Richmond Times-Dispatch Weekend
Cancer sidelined student, but she thanks school for support
‘I felt empty in a part of my heart,’ but return has ‘filled that heart up’
Kayla Johnson-Brakett felt an emptiness in her heart when she had to leave Henry D. Ward Elementary in Henrico County this school year after a cancer diagnosis. Her school days were replaced with chemotherapy, doctor appointments, and virtual learning.
On Friday afternoon, her heart was full. Kayla went back to the school for the first time all year to thank her teachers and school staff for their support.
“I feel really grateful that I’m actually able to come here and see them [my teachers] and give them hugs,” Kayla said. “I felt empty in a part of my heart and then coming back here filled that heart up.”
In the fall of 2020,
Kayla, 11, was diagnosed with large B-cell lymphoma. By December, she
entered into remission.
Despite not having stepped a foot inside Henry Ward for her fifthgrade year, Kayla has kept in touch with her current and past teachers and school staff. A set of Henry Ward teachers and school staff visited Kayla, wrote notes, and called her to check in and support her until she got better.
Her teachers brought her hand sanitizer, perfume, and Chapstick, and Kayla said with a smile, her favorite candy, Snickers, and other chocolate. In a rainbow pouch that says “Positive Vibes,” another gift from her teachers, Kayla puts her candy, to protect it from any sticky fingers.
Kayla’s grandfather, Richmond fire Capt. Greg Johnson, wanted to return the kindness Henry Ward teachers had extended to his granddaughter.
The 16 teachers had put together wish lists of their favorite things such as candy, snacks and drinks — not knowing why. Johnson took the wish lists and gave gift bags to the teachers on Friday as well as a plaque with their names on it and a phrase: “My life is so blessed with some of the most amazing people/Thank you for being part of my journey.”
“I want the world to know what you all did,” Johnson said. “And on Sundays, we get that call from the principal [Tiffany Chatman] talking about Henry D. Ward Elementary School. It is truly a family and we are so blessed to have been part of your family.”
As the teachers walked outside to the surprise Friday, Kayla raced up to embrace Sherrie Chase, the school’s family advocate. The two hugged and couldn’t stop smiling.
Before the pandemic, each day Kayla came to school, she received a morning hug from Chase. It was their routine until it wasn’t any longer.
“I’m beyond happy. I can’t even put a measure on it,” Chase said. “You know how you’re just so happy and you just float the rest of the day?”
Erin Ewing, Kayla’s fifth-grade teacher, walked Kayla all around the school, starting off with her classroom. Kayla, who has seen the classroom only through a computer screen, remarked on the window behind Ewing’s desk. Kayla likes the view.
“It really feels great to be back in this school because it brings back so many memories,” Kayla said — memories of being dropped off each morning by her grandmother and at the end of the day getting on the bus and chatting with all her friends.
Ewing remembered going to visit Kayla and how, while it lifted Kayla’s spirits, it also lifted all of the teachers’. Kayla told them funny stories and made jokes.
“She’s just the most positive person I’ve ever met,” Ewing said. “I’m really fortunate to be her teacher this year.”