When Smiths Station faces Auburn in a home volleyball matchup on Wednesday night, it will be more than just another game between the two AHSAA Class 7A region rivals.
Both teams have joined forces to raise money for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in honor of Molly Paysinger, the granddaughter of Smiths Station athletic director Sherry Paysinger, who has been battling leukemia at St. Jude for the past two years. The event, dubbed “Volley for Molly,” will feature both the Lady Panthers and Lady Tigers wearing special T-shirts during warm-ups in honor of the event. They have also sold the T-shirts at both high schools to raise money for the cause. All proceeds from the T-shirt sales and the admission gate on Wednesday night will be donated in Molly’s name to St. Jude.
“We’re at rival schools, but we want to work together for a greater cause and learn how to put others first,” said Smiths Station volleyball coach Kristi Coleman.
“We started working together last year to do a charity event every year of some sort,” said Auburn volleyball coach Bentley Stephenson, who is a friend of Coleman’s and was a former coach at Smiths Station. “Last year, we headed it up (at Auburn), and everything benefitted the Wounded Warrior Project. This year, it was (Kristi’s) turn to decide what charity to use, so that’s how we ended up doing Volley for Molly.”
“Bentley approached me last year about doing a joint fundraiser to bring the two fan bases together for a cause,” Coleman said. “We tried to find something that means something to the girls. We have a lot of Fort Benning families here, so the Wounded Warrior Project got some attention here. It teaches the kids how to put someone else first.”
In both years, the two teams have jumped at the opportunity to raise proceeds for something bigger than the two schools.
“They really work hard to make as much money as possible,” Stephenson said. “It’s exciting to watch them think about things that are bigger than themselves and volleyball and for another cause outside of school.”
Coleman said the idea to raise money for Molly was planted last year, when tragedy struck the Paysinger household.
“Last year, Molly’s house was broken into, and all her money that she takes to St. Jude was stolen,” she said. “I thought ‘We’ve got to do something to help her get that money back.’ She just took a $10,000 check to St. Jude last month, and she’ll probably take close to $5,000 from us Wednesday. She has a plaque on the wall at St. Jude, she’s raised so much money for them.”
Coleman’s volleyball players immediately embraced the idea of giving back in the name of one of their own.
“They loved the idea,” Coleman said. “It means a lot since Coach Paysinger is their weight training coach and they’re around her every day. They’ve become close to her, and they want to help her and her family. It’s a Smiths Station family thing.”
Sherry Paysinger was honored when Coleman approached her with the idea of the charity for Molly this season.
“I was very surprised and very pleased,” Paysinger said. “This has just been a journey for us. I really can’t find words. It’s just unbelievable that people will dig into their pockets and support a kid. They don’t even know her, they’ve never met her. We’re competitors with Auburn, but they’ve had a spirit to do this for Molly, and I’m so grateful we have that kind of people here.
“Molly is such a different little character. If I’m around and I have my billfold with me and she sees a dollar, she says, ‘Please give me that so I can give it to St. Jude.’ She just has that spirit and is just aggressive with it. I don’t know what drives her. I can’t say she understands it because she’s only 4 years old, but it’s something that drives her.”
Even at the tender age of 4, Molly understands the impact St. Jude has had on her life and the entire Paysinger family’s lives as well.
“I can’t tell you what St. Jude has done for Molly,” Paysinger said. “They’ve treated her and charged my family nothing. They’ve given them a place to stay, they furnish them with meals to eat, they even give them travel expenses from time to time.
“Molly has in return done so much for St. Jude. She’s already collected and taken about $17,000 up there that I know of, and that’s not including the checks that have just been written because people have heard about Molly and sent a donation directly to St. Jude. She’s given back a tiny bit, but they have really been good to my family.”
Both Sherry and Molly have a special bond, more than just the typical one between a grandparent and grandchild. Both battled cancer at the same time. Sherry Paysinger overcame hers and hopes Molly has the same prognosis.
“I had ovarian cancer and had surgery, and about two weeks after my first chemo treatment, Molly was diagnosed,” Paysinger said. “We had the bald heads together and shared a little thing there. I think nobody wants to share that, but we understood each other a lot.”
Unfortunately, Molly will not be able to attend Wednesday’s event as she is still undergoing treatment.
“We really wanted her to be able to come to this, but she has about five months of treatment left, and her immune system is really compromised,” Paysinger said. “She can’t be in crowds.”