GREENSBORO — The full-term baby, just 6 pounds and 13 ounces, was found wrapped in a bedsheet underneath the stairwell of an apartment complex on a November morning in 1999.
“The child must have a purpose for it to have gone through that kind of trauma and survived,” Detective Ruth Woodard told the News & Record shortly after the newborn — some called her Baby Jane Doe — was found.
Today she is Angel Thomas, the Greensboro native who was her class president and named an "emerging leader" in one of the nation’s most respected aviation and aerospace programs. She graduated Monday with a degree in aeronautics and minors in business and occupational safety.
The Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University standout was reflective as she penned her graduation speech.
Among those attending her graduation with her parents, siblings and the best friend who is like a sister, is the woman who found her and who has long been a part of the extended family.
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“I would not change a thing that’s happened in my life because everything has just taught me that, no matter what, you have to keep moving forward,” Thomas said. “You have to learn to love yourself no matter what your situation.”
It would take therapy and hard work and the unwavering love of her adoptive parents, Carrie and Daryl Thomas. She also credits her ability to believe in herself to her mother — who motivated, inspired and nudged her to defy the way she came into the world.
Carrie Thomas still displays her daughter’s Miss Teen Greensboro trophies, the one from being runner up in the Miss Teen North Carolina pageant and the leadership awards bearing her daughter’s name.
Angel Thomas recognizes the sacrifices her mother gave that made it possible for her to compete and grow.
“Even when I knew she was tired, she kept me going,” Angel Thomas said. “No matter what I’ve gone through she’s been there pushing me right along.”
She was breathing
A line in Angel’s graduation speech about resilience refers to Carrie Thomas.
“Ever since I was a child,” she wrote, “my mother always told me, ‘It’s not where you come from, but where you are going to go.’”
Carrie Thomas says holding Angel as a 6-week-old changed her life. Others initially called the baby Caroline because she was born near Carolina Circle Mall.
Angel Faith Thomas is now her full name.
“Angel because I felt like the angels were watching over her that cold day in November and Faith, because I wanted her to always have faith in herself,” Carrie Thomas said.
Thomas and her husband, then foster parents, were asked to take in the newborn whose story was on the news. The baby was originally placed with a family in Asheboro, another county, because of the criminal investigation in Greensboro.
“I had actually seen the story on the news,” said Carrie Thomas.
That story swept across the country in the weeks before Thanksgiving 1999. About 5:45 a.m. Nov. 12, a woman at Hunter’s Glen apartments on McKnight Mill Road heard something beneath the stairwell as she left for work. It was a girl, a few hours old. Her umbilical cord was attached. She was fighting hypothermia. And she was breathing.
How she got there remained a mystery for years.
The working-class apartment complex was a block from the Sands Motel along U.S. 29 North, and some thought it could have been an overnight guest there.
Dozens of families asked the local social services agency about taking the baby into their homes temporarily or through adoption.
As a foster parent, Carrie Thomas, who had strong ties to Greensboro, had cared for other children whose families were in crisis. She also grew up in Ray Warren Homes, a public housing complex in Greensboro. She and her now ex-husband had been military-connected and moved around with their eldest daughter, who by then was 12.
They were living in Gibsonville, and the social worker handling the case told her she wanted to place the baby with parents who might adopt her. Carrie Thomas didn’t say that she would. It wasn’t in her plans.
Then they met their Angel.
Both parents were smitten.
“I don’t know why they chose our household,” Carrie Thomas said of social services. “Without a doubt, I feel like God chose me. She was a Thomas now.”
She grew up with cousins, hair bows and Easter dresses. A big sister named Shatarra.
Carrie Thomas knew she would have to tell her one day, about being abandoned. That day came before any of them were prepared. A cousin told her she was adopted when she was 4 or 5. When she ran into the house to ask her parents, Carrie Thomas froze.
“I wasn’t ready,” Carrie Thomas said. “I said, 'Yes, you are adopted, and adopted means your dad and I are not your biological parents. Somebody else gave birth to you and we chose you.' She said, 'Thank you for choosing me' and we never really talked about it anymore.”
Until middle school, that is. That’s when police needed her DNA. It started with the business card of a social worker stuffed in the door of the family home.
“Before I took her I explained to her why she had to do this,” Carrie Thomas said. “She broke down and she cried and she sobbed. She thought she was going to be removed from this house. I told her this is her family and this is where she belongs.”
The whole story came out after the arrest. Reporters picked it up. Angel Thomas’s biological mother was 13 and repeatedly raped by a man who had been a father figure. After the abuse was discovered, he was sentenced to life in prison.
Depression and "self-harm" resulted from the few details Angel Thomas knew. She no longer felt good about herself. Carrie Thomas saw the evolution of it all. The middle school years are awkward anyway. The children can be brutal.
“I heard it all back then — like, ‘Your parents didn’t want you,’ or ‘You were a mistake,’” Angel Thomas said.
Carrie Thomas shut down the daycare she ran and put her daughter into therapy.
“If I had not gotten therapy, I’m not sure I’d be here,” Angel Thomas said.
She also found self-esteem and leadership-building classes at Greensboro's Sparrow’s Nest.
“That’s where she really found her voice,” Carrie Thomas said.
Fire and drive
Angel Thomas took control of her story.
She would eventually take part in the Chosen 50, a program that challenged young people to create group projects, and serve on the board of directors. She would attend Smart Girls Leadership Academy. She would take part in a young pilots club, the Civil Air Patrol and two robotics teams.
At 15, she managed a group of teenagers involved in Hip Hub, a local music and art distribution service.
“She has such an amazing support system with her adoptive parents so I give them a lot of credit for stoking her inner fire,” said Evainna Ross, who oversees several nonprofit youth leadership groups including the Sparrow’s Nest and Chosen 50, and got to see Angel Thomas develop her leadership skills.
“I just believe people are born with varying levels of greatness,” Ross said. “I see so many instances of children who grow up in the same household, same love, same opportunities and one will stray and the other would go on to do amazing things. I believe that greatness was in her. Even being abandoned in the cold, she would have never perished because of that fire and drive that’s always burned from within.”
Anything her daughter wanted to try, Carrie Thomas worked to make happen. From Monday through Saturdaym she had to get her somewhere in that silver Nissan Quest minivan — even during the summer. And often, Angel Thomas would ask if her mother could take her friends home. She served on boards of organizations at the age of 13, including the Smart Girls Leadership Academy.
“There were times I would get home and I would say, ‘God I can’t do this anymore.' “I thank God that he instilled in me what I needed to give to her. I wanted her to reach for the stars. Even if she didn’t want to do it I would tell her just to try it out. Sometimes you just don’t know until you try it out.”
Angel Thomas took part in confidence-building exercises by telling her story to other young people. And she took on leadership roles that included mentoring others.
Initially, Carrie Thomas suggested the aviation program at Andrews High School but had second thoughts because of incidents that had taken place at the school.
But Angel Thomas wanted to go and is glad she did.
“It is a wonderful school and it gets a bad rap," she siad.
Along the way, she received numerous awards for her courage and resilience. Among them were the Student of Character Award, Aggie Bots Robotics Award, National Honor Society and Service Learning Award and Diploma.
In her first pageant, she won Miss Teen Greensboro. She finished as first runner-up for Miss Teen North Carolina in 2018. Her mother had talked her into participating.
“We screamed and screamed and screamed,” Carrie Thomas said.
Her academic achievements at Andrews and other high school programs, including at N.C. A&T, helped her earn three scholarships. She graduated with a 4.0 GPA.
“I used to tell her all the time, 'Angel, God kept you here for a reason,'" Carrie Thomas said. "I watched my little caterpillar turn into this beautiful butterfly. To think where she was back then to where she is now, brings tears to my eyes."
A right to smile
Tonie McNair, who found Angel Thomas under the stairwell as an infant, gave her a Bessie Coleman quote as she set off for Embry-Riddle. Coleman was the first African American and Native American aviator to hold a pilot’s license.
"... 'I refuse to take no for an answer,’” Angel Thomas quotes. "And it has helped shape my life."
She is already making a mark on the world, said Paul Bell, Embry-Riddle’s assistant dean of students.
She is a member of the Black Aeronautical Professionals and National Society of Leadership & Success with the Embry Riddle Emerging Leaders Foundation.
“What makes Angel stand out is her ability to lighten a room without trying,” Bell said. “She leads by example and motivates others by her infectious enthusiasm to keep people she leads motivated toward a common goal. Sometimes that is with a smile, sometimes an agenda, sometimes it is just by saying ‘Hey, I noticed you did this ... thank you.’”
Angel Thomas had planned to be a pilot but found herself drawn to business and occupational safety after internships, including one with Blue Cross and Blue Shield and another with a Department of Defense contractor.
“I was so scared about telling my mom because I’ve just always wanted to make them proud,” Angel Thomas recalled. “But she was not the least bit disappointed. She said, ‘You are finally living your dream and not mine.’”
Her interest in workplace safety grew after an internship where she focused on workspace ergonomics and could see herself as director of safety for a company or organization.
“Honestly, anything where I can help people and make sure they’re safe would be ideal for me,” Angel Thomas said.
Angel Thomas is now a college graduate continuing to look for a job. However, when she wakes up each morning, she realizes that she’s got a right to smile every day.
“I’ve found that I deserved to be happy,” she said.
Contact Nancy McLaughlin at email@example.com or 336-373-7049 and follow @nmclaughlinNR on Twitter.