Last February, Afton-Lakeland Elementary School fifth-grader Taysha Hein was faced with a heartbreaking diagnosis: acute myeloid leukemia, an aggressive type of cancer of the blood and bone marrow. Due to various medical appointments and chemotherapy, Taysha missed more than a month of school during the 2014-15 school year, and her classmates from 4/5 Express—the school’s combined fourth- and fifth-grade classrooms —wanted to express how much they missed her. Instead of writing a note, the students wrote and recorded a touching song just for Taysha.
“For the past three years, my classroom has done a residency project, where my friend, Nashville songwriter Jeff Dayton, comes in and teaches the students how to write a song,” says Lois Sortedahl, Afton-Lakeland Elementary School 4/5 grade teacher. “Students work in small groups to write a song. By the end of the week, the classroom has written eight songs, and then [the students] perform them for their classmates and family members. This year, the project happened to coincide with Taysha’s diagnosis, so the first thing the class asked was if we could write a song for Taysha.”
That week, after each group completed their songs, all 56 students sat down together to write a song titled “Dear Taysha.” With Dayton on the guitar and Sortedahl jotting down the students’ ideas, the song came together quickly.
“We asked the students, ‘What would you like to say to Taysha?’ ”Sortedahl says. “It was really impressive to watch because the kids’ ideas just flowed—‘We want to tell her we miss her, and we care about her. We want to tell her what’s going on in school.’ Jeff really pulled the ideas out of them, and then started to play the guitar and asked the kids what they wanted the tone to be.”
Originally, Sortedahl thought they would simply record the song on her phone and send it to Taysha. The project soon turned into a full-blown production, however, complete with a tune recorded by Dayton in a Nashville studio alongside musicians who work with the country music stars Dierks Bentley and Tim McGraw, as well as the lyrics recorded by students at the School of Music and Mayhem, a music program near Stillwater. At the end of the week, the class performed the original song while Taysha watched via Skype from the hospital.
“When we heard the class would be writing a song for Taysha, we thought it was really sweet,” says Kathy Hein, Taysha’s grandmother. “When Taysha Skyped into the school’s performance, Jeff Dayton said he had plans to use the song as a way to help us, and that the song would be going on iTunes. It was just an overwhelming feeling of generosity from these people.”
Since Taysha’s diagnosis, the Afton-Lakeland Elementary School has come together in other ways to show their support for their classmate, from a carnival and bake sale and a blood drive in Taysha’s honor to Team Taysha bracelets, to principal Tom Hobert shaving his head when Taysha had to shave hers. Each contribution was made in the hope that Taysha would recover and return to school.
“I feel so lucky and blessed—there have been so many unexpected gifts along the way,” Kathy Hein says. “You feel like you’re going to do it alone, and these people you don’t even know come out of nowhere.”
Today, Taysha is recovering very well. Her leukemia went into remission shortly after her diagnosis in February, and she finished chemotherapy in June.
“Dear Taysha” is available on iTunes for 99 cents; all proceeds go to help pay Taysha’s medical bills. Donations are also being accepted at U.S. Bank, under the Taysha Hein Leukemia Fund.
“I’m so proud of this community for its efforts, care and concern for Taysha and her family,” says Hobert. “That’s what being a community is about—you help each other through the good and bad, and support each other during times of need.”
Lyrics by 4/5 Express at Afton-Lakeland Elementary School and Jeff Dayton
Another day at school—
We’re all thinkin’ about you
Not a whole lot’s changed, math and reading’s the same ...
We had a birthday or two.
We miss your colorful style
And your beautiful smile
So we all got together, to sing you a letter
Haven’t seen you in a while.
When the healing’s done
We’re gonna have some fun
With the turtles and the teachers
and the kids in their sneakers.
We know you’re strong, just like King Kong.
So anytime you're down, just sing this song
Dear Taysha, we miss you. Dear Taysha,
You’ve got a generous heart.
We think you’re super, super smart.
You’re kind to everyone, no matter what they’ve done
You’re a super, super star.