Tammy Bryson had named her first child, Nikole, in an unusual way. The alternative spelling stands for Now I Know Of Love Everlasting. So while pregnant with her second child, she was compelled to be creative again and came up with Jaya, because she promised to always love her Just As You Are.
"I had no idea that 13 years later," Bryson said, "it really would be put to the test."
Jaya went from an apparently healthy teenager this summer to a cancer patient this fall.
Bryson, a single mother, already had overcome more than her fair share of strife. She escaped an abusive relationship. She was arrested but never prosecuted for vehicular homicide after driving into a police officer on a motorcycle. She survived a house fire. She pulled herself out of homelessness. She regained custody of her children.
Her daughter's cancer diagnosis, however, seemed too much to handle. But a bunch of increasingly hairy angels from The Ridge church have come into her life, and now hope has returned.
"I'm just overwhelmed what they're doing for Jaya," Bryson said. "I could not have made it without their support. It means so much."
Bryson supports her family by cleaning houses. She works so much, however, she needed help taking care of her own home. This spring, a group from The Ridge sought a community service project and contacted Circles in Columbus, an anti-poverty program. Bryson has been a Circles participant, and The Ridge church group was sent to her east Columbus home on Gleason Avenue. The church members painted her house and cleaned up her yard. They also made a human connection.
"I wanted Jaya to be part of something like that," Bryson said, "learn how to do things for other people, return favors."
So in June, when The Ridge youth group went to work on a House of Heroes project, Jaya also volunteered.
And the connection strengthened.
After starting her eighth-grade year at Fort Middle School in August, Jaya hurt her left knee during a pickup basketball game. In hindsight, it was a blessing in disguise; it sparked the early detection of her cancer.
Bryson, who is on Medicaid, couldn't get her daughter an appointment with a primary care doctor until November, so she took Jaya to the emergency room. Jaya was given a knee immobilizer and pain medication and sent home.
But the pain worsened, and Bryson took her back to the hospital Sept. 6. This time, Jaya's left leg was X-rayed, and doctors expressed concern about a soft-tissue mass on the lower femur, just above the knee.
"They also saw a lot of cloudiness in the bone," Bryson said. "They called it density."
Jaya was taken by ambulance to Children's Healthcare of Atlanta at Egleston for further evaluation. After returning to Columbus, an orthopedic oncologist from the Emory Clinic called Bryson and said he wanted to examine Jaya.
Another X-ray, an MRI, a CT scan and a biopsy followed. Then came the diagnosis Sept. 12: osteosarcoma -- bone cancer.
"I was just blank," Bryson said, "empty,"
The saving grace is that Jaya's cancer is at Stage 1 and doctors haven't seen any evidence the cancer has spread.
"The prognosis is favorable," Bryson said.
Still, Jaya has had to travel to Atlanta almost every Friday since Sept. 20 for chemotherapy. She is scheduled for surgery Dec. 10 to remove the tumor, the cancerous part of the femur and a total knee replacement. Jaya then might need radiation and more chemotherapy.
Meanwhile, the spiritual family Jaya and her mother found from The Ridge birthed a plan to help.
The church's youth group learned about the No-Shave November fundraisers around the nation that collect money to fight cancer and decided to organize one. They have signed up 33 members who have pledged not to shave this month. The entry fee is $10. When participants are asked why they aren't shaving, they tell Jaya's story and solicit donations. All proceeds will go toward easing the financial and emotional strain on Bryson and Jaya.
"We don't expect to pay medical bills," said Nikki Coull, the church administrator, who also co-directs the youth group with her husband, Jay. "Our goal is to help with transportation costs, maybe money for food while they're in Atlanta, and then we hope to be able to buy them some comfort items, kind of a bedroom makeover for Jaya after her surgery."
At the church's Dec. 1 service, judges will determine the Best Growth winner. The People's Choice Award will be given to the participant who has raised the most money, based on $1 per vote.
Robbie Bishop, 41, a marketing consultant at TSYS, has been getting playfully teased at work for growing a beard.
"It tends to be a little silver these days, and my hair is not, so everyone is surprised by it," said Bishop, who lives in Windsor Park. "Somebody told me, 'Oh, you're getting into the spirit of the holidays early.'"
The spirit Bishop is showing is a lesson for his two children.
"I couldn't imagine getting that kind of news about one of mine," he said. "If all I can do is grow a beard to help them out, I'm more than glad to help that cause."
No-shave women, too
Two women also are participating. Kelly Hunter and Astrid Wightman, coworkers at Midtown Medical Center, vowed to not shave their legs this month.
"There are policies at the hospital on appearance and hygiene, so we felt that not shaving under our arms would be a little much," said Hunter, 34, the hospital's labor and delivery director. "We decided we didn't want to disgust anybody, and seeing how it's winter, not shaving our legs isn't a big deal. It's actually been a luxury."
Wightman, 44, added, "We're both fair-skinned, so that works in our favor."
Hunter, however, still isn't taking any chances with her boyfriend.
"I haven't let him see my legs yet," she said, adding that he supports her participation, "but everybody thinks it's hilarious we decided to be bold enough to do this."
Stewart McWhorter, 29, the worship director at The Ridge, had to shave his beard in October to participate.
"I love any excuse to grow it to the fullest extent that my wife would allow," said McWhorter, a Phenix City resident who works in client training at TSYS. "Jaya's family overcame so many obstacles already, then to be diagnosed with cancer, how much more can they take? But they've been so upbeat. It's so encouraging. God has blessed us, so to give to them and help out during their moment of need, it's something we want to do."
Jimmy McIlraith, lead pastor at The Ridge, also had to shave his beard, which was 13 years old, to participate.
"It looked like it took 20 years off my life," said McIlraith, 37.
He boasted that he'll be one of the winners, but he insists the whole church is winning along with Jaya and her family in this project.
"It just shows the heart of the people of The Ridge," he said, "that they want to do two things: love God and serve others, and this is showing how much they love God by serving others."
It's hard for Thomas Marsh's beard to show that love, because the 16-year-old usually shaves only once a week and can count the hairs on his face, but he's all-in nonetheless.
"I'm debating whether to get a big, long fake beard," Thomas, a junior at Columbus High School, said with a laugh, "but I'm doing this more for the cause than the actual beard."
Then, in a serious tone, Thomas emphasized the power of this project might be more valuable than the money it raises.
"If Jaya sees all this support and we're doing this mission work for God," he said, "she'll gain motivation to fight it and at least gain more love through God and hopefully beat her cancer."
And that's what Jaya believes.
"I really feel they're bringing me up when I'm down," she said. "I feel that the way people are praying for me, God is listening to them, and He will answer their prayers."HOW TO HELP
To donate to the No-Shave November for Jaya project, make checks payable to The Ridge and write Jaya's Journey on the memo line. Checks can be mailed to The Ridge office at 5624 Whitesville Road, Suite B, Columbus, GA 31904. Donations are tax deductible. Tax receipts will be mailed to all contributors who provide a mailing address.
Another way to contribute is to buy the debut CD, "Rise Up and Shine," from The Ridge worship director, Stewart McWhorter. At the release party, 7 p.m. Dec. 14 in the Brookstone School auditorium, he will donate a portion of the sales to the fundraiser for Jaya.