Growing up in Greenport and Shelter Island, Aterahme Lawrence dreamed of beauty pageants, acting and singing, but had little reason to think those dreams could come true. When she describes the poverty, drug use, violence and abuse of her chaotic home life, and the fact that no one in her immediate family had ever been to college, her life today seems incredible.
Aterahme graduated last May from SUNY Fredonia with a BFA in Acting, and has already had a nibble from a New York agent. Athletic, outgoing and voluble with a smile that knocks you over, she was heavily involved in charitable work throughout her college years, which she thinks is one reason she was chosen to participate in the Miss New York Pageant in January 2020. Her well-deserved middle name is Charisma.
Aterahme’s mother, Latricia Lawrence-Hazell, moved the family from Greenport to Shelter Island when Aterahme was 5 years old. “I thought Shelter Island would be a safer place,” Latricia said. “I think it was one of the best decisions, even though we went through a lot.”
Aterahme’s father had left the family, and had never been an active presence in her life. When her mother met and married Boris Hazell, who worked in high-end boat maintenance in Greenport and Shelter Island, she found a father figure.
By the time Latricia moved the family from Greenport to Shelter Island, Aterahme had four siblings, Tiearza, Semaj, Amira and Sincere, each born about a year apart. Three more siblings, Nasir, Shia, and Aniya were born over the next few years. A single mother with eight children, Latricia struggled to keep the family together and there was never enough money.
“I come from practically nothing,” Aterahme said. “I wasn’t even the oldest or youngest … just one in the middle of a family of eight kids.”
Aterahme knew there was a way of living that was less chaotic and more stable than the life she found at home. She saw it in movies and films, and every day in the people around town. “Shelter Island was a dream world and everyone had a bubble they lived in,” she said. “When I went home it was very different. Sometimes the electricity was off. My mother is very hardworking, but we did not always have the financial means to support ourselves.”
At the Shelter Island School, Aterahme was a good student, and a strong athlete, involved in basketball, cheerleading and volleyball. Cindy Belt, who coached Aterahme in volleyball and became a mentor, called her a fighter. “She was a survivor and she carried that love of sports and volleyball forward in her life,” Ms. Belt said
Aterahme participated in the school musicals every year and sang in select choir. Her mother remembers Aterahme’s voice as “a gift.” On Latricia’s birthday one year, when there wasn’t any money for gifts, Aterahme surprised her mom in the middle of bathing her younger siblings, with a serenade of her favorite Miley Cyrus song, “The Climb.” “I cried like a little baby,” Latricia said.
Aterahme was part of a notorious class at school. Large and unruly, it started with 35, and in the end 26 students graduated in the class of 2014. “We are pretty good friends now, but when I was younger I had a really tough time,” Aterahme said. “We had a big, crazy class and we tended to get in trouble.”
A fighter, who would not endure the bullying she got from other girls in middle school, Aterahme lashed out. “I was very angry at everyone. I would get violent. The only thing that kept me occupied was sports and singing. I had an altercation with an older girl who hit me on the bus and I ended up dropping out of school in middle of 10th grade. I sucked it up and went back at the end of the year.”
The Shelter Island school administration has gotten better, she said, at handling conflicts, and so has she. “For a long time, I hated the school. The individuals I liked. The institution and the things they let people get away with I did not like,” she said. “It made me stronger, and it taught me to try and treat people with kindness. I realized that people can change because I’ve changed. I was not innocent. It’s always a two-way thing.”
When Aterahme showed up at SUNY Fredonia in upstate New York in the fall of 2014, one of a handful of black students at the school, she’d already missed freshman orientation because of money problems back home. She arrived determined to make it work, and ready to reinvent herself. When Cindy Belt and Aterahme’s sister Amira visited her a few years later, they found her fully engaged in campus life.
“She was like the mayor of Fredonia,” said Ms. Belt.
In the spring of her junior year, Aterahme developed a bacterial infection and landed in the hospital for a month, unable to eat while doctors tried to figure out how to treat her. Latricia was frantic, trying to help her daughter who was so far away. Aterahme’s sorority sisters, and some of their mothers, made sure Aterahme wasn’t alone during her diagnosis and treatment, and helped reassure Latricia who couldn’t leave the rest of the family and travel to Fredonia.
Stuck in the hospital around the time of the Parkland school shooting, Aterahme watched the coverage of the shooting, and was outraged. Back at school, she decided to speak at a march and protest about gun control. It was a good match for her skills. “I realized this was something I could do,” she said.
By the time she graduated in May 2019, Aterahme was president of the sorority Pan-Hellenic council and active in fund-raising to fight lupus, cystic fibrosis and eating disorders. In her senior year, she was cast in the lead role in a main stage production of “Antigone.”
As part of her theater training, she became a certified sword-fighter, which involves learning to make the fighting look real without contact. She loved it, and like so many things she set her mind to, she was good at it.
“When she was little, I always saw that she was a star,” Latricia said. “She always had a sparkle in her eye.”
“She went in knowing nothing, knowing nobody and she shone,” said Ms. Belt, who visited Aterahme at school again with Latricia to see Aterahme in “Antigone.”
On graduation day from Fredonia, Latricia called her daughter to say she’d been unable to rent a car to make the trip upstate and they both cried. “Graduation was one of the best days of my life and one of the saddest,” she said “I had decorated my graduation cap and I completely redecorated it when I heard she couldn’t come. On it I wrote, ‘Still I rise.’”
Aterahme is acutely conscious that she is an example to her siblings. “I don’t want them to see me fail. I feel like I’m starting to get up to that peak in my life,” she said. “I can’t be lower, not ever.”
Back on Shelter Island for now, she’s earning as much as she can working at SALT and preparing for the Miss New York Pageant in January. She hopes to use that experience as a springboard to professional acting, public speaking and service. Scholarship money and educational opportunities also come with participation in a pageant, as does the expectation of continuing her work for charitable organizations.
It’s a beauty pageant of a particular kind, she said, adding, “The flower that blooms in adversity is the most beautiful of all.”
Lightning Round — Aterahme Lawrence
What do you always have with you?
Favorite place on Shelter Island?
Favorite place not on Shelter Island?
When was the last time you were elated?
July 18, when I found out I got into the pageant.
What exasperates you?
Mean people. Treat everybody with kindness. You don’t know what they are going through.
When was the last time you were afraid?
When my grandma was in the hospital recently.
What is the best day of the year on Shelter Island?
Tumbleweed Tuesday when the restaurants close. It’s our staff party.
Favorite movie or book?
“Small Great Things” by Jodi Picoult.
Favorite person, living or dead, who is not a member of the family?
Most respected elected official?