Last January, hundreds of mourners packed the pews of an Axton church for a candlelight vigil in memory of 20-year-old Na’Jada Chanel Joyce — such a large crowd, her relatives recalled, that they had to turn away many people.
This year, however, the family marked the first anniversary of the death of the woman they called Jada with a much smaller gathering because of coronavirus restrictions. Her parents and a few other loved ones were on hand Sunday afternoon at the Smith River Sports Complex to announce the creation of the Na’Jada C. Joyce Memorial Scholarship fund at Patrick Henry Community College.
At first, the scholarship’s organizers kept their plans to honor Jada’s life and legacy a secret from her mother, Tilphanie Joyce. Then they surprised her with the news.
“I cried, and I was speechless,” Joyce said. Above all, she added, “I’m overjoyed, because this is what Jada would have wanted.
“I’m still so proud of her. She’s still playing a major impact on people’s lives a year later.”
It was Jan. 10, 2020, that Joyce lost her only child to a murder-suicide. Jada and her boyfriend, Jalen Millner, were found with gunshot wounds inside a wrecked vehicle on Soapstone Road in Ridgeway. Investigators said Jalen shot her before turning the gun on himself.
But the family and friends Jada left behind say they want to focus on the positive impact she had on others during her short life, instead of dwelling on her tragic death.
At Sunday’s scholarship announcement, just about everyone sported shirts printed with different photos of Jada and her brilliant smile in happier times, or striking a Vogue-worthy pose.
Joyce wore a custom face mask with her daughter’s picture on it. The front of her hoodie showed Jada in her cap and gown on graduation day from Magna Vista High School in 2018.
“Not only was Jada my daughter, she was my best friend,” Joyce said. “She was an amazing person. I thank God for letting me borrow her for 20 years.”
And during those 20 years, her mother said, Jada lived a full life. She recalled “the giggles, and the attitude,” as well as her daughter’s strong work ethic — juggling a full-time job at Walmart and full-time college classes at PHCC, where she studied early childhood education. She also loved her time working with students at the Boys & Girls Clubs.
Before her death, Jada had earned a certificate at PHCC and planned to transfer to Old Dominion University to complete her bachelor’s degree in education. She wanted to teach children with disabilities, Joyce said.
Jada had a passion for helping people and especially loved working with children, said her godfather, Charles Hairston, one of the scholarship’s organizers. That’s why the Na’Jada C. Joyce Memorial Scholarship will be designated to help students in PHCC early childhood education programs.
“This is one way we can honor her memory,” Hairston said. “The plan is, based on the amount of funds we raise, we hope to give as many scholarships as we can. We’re very happy and pleased with the response.”
Assisting Hairston with the scholarship efforts are Jada’s godmother, Edna Perkins; her pastor, Rev. Keishawn Niblett of High Ridge Baptist Church in Axton; and her early childhood education teacher from Magna Vista High School, Beth Stanley Lawson.
The scholarship committee has launched a GoFundMe page (https://www.gofundme.com/f/najada-c-joyce-memorial-scholarship-fund) with a goal of raising $10,000. They’ve also created a website at https://najadacjoycescholarship.org and a Facebook page to spread the word.
Various fundraisers are in the works, including a raffle and potentially a virtual concert, Hairston said. Once enough money is raised, students will be able to apply for the $500 scholarships through the PHCC Foundation.
“We’ve been working on this for weeks,” said Lawson — or “B-Law,” as Jada called her. That nickname was emblazoned across the back of her sweatshirt on Sunday, along with photos of Jada from her four semesters in Lawson’s high school class.
“B-Law” was Jada’s “other mother,” Joyce said. The two became very close and continued to stay in touch after graduation.
Like others who knew Jada, Lawson praised her generous spirit and the way she looked out for other people.
“She would want to reach out and help children and other teenagers going through rough times and be their help, or get them the help they needed. She was a unique and dynamic young lady,” Lawson said.
“She always gave more than she had to give. She inspired me to be even better.”
Jada never got to realize her dream of becoming a teacher, but through the new scholarship in her name, her loved ones know she will continue to make a difference in the lives of future teachers.
Said Lawson, “She is living out her dream of helping others, just in a different way than we ever thought possible.”
Kim Barto Meeks is a reporter for the Martinsville Bulletin. You can reach her at 276-638-8801.