By Erica Wright
The Birmingham Times
Welcome to Third Thursdays! This series—published in the Birmingham Times on the third Thursday of every month—highlights area citizens who overcome odds to make a difference in their own lives or those who make a difference in the lives of others.
What Shuanta Woods remembers most about her daughter, Deja Denise King, is her infectious smile and warm personality.
“She was a book and magazine lover. She was a music lover, and her favorite artist was Beyoncé,” said Woods. “She could brighten up anybody’s bad day.”
From the time her daughter was diagnosed with several disabilities at 6 months old until she died last month on July 13 at age 21, Woods was a bright light for Deja—and she’s brightening the lives of others, too.
In memory of her daughter, Woods founded the Deja King Trunk Party, an event that helps recent high school graduates with some of their needs through gifts, such as decorations for their dorm room or supplies to help prepare for their freshman year of college. Woods has held the trunk party since 2015, the year Deja graduated from Spain Park High School. Because her daughter could not attend college, Woods wanted to bless other children the same way she would her own.
“My intentions were to [help] one student in [Deja’s] honor because she wasn’t able to go to college, and I ended up [helping] five my first year,” said Woods, who held the first trunk party at The Vault in downtown Birmingham; others have been held at the Boutwell Auditorium.
“I had no idea that I would go on into a second year … until maybe January 2016, when I started getting messages from people about when I was going to do the trunk party. I said, ‘I’m not going to do this again. It was just a one-time thing.’ Then people started saying they were going to donate and wanted to volunteer.”
Woods, 41, partnered with the city of Birmingham for her second trunk party and helped 30 students. The event is held through the nonprofit Deja King Foundation, formed in 2016, which also donates supplies to special needs classrooms and programs, as well as provides support to homeless people.
The loss of Deja has been difficult for Woods.
“It’s been hard [since she passed away]. It feels like there’s a void and a hole in my heart, like a piece of me is gone, but I know she’s at peace,” said Woods. “I know she changed a lot of lives here, and she’s still changing lives even now that she’s gone. We’re just taking it one second, one minute, one hour, one day at a time. Whatever is thrown at us, we deal with that at that time, we move on to the next day, and start over.”
Woods recalled that Deja was a happy, healthy, normal baby until she was 6 months old and contracted pneumococcal meningitis, which left her with multiple disabilities. Pneumococcal meningitis is an inflammation of the lining around the brain and spinal cord caused by pneumococcal bacteria.
“The doctors said it was just something [Deja] picked up because [it] wasn’t viral; she didn’t get it from anybody. She had a fever of 105, and we took her to the emergency room. A couple of days later, she didn’t get any better, so we had to take her to the emergency room again. That’s when she was diagnosed with the meningitis,” said Woods.
Deja spent 17 days in the intensive care unit and 21 days total at the hospital. Doctors told Woods to get ready for a funeral.
“I was told that if she did more than what was expected [in terms of how she would live], it would be a miracle. [I was told] that I really needed to go on and plan a funeral for her, or if she were to live, I would just need to put her in a home because she was just going to be a vegetable,” Woods said.
Due to the pneumococcal meningitis, Deja developed a brain disorder and seizure disorder. She also had developmental delays and a loss of hearing in her left ear that gave her characteristics of cerebral palsy. As a young, single parent, Woods had a tough time dealing with her daughter’s diagnosis.
Learning All Over Again
“I was afraid. I was at a loss,” she said. “I was a new mom at 19, not knowing my next step because I went from having a healthy baby to now having a sick baby. I had to learn all over again. I was afraid.”
When Deja came home, Woods had to teach her daughter how to take a bottle.
“She would cry all the time, and it was hard because she couldn’t really move,” said Woods. “I had to teach her how to suck a bottle all over again. It was hard trying to tend to her day and night with her having seizures and things like that.”
Woods put her daughter in early intervention programs through United Cerebral Palsy: “I did a lot of research on my own as far as reading and researching on the internet and basically being her therapist at home because most of the work is done at home.”
Woods was unable to work because she had to take care of Deja and her other daughter, Jada, who is four years younger than Deja. When Deja got old enough to attend school, Woods was able to work, but there were times she had to take medical leave to care for her daughter. She also had the help of devoted sitters and Jada, who is now 18.
“God By My Side”
Woods attended West End and Wenonah high schools, and graduated from Wenonah in 1996. After graduating, she worked at Regions Bank in the research department before becoming pregnant with Deja, who was born on July 19, 1997.
Woods said she was able to take care of Deja over the years and deal with her own personal battles through a lot of prayer.
“I didn’t do this alone. I did this with God by my side,” said Woods. “Throughout [Deja’s] whole 21 years, I went through the five stages of [grief]: denial, [anger], bargaining, [depression, and acceptance]. … Sometimes in bargaining, I was bargaining with God like ‘God, if You heal her, I’ll be the perfect mom.’ … I [ultimately] got to the point of the last stage, which is acceptance. … I developed an intimate relationship with God, so I was able to pray, move past it, and deal with it.”
Woods made sure Deja had a normal childhood.
“I’d take her to the beach, … to concerts. We’ve tailgated,” said Woods. “I put her in the best school systems to make sure she got the best care. I put no limits on her. I let her get dirty. I let her best friend push her on the swing, … [sometimes] so high that I thought she [might get] hurt if she fell off.
“[Deja] never got to go to a Beyoncé concert, … but we had our own Beyoncé concerts at home. We had every DVD, so … we’ve been [to Beyoncé’s] On the Run tour; we’ve been to Atlantic City. Deja participated in the Special Olympics through school, every year since kindergarten. I took her to Disney World and let her ride roller coasters when I knew she couldn’t do it. I let her live life.”
As a Special Olympian, Deja participated in the mile walk with assistance and threw shot put, using a tennis ball. Deja also worked at Lifetime Fitness, giving out towels, and Logan’s Roadhouse.
“If her sister did it, [Deja] pretty much did it, too, if she could,” Woods said. “If her sister played softball, she was on the sideline at games and practices. I tried to make her life as normal as possible.
“Deja and her sister were best friends. For a long time, Jada thought Deja was her child, not mine. Jada started changing Deja at 3 years old and bathing her when she was 6 years old. [Jada] has always been … caregiver to [Deja], so I think this is very hard for her.”
Deja attended Riverchase Elementary School, Barrett Middle School, and Spain Park High School. Even though she graduated from Spain Park High School in 2015, she was able to stay until age 21 because the law allows special needs students to stay in high school until that age.
“She physically graduated in 2015, and I allowed her to cross the stage with her peers,” said Woods. “She went to the prom as if she were a normal teenager; her dad took her to the prom.”
In March of this year, Woods was told that Deja was in the last stages of dementia. Deja was admitted to the hospital during Mother’s Day weekend, and the family was told to make arrangements. Deja was placed in hospice in June and passed away on July 13.
“I was in shock, but God doesn’t let anything catch you by surprise,” said Woods. “I had a dream last year about her funeral, so I think He was already preparing me for her death [through] the dream. I think He was preparing me a year ago, but I was in acceptance because I knew she was tired. I had actually seen a change in her over the last two years, so I knew she was tired.”
The Deja King Trunk Party is always held around Deja’s birthday in July. It is for any graduating high school student, but they must apply in order to become one of the winners.
“[Interested students] have to submit a 500-word essay explaining why they think they should be a winner, as well as their high school transcript and college acceptance letter; a panel of judges selects the winners,” said Woods. “I usually start taking applications on April 1 and make the announcement around May 15 every year.”
This year’s trunk party was held on July 21, two days after Deja’s birthday and two days after her funeral.
“Her funeral was July 19, and it was a celebration,” said Woods. “What better birthday gift than to see Jesus? That’s the best birthday gift. … It was a celebration because it was her. She wasn’t a sad person, so her funeral was a birthday party.
“I went right from burying her to packing and sorting everything for the trunk party the next day. I think the trunk party was a little more meaningful this time because she had just passed away and people really realized the legacy she left behind, the importance of her adversities and the challenges she overcame.”
To learn more about the Deja King Foundation and the Deja King Trunk Party, visit, https://profreshionalcreations.lpages.co/deja-king-trunk-party. For more information or to donate physical items, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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