A few years ago, a 14-year-old girl walked up and spoke to cameras on the most tragic day of her life. Today, with the backing of her very special family, she's using her voice to change lives. She says, "There's nobody like us."
Lights. Crowns. Sequins.
With the Miss McNairy Pageant underway, Tamara Milford walked across the stage in her black evening gown. She arrived at the event with a powerful message to deliver. A special group watched from the crowd. They were there for support, all made up of people who know what Tamara's lived through before this day.
It was April 2012 when a then-14-year-old Tamara and her four young brothers and sisters were upstairs in their Spears Rd. home. Their uncle's birthday party was in the basement when two men in masks came into the house.
"We all heard gunshots, and we just froze," said Tamara. "I heard my sister scream. She was like, 'I saw my momma downstairs laying on the floor.' Detective came and told us my mom died in the basement that night."
Three people were hurt while Lashunda Brown, Tamara's mother, was shot to death.
"To go from having her one hour ago to not having her, that's been life-changing," said Tamara. "All I ever knew is she loved me the best way she could. What happened to my mom, I never got closure. They never found out who did it."
By the time she was 16, Tamara's siblings were long gone from Spears Road. Two of them were staying in other places. Three were still in the foster care system.
A change came. A new foster family pulled up to meet those three. They were a family with boundless love, the Hills.
"We sat at the dinner table," Tamara remembered. "I said, 'do you care that we're black?' 'No.' They said, 'do you care that we're white?' 'No.'"
"It's kinda the elephant in the room," said Kristi Hill, the mother of the family. "We know we're different, but that doesn't mean we can't make this work."
Though Tamara's oldest sister aged out of the foster care system, Jeff and Kristi Hill officially adopted Tamara and her brother Tyjuan. Today the family photos are made up of seven children. The Hills five other children range from toddlers to Elementary school age.
"We are crazy!" laughed Tamara.
"They know no different," said Kristi, referring to the other children. "They've always been their brother and sister. Tamara continues to give us credit and tell us how thankful she is we entered her life. Really, we're thankful they entered our life. They've changed it just as much if not more because they've added so much to it."
Of course, on a night as important as the Miss McNairy Pageant, the whole family was there.
Tamara wrote something about her time in the foster care system, her time before the Hills.
"Here we go again," she said, reciting what she'd written to the crowd. "I've been to a lot of foster homes and sometimes I just want to run away and disappear, and I don't think anybody would notice or even care. It's like I'm being punished for something I had no control over. I'm not the reason I'm in the system, but yet I feel like it."
It wasn't a crown at this pageant. Tamara said she's going to keep going, using any platform she can get to advocate for improvements to the foster care system. She's looking to encourage good families to give a chance to older children.
"Seeing how broken the system is, seeing how my siblings got split up, the amount of pressure the workers have, the lack of communication with the youth, the type of foster parents that are available, it's just a system that needs some reform," said Tamara. "I feel like I have a voice, and I'm going to use that voice to push that change as far as I can."
Tamara recently graduated from Middle Tennessee State University after just two-and-a-half years.
"I'm going to school to be a criminal district attorney just because of what happened to my mom," she continued. "I want to be a criminal attorney so I can help those families who have lost a loved one to gun violence or any type of violence. I want to help them get that closure they deserve."
For all that, she knows someone would be very proud.
"I think my mom has been with me every step of the way," Tamara said. "That's especially true with mom and dad. I feel like she hand-picked them for us. We are a walking circus show. Crazy people look at us, and they try to figure our family out, and I don't think they ever do. I love my family. There's nobody like us."
For more information on fostering or adopting a child, visit https://preprod.tn.gov/dcs/program-areas/fca.html.