By Christina Fernández-Morrow, Hola Iowa
Twenty-three years ago, a nearly one-year-old Laryssa Leone traveled 2,741 miles from the city she was born in Medellin, Colombia to Logan, Iowa when she was adopted with her four sisters. She has no memories of the orphanage, and hasn’t been back to Colombia, but smiles when she says, “I’m Latina and proud.”
It took Leone several years to become comfortable with her roots. Being so young when she moved to Iowa, she never learned Spanish, but that didn’t stop her from being called “exotic” in the town of 1,500 where there was only one other non-white household. “I didn’t always feel like I fit in,” she shares. In such a small community, most residents knew her origin story and at one point it divided the town.
Leone’s adoption was unusual. Relocating five girls under the age of ten across several countries wasn’t the norm in the year 2000, much less to a family still raising five young biological children and an adoptee from Guatemala. It was overwhelming to her initial adoptive parents – so much so that soon after arriving, her three older sisters were abandoned at daycare, and Leone and her younger sister, a toddler, and an infant at the time, spent months apart from the sisters who had cared for them since birth. “I remember seeing my older sisters at an event in town and crying, trying to run to them. I knew they were mine.” Townspeople had mixed opinions about the separation. Some felt it would work itself out with time, while others were appalled that children so young were being kept apart. The orphanage in Colombia eventually got involved and demanded that the girls be together, as per the adoption agreement, or be returned to Colombia. Luckily, the family who temporarily took in her older sisters fought to adopt all five of them. To this day, Leone says that they are her family, the parents who stepped in when she and her sisters needed dependable adults to keep them safe and united. But it didn’t mean that life would be easy from that point on.
“The first time I was called the N-word, I was in kindergarten,” says Leone who had to ask her mom what it meant and why she was called something so nasty. She didn’t know where she belonged. She wasn’t from Logan and the whole town knew it, yet that was the only culture she had ever known. “I knew I couldn’t act a certain way, or I would be looked at differently.” Rather than try to make herself small or shy away from others, Leone expressed herself boldly. “I barked louder than they could bite,” she says with a chuckle. “I can speak to anyone because I can conform; shapeshift to be whatever I need.” Armed with that survival skill, she earned a reputation for being outspoken, opinionated, and challenging others’ words and actions. Early on, she knew that talking to others and getting them to open up to her was an asset. Leone enjoyed uncovering people’s true thoughts and feelings by listening and sharing stories.
That aptitude helped her earn her associate degree in radio, television, and digital communication from Iowa Western Community College in Council Bluffs, Iowa, followed by a bachelor’s in journalism from the University of Nebraska at Omaha. At just nineteen years old she got her first job in broadcast journalism running the teleprompter at KETV, one of Omaha’s longest lasting and well-known television news stations. Over the next three years, she was promoted to camera operator, overnight photographer, and finally, a multimedia journalist before joining WOI-TV’s news team in Des Moines as a weekend anchor and reporter in 2021. “I grappled with [taking the position]. As much as I love Iowa and it’s beautiful, there’s a lot of trauma from trying to feel like I belong.” But she didn’t let that stop her and is happy she took on the challenge to return to her home state. “It’s been healing to make connections with some wonderful Iowans. When something happens, Iowans step up tenfold. But the lack of diversity is difficult for me.”
While Leone has seen lots of change in Iowa, she admits that it’s slow and leans more traditional. Knowing that, she decided to help others feel more welcome, so she got involved as a Champion of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Iowa’s I am Enough mentoring program. She enjoys volunteering with the girls and other Champions. She noticed a lot of them have the same struggles with identity she had as a young girl. “If I had that kind of support at that age, I can’t imagine the impact it would have had on my heart, my self-esteem.” Seeing the value of sharing space with young women of color, she also lent her time to the Many Shades of Color Lead-Her-Ship retreat at the Y-Camp in Boone where she spent a weekend leading activities and getting to know fifteen teenage girls. Soon after, she volunteered as the MC for Hip Hope’s Adjusting My Crown Young Women’s Conference where she shared her story with over fifty young women from across the state.
Her desire to have personal interactions with everyone she can inspires her to tell the stories that touch her as much as they move the audience. “When I tell stories with deep sadness, tragedy, and happiness, I feel less alone. I’ll never forget those stories. That’s what moves me,” she says of the love she has for her field of work. She is impacted by storytelling because she finds so many parallels to her own experiences. Covering events and news around Des Moines makes her reflect on how her life could have turned out differently. She doesn’t take it for granted that storytelling is a gift she gets to share with others, as many have shared with her. “With the help of other people, I got to be here and do what I love. There were other kids in the orphanage who were also deserving but never got the privileges I did, and there’s some guilt with that. It could have been a lot sadder than it was.”
Leone’s passion for telling impactful stories that show the human side of her subjects is evident in the way she lights up, her tone changes and her speech speeds up when she excitedly talks about stories that have stuck with her. It’s clear that she understands the importance of sharing narratives that have the potential to change the world, as many did for her when she needed it most. “I’m a strong woman because of strong women like my sisters, my mom, and other women in the news. I wouldn’t be me without the women who came before me.”
You can watch Leone cover current events weekends on WOI-TV Local 5 news in Des Moines, and online at www.weareiowa.com.