In this series, we share some of the inspiring stories of how WordPress and its global network of contributors can change people’s lives for the better. This month we feature a website developer and engineer from the US, who found the software and its community provide the impetus to keep her going forward.
WordPress gave Tonya Mork a new lease of energy after a health crisis from which she nearly died. She had spent two decades as an electrical and software engineer in high tech automated manufacturing. But when she discovered the WordPress software, teaching it to others became her new purpose. Through this discovery, she has gone on to help thousands of developers understand and build code in great depth.
As part of her WordPress journey, she has shared her skills in the roles of Release Coordinator and the Core Tech Editor for the most recent major WordPress release, 5.9 Joséphine.
Life takes an unexpected turn
For the first 22 years of Tonya’s life, she rose through the ranks from enlisted personnel in the US Navy to a highly sought after chief engineer with a multi million-dollar industrial automation engineering firm.
However, while she was working in engineering, her life was to change dramatically. In 2007, Tonya started to face health challenges that had an impact on all that she had known.
“My career defined me. It was my canvas and my art. When it was gone, I did not recognize myself.
One day, she woke up at home ready to visit a client’s facility where her firm was building a robotic system. She said: “As I headed for the door, I fell to my knees, as this wave of pain crushed down on my chest.”
Doctors diagnosed her with a very rare heart disease that caused her blood vessels to spasm, cutting off blood to whatever was downstream of the blockage.
A few months later, she was diagnosed with a second rare and more serious condition, related to the migraines from which she had been suffering. Combined with her heart condition, this made every migraine attack life-threatening.
For nearly seven years, the unexpected changes to her health left her mostly homebound and constantly monitored. This meant she had to close her engineering firm and say goodbye to staff and clients.
“My career defined me. It was my canvas and my art. When it was gone, I was lost. I didn’t recognize myself.”
But in her darkest hour, she found her strength. Tonya made a choice to move forward, and make the most of her life.
“When you are at rock bottom, you have to make a decision or else it will consume you. My decision was that I chose to be happy,” said Tonya.
One of Tonya’s first steps was to start writing a blog using WordPress. In this she shared insights on how to find peace and joy in any situation. She wrote about kindness and helping one another.
The joy of making solutions through WordPress became a way for Tonya to accept her new life and not feel as limited by her health. She wanted purpose, and in WordPress, she found just that.
Tonya felt she could do something worthwhile in the virtual world.
A ray of hope for Tonya
In 2013, Tonya’s health deteriorated further. She was admitted into intensive care and was diagnosed with a third rare disease, this time related to her autoimmunity. She was not expected to survive this time.
Following what she describes as a ‘miraculous recovery,’ she became stronger and was able to stop relying on a wheelchair. She used the energy from working on websites to keep going. “WordPress kept my mind alive,” said Tonya.
She had first used WordPress for her engineering firm’s intranet. But when she discovered the software’s full potential and the collaborative opportunities of open source, it opened a new world.
“Finding WordPress helped me to find myself again”
During the years which followed, she donated her time to build some WordPress websites and plugins. She said: “Through giving my time, I was able to do something other than sit in isolation.”
Tonya was amazed by the sharing in open source in general and in WordPress in particular. She said: “I was amazed to see people sharing so much information freely with one another. In my former engineering world, information was proprietary. Throughout my career, I had worked to break down those silos and help anyone to understand complex systems. I was drawn to this open community.”
She also became aware that WordPress developers were hungry to learn more about development. She wanted to be part of the solution with her passion for teaching and the knowledge she had gained in industry.
She said: “Finding WordPress helped me to find myself again. Here in this community, I was able to feel like a person again, not a sick one, but a professional with something to give.”
As her interest in the software grew, Tonya decided to start a non-profit where she turned to WordPress to build the websites. This re-sparked her interest in programming. She said: “I wanted to really know the code and understand what made it tick.”
The realization led Tonya to start the WP Developers’ Club, which in turn spawned Know the Code, to help educate individual developers, and is still used today.
From helping WordPress companies to working on WordPress Core
Tonya went on to work with big and medium size WordPress companies helping their developers and supporting them in raising their firms’ leverage with WordPress.
By late 2020, she knew she wanted to do even more with WordPress.
In February 2021, Tonya joined an international firm in the ecosystem and began working closely on WordPress Core.
At that time, WordPress Core was pulling together a new Triage team. Tonya started volunteering on that team to find collaborative solutions, and help others do so. In 2020 for WordPress 5.6 Simone, she became the release’s Triage lead, and again for WordPress 5.7 Esperanza.
In 2021, she became a Test Team Rep and helped to expand the team and is an advocate for the value of testing and feedback in the release development process.
A new, successful chapter with WordPress 5.9
Tonya’s passion for the software and getting people involved in its growth continued. For the WordPress 5.9 release in 2021, she took on the role of both the Core Tech Lead and the Release Coordinator. As this was a big release and included the first major implementation of Full Site Editing, it had many moving parts and hundreds of contributors. She was able to share the skills she had learned in communication and project management from her days streamlining and documenting engineering software and processes.
In the first 24 hours of WordPress 5.9 landing, it had more than 10 million downloads—and 17 formally reported bugs.
Giving back to open source
Now in what Tonya describes as her third chapter. She said: “I’m a very different person from the engineer I used to know. What really matters in this world is when you reach out and make a difference in someone’s life.”
She feels she has found her purpose in this life. “I’m on a mission to give back and make a difference. Teaching is how I will do it. And in WordPress I have found my professional home, and I have all this software knowledge that I just want to share.”
Share the stories
Help share these stories of open source contributors and continue to grow the community. Meet more WordPressers in the People of WordPress series. #ContributorStory.
Contributors to this feature
Thank you to Tonya Mork (@hellofromtonya) for sharing her story.
Interviews and feature by Abha Thakor (@webcommsat) and Mary Baum (@marybaum). Reviewed by Chloe Bringmann (@cbringmann), Nalini Thakor (@nalininonstopnewsuk), Meher Bala (@meher), and Anjana Vasan (@anjanavasan). Photo editing Reyez Martínez (@rmartinezduque) and Jean Baptiste Audras (@audrasjb).
This People of WordPress feature is inspired by an essay originally published on HeroPress.com, a community initiative created by Topher DeRosia. It highlights people in the WordPress community who have overcome barriers and whose stories might otherwise go unheard. #HeroPress