Imagine for a minute that just like any other day of your life, you wake up and get ready to go to school. You are 14 years old.
Clothes are on, breakfast eaten, backpack is packed. The clock is ticking. You’re going to be late. Your mother is taking forever.
What is taking her so long?
Suddenly, your stepfather tells you she’s not waking up. A bit panicked, you storm into her bedroom and find her unconscious. You dial 9-1-1 and the emergency responders arrive. After reviving your mother, they wheel her away, but not before she tells you “don’t miss school because of this.”
You don’t know it yet, but in two very short months, after a lymphoma diagnosis, sleepless nights and a number of surgeries, your mother is dead.
Your best friend is gone.
What do you do?
Aragon’s Chanel Joyce is a warrior — a Don by name, yes, but a warrior at heart. On Wednesday, surrounded by 60 of her closest supporters, the senior signed on the dotted line, accepting a volleyball scholarship to play for the Golden Eagles at Southern Mississippi University.
Stories of athletes signing on the dotted line to play at the next level aren’t unique. But Joyce certainly is. And everyone in Aragon’s old gymnasium who came out to celebrate her personal milestone knows that.
There was cake, lots of black and gold, laughter, pictures and a very important speech when Joyce told those who knew her closest that the blood, sweats and tears from the last three years of her life were dedicated to God and most importantly, her mother.
Yes, the one she found unconscious that one November morning. The one that died of cancer Dec. 20, 2009. The same one she never really got a chance to say goodbye.
The joy in the gymnasium was a far cry from the sadness in the hospital room where she lied next to her comatose mother, Brandy, who died with her daughter lying next to her just three short years before — when the thought of even picking up a volleyball was asinine.
“It was so surreal,” Joyce said, recalling her mother’s death. “It’s like I didn’t think it could happen. Like, my best friend, my mom just passed away.”
Joyce said her mother had been sick for a couple of years before doctors discovered several tumors in her brain — by that time, her mom had more sick days than healthy ones. And Joyce said her disbelief was rooted in the hope and positive prognosis her mother’s doctors gave her and her family.
Now motherless, Joyce became a recluse, bitter at the entire world. Her first year at Aragon came and went with the teen struggling to make sense of life’s most horrific tragedy.
The one thing that kept her going was the drive to fulfill one of her mother’s last wishes: Brandy wanted Chanel to play volleyball. So in the fall of 2011, Joyce put on the black and red for the Dons, and once again, her entire life changed.
“I started to play volleyball to get my anger out,” Joyce said. “That’s what she (her mother) wanted me to play. I didn’t even want to play volleyball. My mom wanted me to play.”
Once Joyce stepped on the volleyball court, there was no denying her unbelievable athleticism. At 5-9, the sophomore had the leaping ability to hit over much higher blocks. And her ability to defend was uncanny for a girl her size.
“She’s definitely the most athletic kid to come out of this area in some time,” said Kelsey Stiles, Aragon’s assistant and Joyce’s club head coach.
Ah yes, coach Stiles. It’s about here that we reach a very important part of Joyce’s triumphant story. While she decided to join the volleyball team, there was still something distant about Joyce as the season unfolded. And it wasn’t until a random conversation that occurred during the Dons’ first game of the season that Joyce took a step toward healing.
Stiles recalls: “One day, she just kind of looks at me. We were on the bench … and she’s sitting next to me, and she says, ‘Do you want hear something really sad?’ And this is the first time she’d actually talked to me, as opposed to me coaching her, and I said, ‘Sure, we’re in the middle of a game, but whatever.’”
Joyce went on to tell Stiles of a pending trip to Chico to mourn the death of her grandfather.
“She said, ‘Can you imagine losing your daughter and your husband in the same year?’”
Joyce was talking about her grandmother, who lost both within the same year.
The randomness of the conversation aside, the choice to confide in Stiles was step one for Joyce’s journey. She said she didn’t know exactly what led her to do so, but sometimes there are higher powers involved that can’t be explained.
The two grew close and became sister-like. Stiles took Joyce under her wing and brought her to play for the 650 Xtreme club team where she honed Joyce raw athletic ability.
But little did Stiles know just how much of an influence Joyce would become on her life.
Less than a year after that conversation on the Aragon bench, Stiles’ father was diagnosed with cancer. Three months after that, he too died. And one of Stiles’ pillars of hope was the young girl from San Mateo who knew exactly what Stiles, at 24 years old, was going through.
“I felt like she was a role model,” Joyce said, “someone I could look up to. When my mom died, she was there for me. So I felt that when her dad passed away, I needed to be there for her. I needed to be mature, stand up and I told Kelsey, ‘I’m here for you.’”
And so, in helping Stiles and her family navigate through the hardship of loss, Joyce turned the corner in her own recovery. Her extended family grew through Stiles and her church. Joyce found a restored faith in God. And through hours in the gym, Joyce became one of the Peninsula Athletic League’s most complete player — garnering the attention of a handful of volleyball programs.
“When my mom died, it just made me mature,” Joyce said. “It showed me life is a whole different picture. Watching my mom, she was a single parent, so she had to mature fast. So that showed me that the hard times, they help you evolve as a person. I had to do it to help myself. My mom would want me to do that.”
And her mom stressed the importance of education — by signing on to play at Southern Miss, Joyce fulfills another one of her mom’s wishes.
“I think that kid she is so resilient, it literally motivates me every day,” Stiles said, additionally stressing the importance of Joyce’s guardian, Barbara Orge. “The things she’s been able to overcome, I mean, she’s a handful, I’ll tell you that. But, to go through everything she’s been through — since 14, she’s been struggling, and to see where she is now and if she can handle that, she can overcome that, ‘Why can’t I do this, this and this?’”
“Anything is possible,” Joyce said. “I know that now. My mother passed away when I was 14 and I refuse to go anywhere but up.”
And a steady climb through the NCAA’s Division I isn’t hard to imagine for someone with a warrior spirit like Joyce’s.