Campus tragedy separates mom, daughter
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Photo courtesy Jesse Sykes
Donna Sykes and her daughter were inseparable from the time Jesse was born premature with cerebral palsy 19 years ago. That continued until Donna’s death on Aug. 20, when the Spring Hope resident hit her head after falling off a dormitory bunk bed in the middle of the night. Sykes, 49, was spending the night in the Kenan dormitory to help her daughter acclimate to her surroundings as a new student at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. A university spokeswoman could not provide details of the accident on Friday. “I don’t have any information. I know there was an accident in Kenan dorms,” said Karen Moon of UNC News Services. Friends and family describe a bond between Jesse and Donna that goes well beyond a typical relationship. “Donna lived for Jesse, and Jesse lived for Donna,” said Donna’s sister, Sandra Sykes-Walker. When Jesse attended Southern Nash Middle School, Donna would bring her daughter lunch at school. “Most parents definitely don’t each lunch with their child at school,” Jesse Sykes said. “They definitely don’t stay until the child gets out of school. They go on back home. But not mama.” Donna Sykes would sit in the library looking at magazines all day until class got out. “She’d bring me home so I wouldn’t have to ride the bus,” Jesse Sykes said. “That was really special.” Jesse Sykes said she had no desire to be detached from her mother like many other middle school students. “In middle school, you are in a big transition period,” she said. “Most kids are like, 'Mom, Dad, leave me alone. I don’t want to talk to you. Go do your thing. I’ll do my thing.’ But that was not us.” When Jesse Sykes attended Nash Community College in 2005, her mother, who was disabled herself, pushed her daughter around campus in a wheelchair. Donna Sykes also rolled up her daughter’s walker, even though she was on disability from a back injury she suffered while working on a turkey research farm at N.C. State University. Despite a bulging disc in her back, Donna Sykes also would tote her daughter’s bookbag around Nash Community College campus. “My bookbag weighed between 20 and 40 pounds,” Jesse Sykes said. “When it was around time to go to class, I’d say, 'Do not take the bookbag.’ Mama took the bookbag.” Donna Sykes even enrolled in courses so she could stay on campus with her daughter. “She wanted to go to school anyways,” Jesse Sykes said. On campus, Donna Sykes became an advocate for handicapped people, prodding the college to install new accessible equipment. In 2007, Donna Sykes stopped attending Nash Community College so she could help her daughter recover from surgeries at the Shriners Hospital for Crippled Children in Greenville, S.C. “I just needed so much attention,” Jesse said. Jesse said she had a special bond with her mother. “We were mother and daughter, but in actuality, we were more like a married couple,” she said. “We were together all the time. If we had a problem, we’d discuss it. We’d compromise. Sometimes she’d win. Sometimes I’d win.” Jesse Sykes said her mother’s love was exemplified this past Mother’s Day, when her mother surprised by taking her to a play she had wanted to see at the Imperial Centre for the Arts. “Kids are supposed to do something for mom (on Mother’s Day), but not mama,” she said. Her effort to pay for the play was futile. “I had my wallet out and was going to pay, and she jumped in line ahead of me,” Jesse Sykes said. When Jesse returned home, she went on her computer and printed up tickets authorizing her mother to hug and kiss her. “I did this two-column chart that said, 'This ticket authorizes two hugs a day,’” Jesse said. “I just wanted to give her something because she had done so much.” Donna Sykes had other struggles in her life, battling alcoholism, her sister Gail Moeller said. “She had been sober for I think seven years,” she said. Family members said Donna had empathy for others with the same affliction, taking them into her home when they were down on their luck. “She had that (alcohol) struggle, but she was such a determined person,” Moeller said. “I think that is where Jesse gets a lot of her inner strength from.” Paulette Griffin, Donna’s sister, said Donna realized Jesse’s academic potential after she was accepted into the competitive early college high school program. “They wanted the cream of the crop, and they got that in Jesse,” she said. Griffin said her sister realized the significance of Jesse’s move into the university dormitory, where she would begin her quest for a career in medicine. “Donna said to all of us, 'If I can get Jesse to where she belongs, there will be people who will take care of her,’” Griffin said. Local Shriners have offered to help Jesse Sykes any way they can. Fred Ayers, a member of the Rocky Mount Shrine Club who has driven her to the children’s hospital in South Carolina several times, said they offered Jesse a power chair to get around the UNC campus, but she said she was going to try applying for a scooter. “You really don’t know what to do (to help Jesse out),” he said. “You don’t want to alienate her by going overboard, but you want to do something for her. The Shriners love her to death, and she loves all the Shriners.” Ayers said he has no doubt she will be successful in college. “I’ve learned she is very smart, and she is very determined,” he said.