The name and face of Donna Terrell has become one of the most recognizable in all of Arkansas media, her stature stretching far beyond the FOX16 viewing range to all four corners of the state. But, despite the ease and grace with which she carries herself, her arrival to this mountaintop did not come easily. It took strength, determination, resolve and, perhaps most importantly, faith. In her wake, a path that anyone can draw inspiration from.
For nearly 20 years, Terrell has proudly called Arkansas home. But her story actually began far from the Natural State, in Albion, Mich., a town of about 10,000, south of Lansing and west of Detroit. Her parents, Bessie and Rollo Terrell, adopted her as an infant.
The call to journalism was present a little earlier for her than others, a parallel to the fact that “life” happened more quickly for her. When Terrell was in the 10th grade, her daughter, Queah, was born; in the 11th grade, she locked in on what she wanted to do for a living.
But not before a brief stint when she thought her goal of graduating and going to college had unraveled. She briefly dropped out of high school for two weeks after she became pregnant.
“That was a very difficult period in my life, when I got pregnant,” Terrell shares. “I was embarrassed. I just didn’t want to go back to school.”
If not for the swift action of one of her teachers, Mrs. Henry, she might never have gone back.
“She got wind of it and went to my counselor and said, ‘You gotta call Donna’s parents, and we gotta get her back in school.’”
Terrell goes on to say, “Had it not been for her, I would have dropped out [permanently].”
As fate would have it, Henry was her journalism teacher and helped Terrell not only find the courage to come back and complete her education but also find the career path that led her to where she is today. After taking this class, she began writing for the school’s newspaper and annual yearbook. She was also a member of the forensics and debate team, but she recalls being “more of a public speaker than a debater.” At Henry’s direction, Terrell attended a journalism workshop.
“At that time, I was pretty sure that I was going to be a print journalist,” Terrell recalls. “And during this workshop was where I discovered that I could actually combine the public speaking and the journalism together and work in television news.”
Life for a single mom is hard enough on its own; for a teenager, it’s even more difficult. Now in the 11th grade, life had come at her fast by way of her daughter. But at the same time, things were also falling into place. Queah may not have determined her career trajectory, but she definitely solidified the decision-making process.
“In my mind, it was imperative to make a decision and go with it, because I didn’t feel like I was going to get a whole lot of chances,” Terrell says on the complicated course of a teen mom. “It was like, ‘OK, this is what you’re going to do. You’re going to get the opportunity to go to college. You’re going to major in this. There is no turning back. There is no deviating — just do it.’
“[Queah] was truly a motivating factor. [But] do I feel in my heart I would have gone to college had I not gotten pregnant? Absolutely. My mother always told me that I was going. … So that was always instilled in me. But after having this child, my fear was, ‘It’s not going to work out.’ All of these years of planning and believing that this was going to be my destiny, it’s like, ‘I’ve almost blown it, and I can’t risk not fulfilling this thing that I’ve always been told that I was going to do, and I always wanted to do.’”
Fortunately, Terrell had a solid foundation at home in her parents, who were always happy to help with Queah while she navigated her way through school. This, along with her grit and competitive spirit, also helped motivate her and keep her far away from her newfound fear of becoming a “statistic.” “All of the teenage moms around me, the vast majority of them anyway, were on public assistance,” she says. “I didn’t want to be one of them. I wanted to be successful and also raise my daughter.”
Terrell furthered her education at Central Michigan University in Mount Pleasant, Mich., just under two hours from her childhood home in Albion. With Queah by her side, she earned a Bachelor of Applied Arts degree in Broadcast and Cinematic Arts. (And yes, her daughter was literally by her side; Terrell has often retold the stories of Queah attending class with her at times, acting with her crayons as if she was taking notes, just like mom.)
And then it was on to chasing her dream across the Midwest throughout the ’90s. Her first stop was at a station closer to home than even college, in Battle Creek, Mich., which was quickly followed by reporting stints in South Bend, Ind., and Cleveland, Ohio, which is where she would also earn her first gig as an anchor. Her ultimate aspiration, however, was to work a major market that was close to home. Cleveland fulfilled the former but lacked the latter. She wanted to be in Detroit.
She wouldn’t have to wait long for that goal to come to fruition, taking an anchor slot at WKBD-TV and WWJ-TV in Detroit shortly thereafter. But just as soon as she’d arrived at the place and the position she had worked so hard for, it disappeared.
“I get back home and what happened — they canceled our news. They canceled all news on the station where I was working,” Terrell says.
She went from being the main anchor for a station in a major market to being unemployed in what felt like a matter of moments. Her job hunt led to a number of interviews and offers from around the country, but something stood out about a little startup in Little Rock. KLRT-TV was launching a novel news endeavor on FOX16, and they wanted Terrell to be a lead anchor.
She knew of the South at this point, to be sure — her mother was from Mississippi, her father from Georgia. But she’d never lived there; never been so far away from friends and family.
“I said, ‘OK, everybody … I’m going to go down there to Arkansas, and I’m going to fulfill this three-year contract, but I’ll be back,’” Terrell says, not able to contain a laugh at the hindsight — that was February 2004. “They used to ask me, ‘So, when are you coming back?’ And, I’m like, ‘Well, I’m not.’”
To her surprise, everything about Arkansas just lined up. She grew to love her network, her colleagues and her bosses; she loved the weather, much warmer and milder than the bitter cold of a Michigan winter; and she loved the people who make up the state, each of whom is bred by the charm of Southern hospitality. As she recalls, every time a contract would be at or near its expiration date, there was always a good reason to sign another. And another. And another.
Most important, however, was being close to her daughter when she got sick. Just a few years after Terrell took the job in Little Rock, Queah was diagnosed with colon cancer at only 27 years old. At the time, she was living in Houston, which allowed Terrell to be there for her much easier than if she were still in Michigan.
“I think part of the endearment that I have with FOX16 is, during her battle, they made it easy for me to be her caregiver when she was here [in Little Rock], as well as before she arrived — to be able to get to her at a moment’s notice,” Terrell says. “If I called up and said, ‘I’ve got to drop everything and go to Houston,’ they were like, ‘Go, take care of your daughter.’”
Queah passed away in 2011. Words alone can’t adequately express the toll that took on Terrell. Like the compounded difficulty of her not only being a single mother but a teenager, burying a loved one is always a time of grief and sorrow; burying a child is an unnatural pain.
“I had to be counseled,” she says without hesitation. “I had to find a grief counselor because I was pretty bad off. I was the walking wounded; I’d come to work every day, function and do what was required of me, and then fall apart after it was over.
“I remember thinking — and really, truly believing this — that in 10 years she was going to come back, and she was going to say, ‘Mom, I’m sorry I left you, but I had to go and get well.’ I truly believed it.”
At that, Terrell’s usual level and steady pitch is sharply broken. Fighting tears, the words become harder to find. Because this year marks the 10-year anniversary of her passing, the very year that the mourning mother once felt Queah would miraculously return to her, for the thought of that was much easier to bear than her being gone forever.
“It still affects me when I want to talk about it, because I knew that I needed help. So I got it,” she recalls. “I remember telling [the counselor], ‘The only reason I keep coming back here is because I know you know the secret to help me get my daughter back.’
“She told me that there was no secret … ‘but you will connect with your daughter. Relationships never die. … There will be things in your life [that connect you to her.] It’s hard for me to explain it, but you will know.’ And so as time passed, I began to recognize these things that made me feel connected even more to my daughter and made me realize that she really was with me.”
Throughout her illustrious time as a broadcast journalist, Terrell has been a readied role model because of her career — not only being a woman holding down the anchor’s desk but a Black one, at that. Her mantle is adorned with a litany of awards, from regional Emmys to a National American Legion Fourth Estate Award and an Associated Press Award. All this, while overcoming the tremendous obstacle of teen pregnancy. She’s the perfect embodiment of a personality any parent would want to come speak at their child’s school. But it was in losing her daughter so tragically that she became even more of a role model for honestly and vulnerably getting help, even as a public figure. In the United States and in Arkansas, there is too often a stain of shame attached with seeking mental health help, sometimes especially among particular demographics, such as age groups or ethnicities.
“As an African American, there is a stigma around getting help — at least, where I grew up and when I grew up,” Terrell says. “It’s the thing that I tell people all the time and when I speak at different events. I tell them, ‘There is nothing wrong with grieving.’ To this very day, I am grieving my child, and I will grieve her for the rest of my life. And there’s nothing wrong with that. There is no getting over it, but when your grief gets to the point where you can’t function or where it’s the only thing you think about, and you can’t allow yourself the freedom that you need to be happy and to make other people around you happy, then there’s a problem. Something’s got to give.
“And that is where I say, ‘Get help.’ And people find help in different ways, whether it’s speaking with clergy, whether it’s support groups in their church or outside of their church. I chose to find a therapist, basically … and she was very instrumental in helping me.”
Because of her resolve, Queah will not soon be forgotten. Shortly after her passing, Terrell founded Yoga Warriors.
During her daughter’s bout with colon cancer, she found that the physical activity of yoga was a helpful remedy. In her memory, Terrell’s nonprofit organization, a 501(c)(3), raises money so that cancer survivors, patients and caregivers can have access to that same opportunity. Yoga Warriors also provides financial assistance for those with a cancer diagnosis who are in need of help.
This past August, Terrell’s Yoga Warriors supplied a $48,000 grant to Baptist Health Foundation for a state-of-the-art device — an ERBEJET2 — that can remove cancer lesions from various places on the human body, including the colon. It is the first of its kind in the state of Arkansas.
Just as this year marks a difficult one for Terrell, as it concludes a full decade without her beloved daughter, she has plenty of her own medicine to help her through it — happiness. This very month strikes the clock on her 17th year at FOX16. It is also the month of her birthday, Feb. 20, which will be her second personal holiday as a married woman. On Jan. 18, 2020, she married the love of her life, Dr. Kenneth Lambert, an obstetrician-gynecologist in Pine Bluff. A mutual friend set the pair up five years ago, and, well, that was as simple as it was and as simple as it’s been.
“[Being with] him has always been easy,” she says, a glowing smile behind her every word. “This first year of marriage has been so easy. Everyone talks about, ‘Oh, marriage is hard.’ And when they say, ‘Oh, marriage requires a lot of work,’ I am still trying to figure out: What is the work that I’m supposed to be doing? I am so happy. … Kenneth is my best friend. I just love him.”
So much of Terrell’s life is filled with checkmarks, some she probably didn’t even know were on the agenda. Between the awards and accolades, she’s found fulfillment through community service, through Yoga Warriors, volunteering and board positions with various organizations, such as Women and Children First, the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation and the Ronald McDonald House. But, it’s hard to shake the feeling that so much still lies ahead. Her story’s not over yet; plenty of chapters remain, and she finds peace that what’s left will continue to play out in Arkansas.
“I am open to whatever God has in store for me, and I will accept it with open arms,” she says.