George Miller was the best big brother Joye Miller could ask for.
He was always looking out for her, the Central High School senior said, and making sure she was doing all right at home or at school. They would joke around, goof off, and he was the life of any family get-together.
Now those holidays and family celebrations are much quieter. Joye lost her brother two years ago when he was shot and killed by former friend and classmate Deshawn Randall, who received a life sentence in 2016 for the slaying.
Her world turned upside down.
Joye took her anger, grief and loss out on herself, skipping school and class, and battling with her teachers and her peers. But her teachers in the AVID program, which enrolls underrepresented students at the two La Crosse high schools who are interested in pursuing a four-year college degree, were patient with the grieving teen and never gave up on her.
As she worked through her grief, Joye turned things around and pushed forward. Using the memory of her brother to motivate her, Joye said she dedicated herself to pursuing her goals and dreams, something she knew George would want for her.
“He (George) didn’t get to graduate,” she said. “My mom needs to see her kids graduate and succeed.”
Because of her perseverance, hard work and grit, she is this year’s La Crosse Tribune Extra Effort Award winner for Central High School. One of her AVID teachers, Ellen Koelbl, described Joye as fierce with great personal strength.
“It’s fun watching her interact with others in class,” Koelbl said. “She truly throws herself in whatever she is learning and passionate about — be it an AP Calculus discussion of limits or derivatives or analyzing a character’s motivations in her College Prep English class. She feels and does things with great emotion.”
Joye came with her family to La Crosse after being born in Mobile, Ala., and living in Chicago until the seventh grade. Her stepfather had friends in La Crosse, and the family decided to move to the community to give the kids a better life than they could get in the Windy City.
Joye said she enjoyed how different La Crosse was from the big city and said she quickly made friends in her new home. But no friend was as close to her as her big brother George.
The two had talked the night before George was killed, and he promised his sister that they would chat over FaceTime the next morning. But that never happened as Joye woke up not to her brother’s voice, but the shock as she learned her brother had been shot and killed.
“I didn’t think it was real,” she said. “I ran over to the scene, but they wouldn’t let me through. He was my best friend. I felt like my world had ended.”
In her grief, Joye said she had a lot of anger. She was angry at her teachers, angry at people in the community, even angry at her friends.
She started skipping school and classes. Her grades dipped and she struggled academically. Her teachers noticed and reached out to her, but she resisted.
They didn’t give up. They wanted her to get through it, Joye said, offering counseling and other services if Joye needed them.
She continued to resist, but they wore her down. She also connected with friends and family who knew George. Talking with them helped, she said, and they became like older brothers to her.
Being in the AVID program also helped. Joye signed up for AVID when she was in eighth grade and said she knew she always wanted to go to college.
The AVID classes and techniques helped her study and learn the skills she needed to succeed in school. The rigors of the program kept her from slacking and the teachers kept pushing her to excel.
Koebl said she became a student leader at Central — someone others, including her little brother and freshman Jaborious Norwood, look up to. Joye doesn’t mince words with them, Koelbl said, and she’s often straightforward with her observations.
“Some days she’s a character — with a great sense of humor making the day a little brighter for others,” her teacher said. “There’s also a very sweet and empathetic side to her, which at times exposes her vulnerability. These traits will be valuable in her future as a nurse and advocate for her patients.”
After graduation, Joye said she hopes to attend Viterbo University, Winona State University or another university known for its nursing program. Her grandmother Elmira Welch was a teacher and a certified nursing assistant, like her mom Valerie Thomas, and both women have been role models for her.
“She wants me to succeed so bad,” Joye said. “You know how grandparents are.”