Memory of girl, 4, binds New Kensington-Arnold community
Looking around the pavilion area at New Kensington's Memorial Park on a beautiful Saturday afternoon, Toni Vaughn-Clemons smiled.
About 250 people congregated, talking, taking photos with cellphones and lining up for a covered-dish lunch as pink, white, purple, gray and blue balloons floated lightly above the ground pursued by young children. More balloons bobbed in the soft breeze among the tree branches overhead.
About 10 minutes earlier, scores of balloons were released by the crowd — a tribute to the memory of Vaughn-Clemons' 4-year-old granddaughter, Maiyanna Clemons McCarthy, who died April 16. She was diagnosed about a year ago with diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma (DIPG), a rare cancer that affects the brain stem.
“This meant everything to me,” Vaughn-Clemons said. “It was a reflection of Maiyanna. She would have loved this.”
Mycah Clemons, 28, of Penn Hills, Maiyanna's mother, and Mycah's brother, Toney Clemons, both well-known former Valley High School athletes, said the point of the gathering was to celebrate Maiyanna's short life and indomitable spirit in the face of a horrific disease.
Mycah Clemons spoke to the crowd and thanked her family, friends and the New Kensington-Arnold community for supporting her and Maiyanna. She also thanked people worldwide who became captivated by Maiyanna and her struggle through Facebook and the Internet. Clemons said people in Australia, Switzerland and Canada participated in the balloon release.
Acknowledging the long odds her daughter faced, Mycah Clemons said, “Her journey could not have been better, so I want everyone to have a blessed celebration today.”
Maiyanna's mother and grandmother said that the child would not take medication for pain because she did not like it. That did not change even though Mycah Clemons could tell at times the DIPG made her daughter “uncomfortable.”
Toney Clemons, who played college football at Michigan and Colorado and this year will play for the NFL's Carolina Panthers, referred to that when he was asked what he wanted people to know and remember about his niece.
“That she was probably the toughest person on the planet,” he replied. “She never cried, she never complained. She just wanted everyone to be happy.”
Lindsey Drnjevich of New Kensington, whose daughter Anteique, 5, was Maiyanna's best friend, said: “She inspired everybody. She would change your life the minute you'd meet her. She brought so many people together who didn't even know what DIPG was.”
Raising awareness of the disease, helping to find a way to diagnose it early and aiding other families who are dealing with it are the goals of the foundation created in Maiyanna's memory, according to the Clemons family. Vaughn-Clemons said it already has provided funds to help the family of another victim with funeral expenses for their child.
Toney Clemons said Maiyanna's family and friends likely will hold at least two annual fundraising events for the foundation named Maiy's Miracle — one on Dec. 11, her birthday, and another probably to mark her death.
“We celebrated her for four years, and we'll celebrate her for years to come,” he said.
Meanwhile, Mycah Clemons said she is relying on her faith and memories of Maiya to sustain her.
“I have hope. I have faith,” she said. “I know I'll see her again.”
Tom Yerace is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-226-4675 or firstname.lastname@example.org.