked about his “goofy” nature and how he “always knew how to make me happy. He made me excited to come to school.”

“We had taken a break for awhile when my mom passed, but then we got back together before he did what he did,” she said.”

“We’d said, ‘Let’s just ride the wave,’ but for him, life was just a struggle sometimes. He was being raised by his dad. His mom was down south, and he missed her a lot.

“I knew he was depressed sometimes. We talked about it a lot and we were working on it, but he didn’t have the support system I had.

“I wish I could have taught him to change his perspective a little bit and told him, ‘Bad times don’t last.’ In life, there’s so many opportunities to be great, but he just couldn’t see it all the way through.”

Makira Webster, Fairmont High School

‘Great group of kids’

With all the tough things she’s had to go through in her life, Makira said the one respite, the one place to escape, has been the basketball court.

From the time she was young, she was mentored by AAU coach and trainer Jamal Foster — the new Sidney High School girls coach — and once she got to Fairmont, she became a four-year varsity player.

Although Westbeld said Makira was her best friend, she admitted that wasn’t always the case.

“Actually, we used to not like each other at all,” Westbeld said with a laugh. “In middle school and elementary school we played on the same team, and we used to pick at each other.

“But when she came to Fairmont, we had the same goals and we grinded together through practices for a long time and we just got really close.”

Fairmont High School teammates (left to right) Makira Webster, Madison Bartley, Maddie Westbeld and Kierra Thornton outside Trent Arena after a practice Monday. Tom Archdeacon/CONTRIBUTED

Finn said he’s seen that happen with several girls on the team.

“They come from different places, different backgrounds, but this is the one place where they all have something in common,” he said. “They’re trying to accomplish team goals and individual goals, too. And they need each other for both.

“They’re really a close-knit bunch and love being together. They say, ‘I love you’ a lot to each other, which is really cool. This is just a great group of kids.”

And as last weekend proved, they have the makings a great basketball team, too.

Westbeld said a big part of that is Makira: “She does everything. Her presence on the court makes an impact on everybody. Her energy is contagious.”

Makira said a lot of her drive goes back to her mom.

“Every time I step on the court I feel her,” she said. “I know she’s with me.”

To remind herself of that, she had the letter “N” – her mom’s initial — added to the tattoo on the inside of her left wrist of a Celtic symbol that she said signifies “new beginnings.” Before each game, she uses a Sharpie to draw a cancer ribbon and write “MOM” on her other wrist.

“I’ll keep doing that until I finally get it tatted,” she said. “My mom was the one who gave me strength, who pushed me to do better. So now, every time I go out on the court, I want to make her proud.”

Makira Webster of Fairmont (left) scored 13 points. Fairmont defeated visiting Tippecanoe 55-26 in a girls high school basketball game on Saturday, Dec. 29, 2018. MARC PENDLETON / STAFF

Finn said Makira is a special breed of player: “She’s one of those kids who’s tough as nails. She has faced so much adversity, but she just keeps fighting through it.”

As Makira goes on in life – and she’s now drawing some interest from colleges – Finn believes her message is going to continue to grow and resonate and inspire.

“This is just the beginning for her,” he said. “She’s going to continue to fight and work and refuse to give in. She’s going to become something really great.

“I think the end of her story is going to be really special.”

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