Sonja Ta’shale Jackson was determined to get her bachelor’s degree.
Twenty years after leaving school, Jackson went back to college to study sociology at UB.
She did it.
But one day after earning her degree, she died due to health complications during Winter Storm Elliott.
For two days, Jackson and her 14-year-old son, Giovanni White, lost power at their home on Kensington Avenue. They were rescued by emergency responders on Christmas Day, her sister, Tameka Dixon, told The Buffalo News.
The two were taken as close as emergency responders could get to her mother’s house, which was blocked by the snow. Jackson and her son were walking the rest of the way through the side street on her mom’s block when suddenly, Jackson collapsed.
Neighbors shoveling nearby came to rescue Jackson and were able to assist her the rest of the way to her mother’s house. When they arrived, Jackson seemed fine.
Later that day, while in the shower, she collapsed again.
Her mother screamed.
Dixon called 911 several times, but she couldn’t get first responders to come to rescue her sister due to the high volume of calls and dangerous weather conditions. Eventually, she resorted to calling a friend who is a first responder. A snowmobile arrived after 30-60 minutes and took Jackson to ECMC, but it was too late.
Jackson was pronounced dead at the hospital on Dec. 28. She was 47 years old.
“I just miss the sisterly bond we had,” Dominique Dixon, Jackson’s youngest sister, told The Spectrum. “Holidays will never be the same.”
Winter Storm Elliott hit Western New York last December, causing whiteouts, high winds and snow accumulation of over four feet in some places, according to a four-day report by NOAA. Tens of thousands of residents experienced flooding, power outages, food insecurity and below-freezing temperatures — even inside their homes.
There have been 35 reported deaths in Buffalo alone. Most victims were found at home or outside, while others died from delayed EMS responses, snow shoveling or snow-blowing incidents, and freezing temperatures.
Jackson was born and raised in Buffalo. In her childhood, she spent her spare time participating in talent shows, student committees, and a marching band, according to her obituary. Due to various circumstances, she took a few breaks from college over the course of her life.
Jackson moved to Charlotte, North Carolina temporarily before moving back to Buffalo to take care of her mother after she suffered a stroke and aneurysm. She became her mother’s full-time caregiver, a “second mother” to her youngest siblings and shortly thereafter, a mother herself.
Outside of family life, Jackson was a lead family partner and director at Community Action Organization, a nonprofit that provides services to combat poverty and create multigenerational success, and ran her own side business, Sonjackson Creates, an interior design service.
Jackson was primarily focused on finishing her degree, her family and taking care of her son.
“I’m going back to school for Giovanni,” Jackson told Dixon around the time she enrolled at UB.
Her son provided her encouragement to pass the finish line this December, according to Dixon.
“I know her goal was to find a job after she did her degree, just to make herself proud and say she did it,” Dixon said. “Just to say she did what she wanted to do and to make all of us proud because we’re a tight-knit family.”
Yige Dong, a sociology professor in the College of Arts and Sciences, taught Jackson’s Sociology 349: Classical Sociology Theory course in her final semester last fall.
“I was really shocked, and it’s pretty heartbreaking,” she told The Spectrum, who broke
the news about Jackson’s passing to her. “I just wish she could have seen her achievement and know that from her professor’s perspective, she’s a great student and person.”
Their last conversation was over email on Dec. 23, the day the blizzard began. Jackson reached out to see whether or not her grades had been posted.
“She cared about the class, her own coursework, her progress and me,” Dong said.
Dong expressed that as a UB professor, it saddens her to see bad things happen to her students.
“Imagine that final day she contacted me, what if I did not pick up? What if I did not pay attention? What if I didn’t finish reading and I just dismissed her email? Or, you know, ignored it? That would be even sadder, so I did respond and hopefully, she saw it.”
“I think as a community we should have more bonding and solidarity,” she said. “We’re all on this world and we should care more for each other.”
A.J. Franklin is an assistant features editor and can be reached at email@example.com