St. Jude mom walks to help cure brain cancer that claimed son’s life

Mom and organizer of the St. Jude Walk/Run team Jonah and the Whales says her son 'never wanted another family to have to walk this road.'

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  •  3 min

Dr. Vernon Rayford

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Jonah named his St. Jude Walk/Run team “Jonah and the Whales” because, as he explained it, he was Jonah and his teammates were…his whales? 

“’You’re not big or nothin’,’ he would tell me,” his mom, Lynice, said, “’but you’re my whales, my people.’” 

His whales: an entire Georgia town.

Jonah still motivates his parents and younger sister nine years after his death. He unites his Georgia community to walk on behalf of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. 

Each year, they show up at the local middle school, an assortment of family and friends – the exact number varies every year. They walk a few laps around the track and then make their way into the neighborhood and walk more. A big merry group, they wear their St. Jude shirts or the colorful “Jonah and the Whales” team shirts his family designs every few years. 

This year’s “Jonah and the Whales” shirt includes a design done by a local high school student, as well as a design Jonah created.

Jonah loved drawing pictures for anyone who needed a little lift. He would have loved this. 

He’s the one who founded Jonah and the Whales St. Jude Walk/Run team after happening upon a pamphlet for the fundraising event in the clinic near his family’s home in greater Atlanta. That was in 2011, the year his brain cancer became active again. 

He urged his mom to start a team for “my hospital.” That was what he called St. Jude because he’d been going there since 2003 when he was a toddler. 

Soon after their team started, they had a friendly competition with another team in Atlanta to see who could raise the most money.  

“We were always like, ‘Which team is going to do more? Which team is going to do more?’” And we would be picking at each other,” Lynice said. “And usually Jonah was real good about picking, too. But every once in a while, he’d say, ‘OK, you’ve got to stop picking. St. Jude is for everybody.’” 

It was an important point. 

St. Jude had saved his life once as a toddler, against all odds, and when his cancer became active again when he was 9 years old, St. Jude tried to save his life again. “St. Jude never stopped trying,” Lynice said. But his brain tumor was one of the deadliest: a diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma. 

Even now, the survival odds for this type of cancer are sadly, frustratingly low. 

“We’re America. What do you mean there’s not anything you can do? What do you mean?” was his mom’s reaction in her local hospital after they first found the cancer inside her toddler’s brain. 

St. Jude offered a treatment plan for Jonah. The family obtained a referral to St. Jude, where Jonah underwent radiation.

“And just having that hope that we had through them for them to take us and give us a chance…,” Lynice said. Then her voice trailed off.

That treatment meant 10 more years with Jonah, who was 11 when he passed away on Aug. 9, 2013.

“People give money to a lot of different fundraisers where you really don’t know where a lot of the money is going for,” Lynice said. “But we can tell people what it’s going for. This is where this dollar goes. This is how they help the families.”

Down through the years, team Jonah and the Whales has raised more than $60,000 for St. Jude.

If you’re trying to liken Jonah’s story to that of the Biblical Jonah, as Lynice sometimes does, here’s how you might understand it:

Jonah as a toddler was swallowed by the whale. The brain cancer. It should have killed him right away but didn’t.

“You get swallowed by a fish, you should be dead, you know what I mean?” said Lynice.

His parents believe the grace of God saved him, and that grace was St. Jude. St. Jude kept him alive within the whale and filled them – for 10 years – with peace and hope.

When the whale released Jonah onto the ground, well, it sounds kind of funny unless you have Christian faith, but that was his entry into paradise.

They would have liked a whole lifetime with Jonah.

“We’re walking for those parents that are having to walk on that path with their children,” Lynice said. “We’re just trying to do our part and hope that one day there’s a cure that’s found for this.”

This it the first story in the series, Why I Walk Wednesdays, which appear throughout September promoting the St. Jude Walk/Run. Join a team today.

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