Many people in the Tampa Bay area know the name Sonya Bryson-Kirksey as a retired U.S. Air Force Technical Sergeant who sings emotional renditions of the national anthem at Tampa Bay Lightning home games. But behind those words and the passion she has for her country is a 49-year-old wife and mother with a love for her family, the Tampa Bay community and helping others.
These things have driven her to establish a new foundation, Voices of Hope, which launched this past Veterans Day. She’s created the foundation to help those in the community suffering from Multiple Sclerosis — an unpredictable disease of the central nervous system that often has disabling effects on those who suffer from it.
Bryson was diagnosed with the disease in August 2015, just one month before her retirement from the Air Force after 20 years of service. The idea for the foundation came after attending MS support groups and speaking with people in the community who were affected by the disease and learning about the challenges many faced on a day-to-day basis.
“I’d hear these stories…people buying their medications as opposed to paying their utility bill…the money they had did not stretch far enough. It went to the core of my heart,” Bryson said.
Bryson has health insurance through the military, but not all medications are covered and she has faced the economic hardships that come with obtaining what she needs to help control the disease. She’s been blessed to receive assistance from her loving family at times, but knows that not everyone is as fortunate.
“It’s a very real thing and I have gone through that particular point myself,” Bryson explained, speaking about the financial challenges those with MS can be faced with.
Besides fundraising and awareness-related work, she plans to have the foundation utilize the resources of the community to provide hands-on assistance to those suffering from the disease — from paying an electrical bill or mowing a lawn to driving someone to a doctor’s appointment.
She also hopes to gather MS counselors within the community to help guide people through the different options of care available to them and ensure people are receiving the medications they need, especially if medication costs become an issue.
Bryson’s MS is currently under control through the care of her doctors and use of proper medications, but the unpredictability of the disease requires constant monitoring. Progressive forms can result in an otherwise healthy individual becoming wheelchair bound in a matter of months — making what were once simple tasks such as household chores and errands a challenge or nearly impossible.
A Positive Attitude and Love of Life
Despite the potential severity of her disease, Bryson maintains a positive attitude and a love for life each day — qualities she’s had since childhood as the oldest of two daughters growing up in Greenville, SC. She’s thankful for parents who helped push her and her sister, who served 13 years in the Army, to be the best people they could be in all that they do.
“I grew up in a family where my mom and dad were very ‘can-do’ people…I’ve heard that all my life,” Bryson said. Today, she has grown children and a new granddaughter whom she loves to spend time with. “I know I have to do what I can to stay healthy, so I can be there for my family.”
Bryson also feels compelled to help those in Tampa Bay and this drives her each day. “In the community, the people are depending on me to be there for them vocally. I just want to be there for them in one more way,” Bryson said, looking at the good she can do for other people rather than focusing solely on her own diagnosis.
Finding Her Voice
If you’ve heard Bryson sing The Star-Spangled Banner, whether at a Lightning home game or at one of the hundreds of military ceremonies or other events, you’ve been struck by the undeniable passion in her delivery. She’s sung it to crowds of all sizes more than 1,000 times, but even Bryson had humble beginnings as she found her voice.
Her first audience was a group of dolls in her crib as a baby in South Carolina — a modest start to what has now become audiences of nearly 20,000 hockey fans at Amalie Arena on any given night.
“That’s what my mother says,” Bryson explained, as she laughed about her first impromptu performances. “I was too young to verify that myself, but that’s what she says.”
Bryson grew up as a member of the choir at Mount Emmanuel Baptist Church. For the Easter service each year, she often chose to sing a song for the congregation over memorizing a speech or reciting a poem. At Woodmont High School in Piedmont, SC, she was active as a hurdler and cheerleader, but being a member of the school’s choir had the biggest effect on her during those formative years.
“Chorus was the thing that kind of tied everything together,” Bryson said, reflecting on her time in school. “We had an awesome choral teacher, Mr. Tom Taylor. He taught us true singing.”
Until 2003, however, the bulk of Bryson’s singing took place in the privacy of her own home.
In fact, her first public performance of the national anthem wouldn’t come until 2003, when she was at an Air Force recruiter conference and the scheduled singer was unavailable to perform just before the event began.
“They were going through the audience frantically trying to find out if someone could sing the anthem for the conference, so I was like ‘OK, I’ll do it,'” Bryson explained before giving her performance an honest self-assessment. “It went out pretty good…it wasn’t a great rendition (laughing)…but for a spur of the moment, it came out pretty good.”
The members of the Air Force in attendance must have enjoyed it. Over the next eight years, she was chosen to sing the anthem hundreds of times at retirements, promotions and other ceremonies. Her military career took her from Oklahoma City, OK, in 2003, to Tucson, AZ, where she sang the anthem for the Arizona Diamondbacks’ minor league affiliate. While in Arizona, she also competed in her first singing competition, taking second place. After an unaccompanied tour to South Korea — which took her away from her kids and other family for one year — she settled in Tampa at MacDill Air Force Base in 2011.
Love for Her Community
Bryson’s connection to the people of Tampa and the surrounding community began when she arrived at MacDill AFB and has developed through her involvement with the Lightning. Today, she thinks of people in the area as part of her family and it’s what made establishing Voices of Hope such a natural thing for her to want to do for others.
“I would go out and do volunteer activities (as a member of MacDill AFB)…just seeing how people are more appreciative of you being there,” Bryson said. “This town is a hockey town, but it’s also a military town. They take their freedoms to heart and love every bit of whoever contributes to that.”
Bryson’s connection to the Lightning organization becomes all the more meaningful when you learn how it all began for her.
She sang the national anthem for the Tampa Bay Rays at Tropicana Field as part of Military Appreciation Night in 2013. Just a few weeks later, she was sitting in a suite at a Tampa Bay Buccaneers game for a USO benefit and met the Lightning’s Vice President of Game Presentation, John Franzone. Bryson’s Command Chief at MacDill AFB, also in the suite, raved to Franzone about Bryson’s rendition of the national anthem and Franzone invited her to tryout at Amalie Arena.
“I expected there to be four or five people trying out to sing, but it was just me, John and Krystof Srebakowski (the organist),” Bryson said, laughing as she reflected back on her tryout. She had just finished her audition when Franzone asked her if she could sing at a Lightning game that Saturday.
Since December 2013, she’s sung the national anthem at Lightning games numerous times, and has had the unique experience of singing it to the military and civilian audiences — both are special opportunities, but unique in their own respect.
“Military is quiet protocol, so once the anthem is done it’s very quiet because people are standing at attention,” Bryson explained. “Going from military protocol to doing the anthem in an arena filled with fans that love America, that love the military and who are excited until the end, it’s amazing,” Bryson said. “I get to hear that love every time I step up to that mic.”
Bryson sang every national anthem for Lightning home games in the team’s run to the 2015 Stanley Cup Final, but the most memorable anthem of her career came during Game 7 of the first round when they were playing the Detroit Red Wings. While the Lightning were on the road, she developed bronchitis and was concerned about being able to perform before the big game.
“I had practiced and the high note was not existent,” Bryson said, laughing as she reflected on it. “During that particular anthem…I put the mic out to the crowd (at the highest notes, during parts of the “rockets’ red glare” and “land of the free” verses) and the crowd sang it. That sticks with me…they sang hard, loud and proud…and they were rallying behind me just as much as they were behind the team that night.”
It’s something Bryson says she will never forget and another example of what makes her feel like she is part of a bigger Lightning family in the Tampa Bay community.
A Call to Action
Bryson’s military experience has taught her the strength people have when they come together for a common cause. She envisions using her voice to bring together members from across the Tampa Bay community — from doctors, MS counselors, volunteers and others — to help assist people with MS, while also raising awareness about a very serious disease.
“On our website on the Contact tab, you can email us and let us know who you are if you want to help out or know someone with MS that has a need,” Bryson explained. “The main thing is to have that cadre of people who are willing to do.”
Bryson is currently in the process of determining who in the community is suffering from MS and needs assistance, but gathering the contact information of those who are ready to help others is important.
“Once we have the email list (together), we will send out a call to action,” Bryson said. This will include opportunities for volunteers to participate in smaller efforts like rides to a doctor’s appointment or large scale projects such as fundraisers.
She’s also hoping the foundation receives the assistance of some well-known people nationwide who are battling the disease.
“We are hoping to get in touch with some of the people in the public eye…Jamie-Lynn Sigler, Ann Romney, Neil Cavuto…to see if they will come to Tampa to do some things with us.”
Bryson also wants to connect with the Carolina Hurricanes and forward Bryan Bickell, who announced on Nov. 11 that he’d been diagnosed with MS at just 30 years of age. His announcement is an unfortunate example of how the disease can affect anyone of any age, regardless of their physical health or how well they take care of themselves.
The positive impact Bryson hopes to have on other people through Voices of Hope is perhaps, most clear when she talks about her granddaughter. “She is amazing…she’s like our little sunshine,” Bryson said, with her voice lighting up as she speaks about Alathea Rose, who turned one last month. “When you are one year old, you don’t have any kind of thought pattern of the world that you live in. I want to mold that world as much as I possibly can so that she sees positive.
“So that she sees that we’re helping people and that is what will be required in your life…to get out there and do things to help other people and not just yourself.”
As loud and proud as she is when she sings the national anthem at Lightning home games, it’s Bryson’s voice of hope against MS for her and others that’s loudest and proudest of all.
For more information on Sonya Bryson’s Voices of Hope Foundation, visit www.voicesofhopefoundation.org. Visitors can learn more about MS and other foundations such as Sal’s Soldiers and the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. They can also make a monetary donation or sign-up to donate their time to help others affected by the disease. The foundation will be taking part in MS walks in Tampa (March 18, 2017) and Largo (March 25, 2017), and is in the planning stages of many other events at this time.