Things got a little hairy at The Ridge last month.
More than 30 members of the Columbus United Methodist congregation tossed their trimmers and pitched their razors to raise money and awareness for Jaya Bryson, a 13-year-old who was recently diagnosed with bone cancer.
The Ridge congregation became acquainted with the Fort Middle School eighth grader earlier this year when church members painted her family’s house and cleaned their yard during the church’s small-group service project event.
Jaya connected with youth members, formed friendships, and attended several youth events.
She hurt her knee during a basketball game in August, and in September was diagnosed with Stage 1 osteosarcoma.
Jaya’s family has had its share of struggles. Her mother, Tammy Bryson, is a single mom who has overcome homelessness and is working her way out of poverty. The necessary and frequent trips from Columbus to Atlanta for Jaya’s treatment at Children's Healthcare of Atlanta at Egleston are difficult to make because Bryson doesn’t own a car and has to rent one or rely on public transportation or taxis.
“She (Bryson) isn’t able to work full time right now, and we realized that they needed financial assistance,” said Rev. Jimmy McIlrath, The Ridge’s senior pastor.
When Jaya’s friends at The Ridge learned of her diagnosis they decided to do something to help.
“We thought maybe we could help pay for some comfort items for Jaya while she’s going through this, some things to help her in the hospital and also to help pay for the travel expenses of going back and forth to Atlanta,” Rev. McIlrath said.
Having heard of other No-Shave November cancer fundraisers, they decided to launch their own.
For 30 days, 32 church members – 28 men and four women – stopped shaving. They asked family, friends, co-workers and others to contribute to the cause.
On Sunday, Dec. 1, the scruffy contestants stood in front of the congregation and bared their bushy beards – and legs – to solicit donations. Prizes were given to the person who raised the most money and for the “Best Beard.”
Rick St. John’s beard was dubbed “the best,” but being able to help Jaya was more meaningful to him than any prize.
“Every year our family tries to do something for a family in need, so we thought this would be a good idea for our project this Christmas,” he said. “It was a great experience, but all I had to do was grow a beard and raise some money.”
After committing to be a part of No-Shave November, Rev. McIlrath used a razor for the first time in years.
“I have had a beard for about 15 years, so I had to shave it off to begin the process, which takes 20 years off my life – I looked like a little kid again,” he said. “It was more difficult for me to take the beard off than to grow it, so I’m glad it’s back now!”
The congregation was generous in their giving, donating more than $7,000.
“I continue to be overwhelmed at how generous this congregation is,” Rev. McIlrath said. “They go above and beyond. When this church gets behind something, their outpouring of love and generosity always amazes me.”
Rev. McIlrath and other church leaders are prayerfully considering how to be most faithful with the funds that were provided. Their plans include making over Jaya’s bedroom and helping with travel expenses.
This level of generosity is not unusual for The Ridge, Rev. McIlrath said. The congregation enjoys spending time together, having fun and serving others.
“This had the excitement of not only supporting a great cause, but allowing our congregation to have a little fun while doing it,” he said. “They love God and love others, and that’s what our focus is.”