South Mississippi Strong: Coast theater teacher inspires children through her work

South Mississippi Strong: Coast theater teacher inspires children through her work

GULFPORT, Miss. (WLOX) - Tonya Hays begins her afternoon theater class with a warm up exercise, telling her class, ‘An actor’s two tools are what? Voice and body’.

From the Gulfport Little Theatre to Lynn Meadows and now Gulfport High School, Hays has taught thousands of children on the Coast the art of theater.

But to hear her students tell it, it’s often so much more than just acting.

“Ms. Tonya actually says this herself. But I really believe in the idea that theater can transform people because I’ve actually seen it myself," student Meg McDougal said. “I’ve been a lot more confident because of theater. I’ve become a better person I think because of theater. So, it’s helped me grow as a person, helped me come out of my shell in a way, so I think it does really transform and help people.”

McDougal has been a student of Hays since she was in the WINGS program at Lynn Meadows, where the teacher pioneered the center’s theater program and led it for 20 years. Now, she’s under her guidance in Hays’ new role at Gulfport High.

“I actually contemplated not doing theater this year until I found out she was the teacher, and I said, ‘Okay, I have to do it’ because she’s such a wonderful teacher. She’s a great motivator as well, so I’m just really excited," McDougal said.

Students like McDougal may be motivated by Hays, but Hays says it’s the students that keep her coming back year after year.

“The kids, the kids... It’s all about the kids. I mean it’s just so amazing to work with kids at this age in their life and to realize that you can make a difference," Hays said.

And influence lives she has.

“She was one of those teachers who immediately saw me and was like, ‘hi, you have something to offer and you’re ideas are good’,’” Dusty Ballard, a former student said.

Ballard has worked with Hays since he was 9-years-old at Gulfport Little Theatre.

“She came to me one day and said, ‘You know what? You have a knack for teaching, and I think that you need to do it more',” Ballard explained.

He says her influence changed the course of his life.

“She gave me opportunity to lead classes and be a teaching artist for WINGS performing arts, and that is literally why I have the career I have now as a teaching artist for the George Street Playhouse and the McCarter Theatre Center," he said.

Ballard isn’t Hays’ only student who has gone on to do great things through theater.

“Theaterand the arts, just like the world of sports, can be a pathway for kids to go to college and to get scholarships. I had another student who was a brilliant playwright and playwriting got her into Harvard," Hays said.

Hays’ influence will carry on here on the Coast at Gulfport High School where she will no doubt continue to encourage and motivate her students.

Hays’ life’s work makes her and all those she’s impacted South Mississippi Strong.

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