Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Belated Party: Happy Birthday, Jai-Jai!

"She touched a lot of people.. she loved being around people."

"Her spirit lives in the people whose lives she was in."

On a cool January day in 2012, Jaleisa Dulaney's friends and family got together to celebrate her 8th birthday. Wishing her "happy birthday" was a ritual every year, because the feisty Jackson School second grader loved parties and getting together with people in the Riverview community.

But this year was different.

This time, "Jai-Jai" as she was known, would not hear the "happy birthday" wishes from her friends.. she would not beam at the presents she received.. she would not taste the birthday cake with her name on it.

Jaleisa would not be here for her 8th birthday.

She celebrated this particular birthday with Jesus.

"Jai-Jai" was tragically taken from her friends and family, in a rollover automobile accident on I-26 on July 14, 2011 near the Meadowview complex south of Kingsport.

Because she was so active as a member of the New Vision Youth Kids, her passing sent waves of shock and grief through the Riverview Community.

"I can talk about it now," says her grandmother Mary Beatty. "I can talk about it now because I know where she is.. she's with the Lord. At times when I think about it, I feel sad, but because she had the ability to make you smile, I try to think about that more. Even when she did something bad and I was angry with her, I would think about something she did earlier and that would make me laugh. How could you scold her when you were laughing? She even had this funny way of laughing, that would make you laugh right along with her."

"Soon, I would forget what I was angry about."

Mary was one of many Riverview residents, who attended a special birthday party held in Jaleisa's honor at the Riverview Community Room of K.H.R.A. at the V.O. Dobbins, Sr. Complex on Saturday, January 21, 2012.

Click here to see a slide show of Jaleisa's 8th birthday party celebration. Thanks to Donna Morrisette for providing pictures of the party.

"It was hard singing 'happy birthday' and her not being there," Mary says, "but it was O.K. because I knew everybody there knew who she was and loved her."

"Everybody has their own memory of 'Jai-Jai.'"

One person considered a special friend was Michael Bell. Michael and Jaleisa were inseparable as friends in New Vision, and no where was that proven more, than at the New Vision proms that Johnnie Mae Swagerty holds every year for the children. Music, food, games, and other activities kept the kids busy.

And then, there was the dancing. For the past 3 years, Jaleisa's date has been Michael.. twirling, swinging, dipping.. they did it all.

We're told, he was devastated by her passing.

"She was the only one he ever wanted to take to the prom," remembers Mary. "He told his mama that he didn't know if he wanted to go to any more proms, because he and his brother miss her very much. They all used to play games together and it's been hard on him. She loved to dance with him, there's no secret about that, and she also loved 'Dancing with the Stars.' In fact, she always wanted to ballroom dance, and one year, I was going to sign her up for ballroom dancing. I actually went to sign her up for it, but I couldn't find the shoes that she needed, so we didn't get to sign up. We still planned to go for it, though."

At her birthday party, friends and family also lit candles in her honor.

"We had four candles," says New Vision Youth director Johnnie Mae Swagerty. "A birthday candle for Jaleisa, and a family candle for her loved ones. Then, we had a candle for her cousin Jalissa Ferguson (who died at the hands of a drug dealer and his stray bullet in the Riverview Apartments in 1995), and a fourth candle for the community."

Swagerty says the candlelight vigil was a moving service.

"No one spoke much during the lighting of the candles," she says, "because words just would not come. The service was very uplifting and afterwards at the party inside the Community Room, Reverend (Ricardo) Dorcean (of the Central Baptist Church) led a prayer, and everyone got to share stories, talking about the good times when she was here. In addition to the birthday cake, we had turkey and dressing, green beans, broccoli casserole, macaroni and cheese, and the local Bojangles Restaurants donated chicken and biscuits. The food was good and everybody had a good time remembering her."

The event ended with the releasing of big, purple balloons into the night air, emblazoned with the words "happy birthday," floating into the sky towards the heavens.

"It was a healing time for the community," Swagerty noted. "For the young people there, her friends, they were kinda happy about the event because it was her birthday and they knoew that if she would have been here, she would have enjoyed it. It took a load off the community's mind about the tragedy of how she left us. A lot of prayers went up and a whole lot of hugs went around that night."

"We'll never forget her, but for that night, closure came a little easier."

That thought is not lost on Grandma.

"I pray for strength every single day," Mary says. "It hits me that she's not here especially in the mornings.. that's when I would take her to the Boys & Girls Club. Then, in the late afternoons whenever I would come home from work, my TV would be on all the time. I knew she was O.K. because the TV would be home. Now when I come home, the TV is not on. It's hard because I look around for her.. I wait to hear her voice, but the air is still. I just ask God for strength, and he comes through with it every time."

"There's just so much about her that you cannot forget," says Mary. "Her smile, her trying to rap.. she enjoyed rapping.. her love of dancing, her curiosity.. she loved to ask questions. She always wanted to know about everything. When she found out what happened to her cousin Jalissa Ferguson, she had so many questions about her.. what happened, how did she get there.. would she ever get to see her? Jai-Jai was curious about everything and she asked about her cousin Jalissa even the week she passed away."

"She doesn't have to ask that question now. She finally got to see her, and Jesus Himself introduced them."

"Happy birthday, Jai-Jai. The two girls are finally together."