group of people smiling at camera

The first screening produced smiling faces from across Jacksonville.

Category: See the Good

Jacksonville Teen’s Mars Dream Fueled by NASA Women’s Life Stories

13-year-old Taylor Richardson uses screening of ‘Hidden Figures’ movie to inspire a generation of girls.

Latonja Richardson figures her 13-year-old daughter, Taylor, is an average, All-American teenager.

“She’s a normal kid who likes to go to the mall, hang out with friends and loves listening to music,” Latonja said.

A student at The Bolles school in Jacksonville, Florida, Taylor runs track, plays violin, visits the White House on occasion, and conducts an annual book drive that has donated more than 5,000 books to local Title I schools.

Is that not normal enough? How about this:

Taylor Richardson intends to become the first female astronaut to go where no man or woman has gone before.

“I’m ready to lead the mission to go to Mars,” said Taylor, who has embraced more challenging math classes to potentially realize the dream. “Even if I can’t get to Mars, maybe I can help someone do the calculations to get to Mars.”

Taylor Richardson
Taylor Richardson wants to be an astronaut one day. (Photo courtesy of Jensen Hande Photography)

Taylor’s love for space began when she read a biography of Alabama-born Mae Jemison, the first African-American woman to travel in space. At age 9, Taylor attended Space Camp in Huntsville, Alabama, a stone’s throw from Jemison’s hometown of Decatur.

That love of space and science first drew Taylor to the White House. Last June, she was invited to participate in the United State of Women Summit, which brought leaders together from across the country.

A short time after that, Latonja got a call. The White House wanted the Richardsons back in December for a sneak preview of a new movie, Hidden Figures. Taylor was a perfect candidate for the screening, because of her interest in STEM (Science,Technology, Engineering and Math) and space. In fact, her first trip to Space Camp earned her a nickname that stuck: Astronaut StarBright.

The White House screening was anything but ordinary. After the movie, the lights came on, and First Lady Michelle Obama was joined by NASA officials, the daughter of one of the heroines in the movie and cast members Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monae and Kevin Costner.

Live. In person.

The normal kid from Jacksonville suddenly felt like she could fly to the moon. Inspiration came from the story of a trio of African-American women in the early 1960s running computations for NASA that helped lead to John Glenn’s ground-breaking orbit around the Earth.

She also heard the First Lady’s words, loud and clear.

“Michelle Obama said you’ve got to work hard and take that Calculus test, no matter how difficult it is,” Latonja recalled. “She said, ‘You’ve got to do the work, you’ve got to take science and math classes to succeed.’”

Taylor came home more determined to fulfill her dream – only not alone.

Astronaut StarBright wanted to share the experience of the women’s stories with other girls.

She turned to an online crowdfunding site, which she had used before to raise money for the trip to Space Camp, to purchase tickets for up to 100 female students from the age of 5 and up to see the movie in Jacksonville.

Latonja turned to a friend of a friend. And that friend recommended Alicia Somers, a local Regions Bank representative, to help put the event together.

“I got a call from Ywanna Allen from the Moe Williams Family Foundation, asking if we could help out with bags or pencils or something like that,” Somers said. “I’d never met Toni (Latonja) or Taylor, but I knew who they were and I liked what they were trying to do.”

Somers did more than provide bags and pencils. She worked with a team of her tellers to pack gift bags, including the book the movie was based on, and Scholastic Adventures in Math, a financial education piece.

Somers explained, “One of our missions at Regions is to give back to the community. I thought it was an awesome way to expose women and girls to see themselves on the screen, to give them something to aspire to. These women are inspiring, and we need kids to be inspired today. We need them to know they can go places no matter where they came from.”

To promote the event, Taylor was asked to make an appearance on a local morning talk show. She asked Somers to join her live, on air, and help soothe her nerves.

Word spread quickly. So did fundraising. The initial goal of $2,600 was surpassed quickly, and the money kept pouring in. So did the number of girls who wanted to see the movie.

The event drew two packed-to-capacity screenings at a theater and attention from across the world, including a story on Time.Com and a Skype interview with the BBC.

Instead of 100 girls, the screenings drew close to 1,000.

The best part of the day? The realization that using a movie to motivate young women wouldn’t end there. The extra proceeds raised paid for girls-only screenings in Georgia, Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia, according to Latonja. Other funds are being set aside for scholarships to Space Camp – one for a boy or one for a girl.

“How many more Taylors are out there who might be inspired by this movie?” Latonja said. “We want to find a kid who doesn’t have the resources to go to Alabama and get them to Space Camp.”

For now, Taylor is back to being a normal, average teenager. She has classes and track meets, music lessons and her book drive (aptly called “Taylor Takes Flight”). Oh, and news interviews – non-stop interviews – as her story continues to spread.

“I’m a single mom,” Latonja explained. “I’ll be honest. We struggle financially, but we’re happy. Her tuition and fees at Bolles cost more than I make in a year. There is no way I could do this alone. She gets financial aid, and people have asked how they can help.”

Others have donated money to the cause, and people like Alicia Somers have teamed to help keep Taylor’s dreams afloat and instill the same sense of wonderment in others who want to touch the stars.

“I have a village helping me raise this child and that village is Jacksonville, Florida,” Latonja said. “With everything going on in the world, I know that there are still people who want to help others and want to see someone reach her potential.”

Don’t be surprised if Taylor Richardson’s talent and potential take her to a planet far away in the decades to come.

Alicia Somers is the Central Florida Marketing Manager for Regions Bank.