Community heaps love, support on Columbia man with brain tumor

It all started with a Wednesday lunch special at El Burrito. “Aaron’s Lunchbox” – a Mean Bean Burrito, chips and salsa, a doughnut and a surprise treat, all for $5.

Then there were car washes and lemonade stands. A tattoo special at a local ink spot. Specialty T-shirts at a local skateshop. Music sales from a local record shop. And more.

It all has added up to a whole lot of love and around $20,000 from the community to help a Columbia man and his family take on cancer.

The news came during a doctor’s appointment on March 17. Aaron Graves had been experiencing some cloudiness in his peripheral vision, coupled with a string of migraines and some lightheadedness.

That’s when the 28-year-old musician, producer and stage designer found out he had a slow-growing tumor spread out over the motor functions of his brain. Then the word spread “like wildfire,” Graves said, and almost from the beginning, the community lit a fire of support behind him.

“I’ve always believed in community, and especially in the Columbia community,” Graves said. “Growing up here, I always felt very included and very loved here, and I’ve always wanted people to feel that way. So just to feel that coming back to us just kind of makes me feel like, Oh yeah, it worked! I was believing in the right thing.”

Suzi Sheffield, owner of El Burrito in Five Points, describes the Graves family as “ferociously loyal” friends, “a trifecta of goofiness and happiness and love.”

“You want to take them with you wherever you go, they’re just such happy, sweet people,” Sheffield said. “They’re so nice. Their friends are their family.”

Sheffield met Graves and his wife, Jessica, about four years ago at an indie crafts show in Chattanooga.

Graves, his wife and their 4-year-old daughter, Elvie, are regular customers at El Burrito. So when Sheffield learned of Graves’ tumor, she immediately thought of how she could use her her business to help her friends.

The week after Graves’ diagnosis, El Burrito hosted its first “Aaron’s Lunchbox” Wednesday lunch special, consisting of Graves’ favorite meal. Customers were lined up out the door, Sheffield said, and the restaurant sold more than 200 “lunchboxes” on the first day.

“It’s like, ‘Hey, let’s take care of our friend,’” Sheffield said. “I think everybody’s sort of rallying around that feeling.”

By the end of this month, the restaurant will have sold more than 2,000 “lunchboxes” and donated $7,000 to the Graves family, Sheffield said.

The family comes to the restaurant almost every Wednesday to eat and show their appreciation for the support.

“I’m the kind of person that I just want to be at everything,” Graves said. “If somebody’s doing something to help me out, I want to go to it because I want them to know that I appreciate them.”

A native of Columbia, Graves returned to his hometown about three years ago after attending college at Belmont University and living in Nashville for several years.

He helps run a Columbia-based record label called Fork & Spoon Records and has a folk-rock band called Those Lavender Whales.

He works as a contractor building theater sets and running stage lights and sound for Richland 1. Before that, Graves was a teacher at Shandon Presbyterian Church’s Child Development Center, where the kids knew him as Mr. Aaron.

“He is a gentle soul,” said Carol Holt-Cooper, director of the Child Development Center. “He is kind. He is funny. ... He’s open and accessible. He genuinely loves children. He enjoys playing games with them and kidding around with them and the funny things they say and the funny things they do.”

When the kids at Shandon Pres learned of Graves’ illness, they responded by turning the focus of their community service projects to helping Mr. Aaron, Holt-Cooper said. From running lemonade stands and car washes to designing stickers to go in the “Aaron’s Lunchbox” bags, the kids are learning that helping someone they love “doesn’t have to be some grandiose gesture,” Holt-Cooper said.

“Everybody knows Mr. Aaron, even if he wasn’t their teacher,” Holt-Cooper said. “He has had a far reach.”

Graves learned last month that his tumor was not responding to chemotherapy as hoped and that part of it was growing more rapidly than expected. He and Jessica left this week for Durham, N.C., where he’ll spend the next six weeks undergoing radiation treatment at Duke University.

He feels “surprisingly calm” and confident about the treatment, he said. And he’s humbled and comforted by the “mind-blowing” support that’s been poured out on his family by the community.

“It’s so flattering to see all these people that we know and we care about just kind of breaking their backs for us,” Graves said. “Oh, of course, I would do the exact same thing for any of my friends. But you would never imagine anybody doing that for you, especially so many people doing it all at the same time.”