Superwoman has nothing on this retired educator, breast cancer survivor, and gifted entrepreneur, Cynthia Hayes-Riley.
As a young person in Gadsden County, the Gretna native attended Gadsden County Public Schools, graduating in 1978 from James A. Shanks High School.
After graduating from high school, Hayes-Riley continued her education at Tallahassee Community College and completed her undergraduate studies at Bethune-Cookman University, majoring in early-childhood education.
One of her highlights in undergrad, Hayes-Riley says, was being crowned Miss Bethune-Cookman.
Her journey as an educator began with her aspirations as a high school student, when she dreamed of influencing and educating future generations to achieve their own personal greatness.
After receiving the education required to teach and instruct, the educator entered a classroom setting, and continued to teach for 15 years.
Hayes-Riley’s first role within education began with her becoming the education coordinator for the Head Start program in the Gadsden County School District.
A few years later, she was promoted to the role of education disability coordinator for the Gadsden County’s School District, which led her to coaching and training other teachers.
This new role allowed Hayes-Riley to provide the students and teachers with the educational resources needed to establish learning efficiency for all students.
Throughout her career as an educator, Hayes-Riley taught kindergarten and first-grade, and then landed in pre-kindergarten.
According to Hayes-Riley, her experience in early education classrooms taught her that she could truly be the foundation of many children’s lives; she says she took great pride in being many students’ first experience away from home.
Hayes-Riley retired from the district in August of 2020, just in time for the arrival of her first grandchild, Cryslyn Shennel, who was named after Hayes-Riley’s late daughter, Crystal Shenell Riley.
Hayes-Riley’s daughter Crystal was a person who her mother described as “passionate, energetic blossoming young woman, about four-foot, five inches, shy, brilliant and absolutely glued to her sister.”
In October 2006, during the night of the East Gadsden High School homecoming dance, Hayes-Riley and Crystal were struck by a car.
A night that should have been remembered as an evening filled with fun and fellowship, changed the Riley family’s lives forever.
Hayes-Riley says she recalls traveling in the ambulance with Crystal, both women injured from the collision; she says she locked eyes with her daughter and said the last words she would offer to Crystal: “I’m okay, you’re okay. We’re gonna be okay, you just hang in there.”
Hayes-Riley suffered injuries both physically and emotionally that night in the hospital, and shortly after, her daughter Joycelyn broke the news to her mother that her sister, Crystal did not survive the accident.
While the memory of that night remains fresh for Hayes-Riley, she recalls the aftermath of her daughter’s death as the entire Gadsden County community diligently supported her family as the Riley family braced themselves for the road ahead.
Today, Hayes-Riley exudes grace and transparency when sharing the story of her daughter, and she tries not to dwell on the sadness of the accident, but the mission to make her daughter’s name proud by the actions done in her honor.
What Hayes-Riley considers saved her life was packaged in an unexpected doctor’s appointment.
Two weeks prior to a year that her daughter passed, Hayes-Riley was diagnosed with breast cancer.
Riley believes her breast cancer was what saved her life.
“I say this all the time but breast cancer really changed my life. If I didn’t have that to focus on, I believe I would’ve fallen even deeper into depression. There were times I didn’t want to live but I learned that God has a purpose and plan,” said Hayes-Riley.
During her treatments, Hayes-Riley says that her family was nothing short of genuine as they offered a compassionate support system.
Her sisters, cousins and nieces collaborated with her reading, researching and developing an understanding in preparation for the medications and treatments needed.
2021 will conclude 12 years of Hayes-Riley being breast cancer free.
With the support of God and family, Hayes-Riley says the storm of grief didn’t last long over her family.
Hayes-Riley took the lemons life handed her and brewed herself lemonade by organizing M.U.C.H, (Mother’s Understanding, Comforting and Healing-Each other).
She formed this support group starting with six other mothers who were experiencing pain from the loss of a child and needed a community to support and grieve with.
The support group was intended to create a safe space for candid conversations among grieving mothers.
“I told the women this is the time of no judgment. No matter how long or early it was, that is still your child. The feeling is to not be described. A mother’s grief is the same,” said Hayes-Riley. “Imagine someone reaching into your heart and twisting it as tight as they can, causing the most excruciating pain…that still wouldn’t describe it.”
After the accident, she continued to embody the role of both a mother and mentor; she gave several students within the East Gadsden High School community her cell phone number, as a line of comfort.
“Sometimes I picked up the phone and they wouldn’t say anything, but I knew they were listening. I listened, encouraged and supported them in any way I could,” said Hayes-Riley.
Hayes-Riley remembers how Crystal blossomed as she grew more passionate about cheerleading.
Since her daughter’s passing, she has helped establish a cheerleading scholarship fund in her daughter’s name, the Crystal Riley Foundation.
“I had to find some humor and light somewhere within it all to gain my sanity back, I needed to,” said Hayes-Riley.
The Crystal Riley Foundation gives one high-school cheerleader a scholarship each year after submitting an application and essay, in which the student is asked to explain how cheerleading changed their life.
This year, the scholarship gained enough support to fund scholarships for two young women, as well as fund the purchase of bookbags and coats for the community.
The fund is supported by donations, family savings and proceeds from Hayes-Riley’s own crafty entrepreneurial endeavor, CrystalClear Creations.
In retirement, Cynthia Hayes-Riley spends her time crafting for her business, enjoying life at home and being the best “dutchess” as she likes to call it, to her new granddaughter Cryslyn.
She also enjoys serving the community and spending time with her sorority sisters of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc.
Hayes-Riley is married to her childhood sweetheart Johnny Riley Jr.; the couple shares two daughters, Joycelyn and Crystal Riley.
Oriana Plummer – Gadsden County News Service
Photos by Oriana Plummer