Update: The Northwoods Elementary PTA announced on their Facebook page Sunday that James Alston has died.
“It is with great sorrow that we inform you of the death of James "Sonny" Alston. We are so thankful for the opportunity the community had to share our love and gratitude with him before he passed. We send our love and condolences to Mr. Sonny’s family in this difficult time. He will be greatly missed and forever remembered for the impact he made on our community.”
One Cary crossing guard is known for going above and beyond the call of duty at his post along Chapel Hill Road.
In addition to helping students safely cross the street, he greets everyone that passes, brightening the day of adults and children alike.
While not everyone knows his name, they all know his smile.
He is James Alston, also known as “Mr. Sonny,” who has worked as the Northwoods Elementary School crossing guard for 10 years, touching countless lives with his warm demeanor.
“Mr. Sonny is literally a ray of sunshine,” said Crystal Hartzell-McAllister, Northwoods Elementary PTA president. “He can brighten a day with just a simple smile.”
But on Dec. 9, Alston wasn’t at his post. When he wasn’t there again the next day, school officials called 911 after receiving a flood of calls wondering why he wasn’t there waving.
Shortly after, Alston was found on the floor in his home having suffered a stroke on Dec. 8. He was rushed to the hospital and was recovering but took a turn for the worse on Tuesday after having a second stroke, Tyrone Dunston, his son, said Thursday.
Doctors performed an emergency surgery the next day, but Dunston said his father’s condition had gotten worse.
“His right side is slowing even more, and now he’s not really responding to anything,” he said. “They basically said there was nothing else they could do.”
Dunston said if his father does recover, he will not be able to return to work.
Within six days of his first stroke, Alston received more than $9,700 worth of donations from more than 265 people on a GoFundMe page to help pay for any medical bills and other expenses. He also received an outpouring of love via handwritten cards and Facebook.
“I’ve been waving hello every morning for at least the last 10 years,” Cary resident Kim Scott Ebert said on Facebook. “Even on the worst day, he is smiling and sending his light into the world. Our kids go to Weatherstone (Elementary), but he is a gem for all of Cary.”
Dozens have posted “Get Well” messages on Facebook while other have shared stories of fond memories with Alston, including Raleigh resident Amanda Hamilton, who wrote about the positive impact Alston made on her 16-year-old daughter, Shelby.
One day last year, Hamilton had been driving her daughter to physical therapy because of a dislocated knee when they passed Alston waving and smiling on Chapel Hill Road. Hamilton said Shelby had not been in the brightest of spirits because of her injury.
But despite feeling sore, Shelby, with her mother’s permission, jumped out of the car, ran over to Alston and gave him a hug, telling him that his kindness made her feel so much better.
While Hamilton does not frequent that area often, she and her daughter always look for him when they do.
“He’s just a presence that you look forward to seeing,” she said. “He looked right at you and just smiled and you could tell it was just so genuine.”
Hamilton said those brief glimpses of Alston sharing his joy with everyone impacted her daughter in a way she will never forget.
Prior to his father’s second stroke, Dunston said Monday that his father was thankful for all the kind words he had received since he was admitted to the hospital. He said while reading many of the cards aloud to his father, he couldn’t help but get emotional.
“I’m crying because there’s so much love,” Dunston said. “ ... and I’m trying to turn my head so he won’t see me cry.”
In Alston’s absence, Cary police have taken over directing traffic, but for many people that spot on Chapel Hill Road will never be the same without Alston.
“He really loves the children, and he loves the community, and clearly, his community loves him back,” Hartzell-McAllister said.
Kathryn Trogdon: 919-460-2608: @KTrogdon
Cards and donations
Anyone interested in donating to Alston can do so on the GoFundMe page at www.gofundme.com/gyefyp7w.
Cards can be sent to James “Sonny” Alston at the WakeMed Raleigh Campus on New Bern Avenue or dropped off at Northwoods Elementary.
If you would like to drop off cards at Northwood Elementary, there will be a collection box at the front entrance of the school between 9:30 a.m. and 3 p.m. on school days and all day Saturday and Sunday.