TAMPA — Thomas Schooley wasn’t sure if he was the right person to get the word out to the public when Sonya Bryson-Kirksey was hospitalized with COVID-19 pneumonia.
Bryson-Kirksey, who sings the U.S. national anthem before Lightning home games, has spent more than a week in the COVID-19 unit battling the delta variant, which poses a greater danger to her due to underlying health issues such as multiple sclerosis. Doctors say she’ll be in the hospital for at least another week and a half.
Bryson-Kirksey’s health leaves her status for returning to singing in October in question, while also preventing her from picking up other gigs this offseason. Having known Bryson-Kirksey for years, Schooley wanted to do something to help, so he created a GoFundMe account to assist the family with expenses.
Some said Schooley’s goal of $10,000 was too high. But in three days, the Tampa Bay community has surpassed that goal, which has been raised to $15,000.
“The outcry and support has always been something (great) with the Lightning community,” said Schooley, 43, of Seminole. “When we all go in on a cause, we’re really good at it. ... The Lightning fans always come together.”
Schooley runs the “Thunder Bolts” Lightning fan group on Facebook, which has over 7,400 members. He said he’s been blown away over the past week with the support for Bryson-Kirksey from the group.
“It’s always been that we’ve become a family and we always rise up,” Schooley said.
Schooley and Bryson-Kirksey have become close over the years. He sat with her for hours after she underwent left knee replacement surgery in 2018 and recently offered to provide personal security if she ever needed it.
“I said, ‘I’ll be your bodyguard, I can tell people no,’” Schooley recalled. “‘You can’t tell people no because you’re too nice, but I’ll tell people no, go away, if you don’t have a mask, don’t come near her.’”
The affection for Bryson-Kirksey in the community is why Schooley isn’t surprised to see some, such as local T-shirt apparel designer Matt Shapiro, reaching out to do more.
Since Shapiro had previously partnered with with Bryson-Kirksey on a project that helped raise awareness for multiple sclerosis, Schooley asked him to share the GoFundMe on his social media accounts. But Shapiro responded with something even better.
Already in the process of creating a Bryson-Kirksey-themed T-shirt to help raise awareness about her situation, he said he wanted all of the money raised to go toward the GoFundMe. Once it reaches its goal, any remaining money from the sales will be donated to the National Multiple Sclerosis Foundation in Bryson-Kirksey’s honor.
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“Creating this shirt was a no-brainer for me,” said Shapiro, 32, of St. Petersburg. “Sonya gives and gives and gives. If a fan wants a picture, she stops. If a fan waves, she waves back. If a fan wants to collaborate, she collaborates.
“Now it’s my chance to return the favor and assist her. I wanted a design that the ‘family’ would immediately recognize, and I want to help us reach our goal.”
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