Aliyah Gregory was riding the bus home from high school in Tampa when she heard the news. Three hundred miles away in Jacksonville, the day before Gregory's 15th birthday, her aunt, Nicole Bush, was killed in a domestic violence incident.
"It changed my whole life," Gregory said. "No longer having someone in your life that you are used to having there. It's been a big adjustment."
Gregory, a sophomore guard at Central Florida, saw her family life change as well. Bush's two young sons immediately moved in with Gregory's family in Tampa, the Gregory family growing from five to seven.
Aliyah has watched her mom pick up the slack in parenting two children who lost their mother, even as she mourned the death of her sister. Aliyah grieved the loss of a woman who she viewed as a "big sister figure" in her life, someone who traveled to watch her play basketball and supported her. The loss impacts Gregory every day.
"It's something that's made me stronger," she said.
Bush, who was 35 at the time of her death, was beaten and stabbed in her own home. Her estranged husband, Sean Bush, was arrested after being linked to the crime by DNA evidence and charged with first-degree murder.
The family tragedy motivated Aliyah and her mother, Kim, to be advocates for families who had similar, terrible experiences. They have volunteered at a local shelter and made donations.
In her senior year of high school, Aliyah ran a fundraiser for a local shelter, asking friends and family to make pledges based on how many points she scored during her final high school season. Her "Assist to Score" program raised $1,600.
"I think her motivation is wanting to give back," Kim Gregory said. "That's her heart. When my sister died, a group of her co-workers gathered together and got the kids a bunch of gift cards, and I think she wanted to pay that forward."
Over the summer, Aliyah wanted to do even more and began to brainstorm with her mother. She wanted to help families and children affected by domestic violence to have a happy Christmas. So she organized a gift drive for a local shelter. Gregory made fliers and handed them out in the student union, rallied teammates and team staff and reached out to friends and family.
She's calling it "The NET Christmas Gift Drive," and it benefits a shelter called The Spring in Tampa, which has offered services to more than 60,000 adults and children since it opened in 1977. It is one of the largest facilities in the state of Florida.
"I just felt like it was a great place to help out. My mother and I have talked about how we plan to do this every year now." Aliyah Gregory, on donating to one of the largest shelters in Florida
"I just felt like it was a great place to help out," Gregory said. "My mother and I have talked about how we plan to do this every year now."
Gregory's cousins, now 14 and 11, are pitching in as well in honor of their mother.
"They have been helping out," Gregory said, "and asking their friends if they want to contribute."
The group has been collecting toys and donations to deliver to the shelter. The pile of goods includes cards, board games, clothes, electronics and shoes.
"It's definitely exceeded our expectations," Kim Gregory said. "When we first talked about this, I was thinking in the neighborhood of 50 gifts or so. This is much more than I would have thought we could collect."
Kim Gregory and her husband made the drive to The Spring on Tuesday, taking all of the seats out of their minivan to make room for the gifts. They delivered about 130 in total, worth an estimated $2,500, to the shelter. Class and basketball commitments prevented Aliyah from making the trip, but she's humbled by a response that she views as a great starting point.
"I wasn't expecting too much because I knew I didn't have a lot of time because we are in season," Gregory said. "But it's gone better than I thought."
And she's already thinking about what she will do differently next year. For one thing, more fliers.
"We are already brainstorming," Gregory said.
Aliyah, according to her mother, has already reached out to a local restaurant owner who runs a chain of in the area and says he has vowed to put donation receptacles in his restaurants. And he plans to recruit other local businessman in the area.
"She's been so excited about this, she's been handing out fliers since October and her teammates have joined in to help," Kim Gregory said. "It's awesome the way they have helped out. I know she is grateful."