By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on January 15, 2012 1:50 AM
More than 100 Wayne County residents converged on Herman Park Saturday afternoon to hold a vigil for Jake May, an Eastern Wayne High School baseball player who was diagnosed with leukemia Jan. 6.
Jake May, from a Facebook page set up in his honor to connect well-wishers and to offer him and his family support as they battle cancer.
Jenna May, left, Jake's cousin, wipes tears from her eyes as she, Jake's grandmother, Mary Lou, and aunt, Donna, wait for the vigil to begin. The Mays said they have been to Duke to visit Jake and that, although he has "his moments," he has been in fairly good spirits since being diagnosed with cancer -- thanks, in large part, to the friends, family members and perfect strangers who have rallied behind him.
Nolan James signs a card for Jake Thursday evening at Eastern Wayne. The card, and hundreds of dollars that were collected that night, were driven to Duke Hospital Friday and given to the young man and his parents.
Her head bowed and eyes closed, Mary Lou May spent several moments in quiet reflection -- calling on a higher power to heal her grandson, Jake.
But when one of the hundred-plus people who came together at Herman Park Saturday afternoon began imploring God to hear their prayers -- to reverse the young man's fortune and bring him back to the community rattled by a cancer diagnosis just a week ago -- the woman opened her eyes to allow the tears forming in them to fall freely.
She still couldn't believe that Jake's story had reached so many people in so little time -- that thousands of dollars had already been raised to help his family offset the financial burden that comes with a leukemia fight; that people who had never met him were drawing inspiration from a story they stumbled upon on the Internet.
She never knew just how much he was loved by his peers -- that they admired him as much for his poise on the baseball field as they did for the person he is.
"I'm just overwhelmed," Mrs. May said, looking across the park at the massive prayer circle that was forming. "All I can say is, 'Thank God.'"
Eight days earlier, Jake was a typical teenager -- a high school senior focused, mainly, on the upcoming baseball season.
But when a doctor revealed that the virus he thought he was battling was, in fact, acute lymphoblastic leukemia -- and news of the diagnosis began spreading across Wayne County -- he became something far bigger than just another young man.
He turned into a cause his friends and community would rally behind on a Facebook page that has already seen more than 2,400 visitors and in the T-shirt and decal sales that have generated hundreds of dollars for his family.
He became "proof" of the healing power of faith when tests showed he had no cancer in his spinal fluid and his MRI came back clear.
And for the Eastern Wayne High School baseball team, their ailing catcher had been transformed into their motivation to live up to the many mantras Jake called out before they took to the field in seasons past -- phrases like "Never give up, "Be strong" and "Stick together."
"That's why, when something like this happens, everybody wants to be there for him," said Wes Stewart, a friend and teammate who has already made a trip to Duke Hospital. "He's the one that's always there for us."
Mary Lou said the support of so many people -- particularly, his baseball family -- has made a difference for Jake -- that he and his parents are in awe of just how much the community has rallied behind him.
"He has his moments, but his ball team came to see him, and I think that really lifted his spirits," she said. "It's just phenomenal how much people love him."
They showed it Saturday when they spent the better part of an hour holding hands, sharing stories and comforting one another.
But the scene at Herman Park was not the first of its kind to unfold this week.
Dozens of people utilized a classroom at Eastern Wayne Thursday evening to raise money for the May family -- and to pray moments after they took each other's hands.
And after Wes, on their behalf, asked God to "let Jake know that we're here for him," the head coach of their baseball team talked about his own trip to Duke.
Jabo Fulghum told them that he had seen their friend and spoken with his parents -- that they were "thankful for everybody, for all the support."
And then he asked his players to provide for Jake what he has given them from his spot behind the plate so many times.
"Right now, he needs our strength," Fulghum said. "Jake's about to play the biggest game he's ever played ... and he's gonna need his teammates."
Ryan Mitchell vowed to be there for his friend as long as his battle continues.
"He just a good kid," the 18-year-old said. "He picks you up when you're down."
And Nolan James said the team was already planning to honor their catcher this season with a patch on their uniform and orange cleats to raise awareness about his disease.
"And it would be great if we could throw him a championship ring or trophy," the 17-year-old said.
Wes nodded his head.
"But even if we don't, as long as we work hard, I think he'll be happy," he said. "That's just the kind of guy he is."
Somewhere inside Duke Hospital, Jake keeps fighting.
And with every milestone he meets -- from the clear spinal tap and MRI that prompted thousands to celebrate to the young man's completion of his first round of chemotherapy -- the community he hails from is left more awestruck by his strength in the face of such tremendous adversity.
But they are equally as overwhelmed by what they are witnessing in their own back yard -- how a county has come together in a matter of days for someone many of them have never met.
"I had no idea it would get this big," said Erin Falcone, the 18-year-old who created the 'Pray for the May' Facebook page. "It really blows my mind."