LAKE WYLIE — Kayla Melendez made it home for Thanksgiving with a day to spare. Despite, perhaps, fewer reasons than most, the family did find cause to celebrate.
“Lake Wylie people have been really helpful,” said Lucia, Kayla’s mom.
Kayla is 7. Last week she returned two days, three hours at a time, to Clover’s Crowders Creek Elementary School, where she’s in first grade. Kayla hasn’t been to school lately, having made many trips to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis. That’s where doctors perform an experimental treatment on the brain cancer a scan found in October. The best result yet from that treatment is a three-year window, which itself is rare.
“The worst day,” Lucia said of the initial diagnosis. “Since then, it’s like every day.”
Kayla is a hometown girl, her family moving here from Charlotte in 2003 and from California before that. Kayla hadn’t shown symptoms when mom took her for a routine check-up this fall. The doctor asked Kayla to walk a straight line. She couldn’t.
“They thought she needed glasses,” Lucia said.
She’s taken several trips to St. Jude since. She left for one Monday. In her time home she’s been the honored guest at a princess party and has been cheered with banners and cards at school. Thursday night she met with Make-A-Wish Foundation folks to see what she’d like.
A few hours before they arrived she was thinking the Bahamas, though she’s been known to waffle on the issue.
But Kayla doesn’t hesitate to name what she’s missed most while in Tennessee.
“My brothers,” she said.
Daniel, 12, is working through his sister’s diagnosis while Jacob, 1, keeps her laughing. Doctors advised against bringing siblings to the hospital, to help keep their spirits high. Now they’re all together. During the upcoming school break, the house will be full in a way it hasn’t the past few months, which isn’t to say all will be as it once was.
“They used to fight all the time,” Lucia said. “Now they don’t fight anymore.”
An honor student, Daniel recently opened a Facebook account without asking his parents. He wanted to check the Cure For Kayla page.
Stephanie Haynes is a neighbor whose son was in Kayla’s class last year. Haynes began setting up donation spots at local businesses in October and set up a bank account for people to donate to the family. She was rained out of one Saturday attempt to rally funds outside a local store, but rescheduled.
“It’s amazing to see how so many people who have never met her are sending packages and cards to help her,” Haynes said.
The Cure For Kayla page on Facebook has nearly 400 members. Groups are donating to the family. The Pizza Man & Games in Clover is holding a night for Kayla tonight. A biker group in Monroe, N.C., offered a $500 Christmas Eve shopping spree at a Walmart. Make-A-Wish will pay for Lucia and Kayla’s trip. The biker group will pay so dad Alavaro can go, too.
Christine Goodell has a fourth-grader at Kayla’s school. Goodellheard about the situation last week and quickly went into action. She set a goal to raise $5,000 in community support.
“Forty-eight hours ago I started and I’ve almost raised $5,000,” she said Thursday morning. “Now, I’m going to raise $10,000.”
Friends of the family say they can’t imagine the situation facing them, but want to help however they can.
“It’s a hard-working, good family,” Goodell said. “I can’t imagine what they’re going through right now.”
Home for the holidays
Kayla is braver than many. Swimming with dolphins on the Make-A-Wish trip doesn’t scare her one bit. Kayla is more giving than many. Her goal for that shopping spree is to get gifts for brothers and cousins.
She’s also committed. She’s in physical therapy often. Her dominant left hand isn’t working well, so she spent the night before returning to school practicing penmanship with her right. Kayla enjoyed all the attention she received from her medical ordeal at first, but now not so much.
A family of Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Melendezes don’t celebrate Christmas the way many do. But there’s no bad time for a gift, Lucia said. Whether it’s an online chat with a friend back home eating a Pop Tart, or actually having the whole family back home together or so many other presents offered by the community.
For now, the present is all the family has.