Purpose Driven Life

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ORLANDO, Fla. (UCFKnights.com) - The idea to brighten up children's Christmas mornings occurred to UCF sophomore guard Aliyah Gregory over the summer in her hometown.

Gregory's desire to help others - particularly those associated with domestic violence shelters, her intended beneficiary of a toy drive she is spearheading - has been an on-going mission.

It's important to her because on the last day of her 14th year, Gregory's world changed on a car ride home from school. That's when she learned from her father that her favorite aunt, Nicole Bush, then 35, had died as a result of domestic violence.

"I know how it felt for me. I don't want anybody else's family to go through that," Gregory said. "These domestic violence shelters give people a way out."

Gregory describes her relationship with her Aunt Nicole as more like an older-younger sister dynamic. Although she lived in Jacksonville, 200 miles away from Gregory's hometown of Tampa, Bush frequented the stands of Gregory's basketball travel league games. She supported any of her niece's fundraisers.

They spent holidays together at each other's homes. She proudly lauded her niece's achievements on Facebook. They chased each other through Gregory's neighborhood - a far off day that still brings a smile to the sophomore's face.

It's the memory she prefers to recall. The bad ones still bring tears to her eyes and cause her throat to constrict and her voice to crack.

"My dad told me somebody had broken into her house. Kind of right away we knew who it was because we knew how things had been," Gregory said. "People started coming by asking questions. That's when I started putting the details together of how brutal it was."

News reports detailed that the St. Johns County Sheriff's Office found Bush barely alive. She had been shot, stabbed and beaten multiple times before being rushed to the hospital, where she died.

Nearly three months later, homicide detectives arrested her estranged husband, Sean Bush, after finding DNA evidence tying him to the crime. He was charged with first-degree murder.

On May 31, 2011, the day that Gregory's parents found out Bush had died, they drove to St. Augustine to pick up their nephews. Malik and Jalen have lived with them ever since. Gregory views them like her brothers now.

"Now that her sons live with me, I see some of her in both of them. And it's crazy," Gregory said. "Sometimes I'll still pick up the phone and try to call her. I miss her smile. I miss everything about her."

In Gregory's senior year at Strawberry Crest, she dedicated her final season to her aunt with her 'Assist to Score' initiative. Aiming for the 2,000-career-point milestone, the all-state selection encouraged people to donate money for every point she scored.

Her team, whose colors were red and black, wore purple shoes with purple ribbons to bring awareness to the cause.

"Ever since it happened, I played every game like it was my last," Gregory said. "I know at different milestones that I hit, even when I hit my 1,000th point or 2,000th point, I knew she would have been there for that. I just had to play for her."

Her family helped her run with the idea. Her mother said they donated more than $1,600 to two Tampa Bay area shelters.

"I was very touched. I had a range of emotions going on. Sad that we have to go through something like this. Very proud of how the family came together to work on the idea," her mother said. "It was awesome to see everyone come together and know that it was inspired by Aliyah."

This year's toy drive for domestic violence shelters was inspired by a woman in her hometown who usually solicits donations at the local McDonald's for her family. Gregory was struck with the idea to help provide toys to those in need.

"I'm just trying to make their living conditions as comfortable as possible," she said.

Gregory and her family were the recipients of such generosity years ago. Her aunt's co-workers pooled their resources to send the family gift cards for Christmas to help with the transition.

While her mother has worked on their drive in Tampa, Gregory has put in work in Orlando. The Knights were willing to help out immediately.

"That's what I love about this team and the coaching staff here because they'll always support you," she said. "They were ready to do it and they knew it was a good cause and something that I was passionate about."

It's the same passion that has carried her to become a starter for the Knights. It's a drive that Gregory's mother knows her sister would be beaming about.

"Nicole was always proud of her," Kim said. "Next to me, she was probably her biggest cheerleader."

Story by Jenna Marina; Photo provided by Gregory family