Setting down roots

Photo by Robb QuinnAaliyah Jones of Michigan City spikes the ball in a match last season against La Porte. 

MICHIGAN CITY — As she turned 18, Aaliyah Briggs was eager, at long last, to put some stakes in the ground.

That meant officially becoming Aaliyah Jones.

The Michigan City senior, who's grown accustomed to life on the move, took a giant step in that direction on September 12, her 18th birthday, when she went to the La Porte County Courthouse with her mom, Sarah, and step-dad, Chris Jones, to begin the legal process of changing her last name.

"It's nice to be finally setting down roots," Aaliyah said. "We were everywhere. My mom was a teen mom, so we moved around. All the time, I was switching schools. Chris has definitely stepped up. He told me you can call me Chris the rest of your life and that's fine. He was going to adopt me, but it was expensive and it's easier now because I'm 18. I don't have to get permission from my actual dad. I feel like the relationship is good enough that I want to change my name. They asked me why I want to do this. To me, it's like finally settling down, being in one place. It's exciting."

The oldest of three children between her mom and David Briggs, Aaliyah became accustomed to bouncing around after their divorce. There was shared custody for a while, and then, Sarah had primary custody.

"We went to different houses each week, our house, his house," Aaliyah said. "It was a little difficult. I had to make sure I went with something and brought it back. It was kind of straining going back and forth. I didn't know whose side to be on, what's true, not true. After a couple years, I figured out what was going on, but I'd try not to be too biased."

Aaliyah attended Niemann Elementary in Michigan City in first and second grade. After Sarah started a teaching job in Gary, they moved there for a few years. She came back to M.C. for middle school (Krueger), then spent her freshman and sophomore years at Portage before what she hopes was one final return to Michigan City as a junior.

"We were on the poverty line, but my mom was really good at trying to keep it so we had fun," Aaliyah said. "There were free activities, the Boys and Girls Club. She'd make little sacrifices, find a way so I could go to a movie, get involved in stuff."

The first time Sarah came home with Chris about six years ago, Aaliyah presented them with a list of questions. She laughs about it now, but was dead serious at the time.

"I was always looking out for my mom, too, making sure she didn't have any bad ones," Aaliyah said.

The two eventually married and have a 3-year-old of their own, the sixth child -- two boys and four girls -- in the family. Chris also has two children from prior marriages.

"We're definitely a blended family," Aaliyah said. "Twenty-five percent black, 50 percent black, 25 percent with blonde hair, blue eyes. My mom is white. I'm mixed, just a little lighter."

While her folks try not to burden her as the oldest, Aaliyah feels a natural obligation to them and her siblings.

"They are looking at me because I'm the oldest one, but they try to work it out so I didn't have as much responsibility," she said. "I feel responsible to help out. Like (Wednesday), we don't have school, I'll baby sit so they don't have to pay a sitter. I hold myself accountable. I pay for my own phone, my gas for driving."

Her siblings couldn't ask for a better role model than Aaliyah, a straight-A student and Wolves volleyball standout who also does shot put and discus in track. She won't play basketball this season as she tries to earn some money to set aside for college.

"She's such a good kid, a hard worker, it's good to see a nice story like that," MC coach Jim Kaufman said.

A 4.3 student taking Advanced Placement classes, Aaliyah did a summer internship with a scanning company. She created a service for a drone project that they are currently using for surveying. She's also applying her building expertise to help re-do a room in the family home, where eight people are compacted into four bedrooms.

Aaliyah plans to go into Architecture and wants to continue playing volleyball, hoping she can curtail college costs through academic and athletic support.

"I love volleyball," she said. "You get to bond those four years. But I can't go into debt. My mom's still paying off her stuff. She has a hefty amount. I don't qualify for some scholarships because we actually make too much money. I just wish those took into account how much they're having to spend."

Kaufman believes Aaliyah would be a perfect college fit as a player and a student.

"She wants to learn," he said. "She's a sponge. She has everything going for her. She has a great vertical. She's a very good hitter. She has great mechanics. They can fine tune points to help her more. Whatever coach takes the time to sit and talk with her will find out she would be great to have in their program."

At Michigan City's recent senior night, Sarah told Kaufman about the process of Aaliyah changing her last name, so, to her surprise, when she was introduced with her mom and Chris, it was announced as Aaliyah Jones.

"I think they were behind it," Aaliyah said. "Chris comes to as many games as he can. I was happy."

Once the paperwork is processed, the name change will be official, and she will have that stability for which she has longed.

"When I sign in to do stretches, (trainer) Molly (Perales) has me on there as Aaliyah Jones," she said. "I still go by both. It's on all my T-shirts."

After college, Aaliyah envisions a professional life where she can travel and reside in a nice house in suburbia, just not too far away from her family.

"I still want to be around them, to see my little sister grow up," she said. "It'll be nice to still have a place here I can call home."

Class 4A Mishawaka Sectional

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Michigan City vs. Mishawaka, approx. 7 p.m.

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