Kayla Perry Funk is not your conventional bride. She didn’t spend days worrying over colors or flowers or identical gowns for her bridesmaids. She didn’t flit from shop to shop, searching for her dream wedding dress or fret over a Pinterest-perfect reception. Kayla and Austin’s love story is a special one: high-school sweethearts, tested by distance, cancer and hard circumstances, whose love for each other was also their fountain of strength and courage. For Kayla and Austin, their wedding day was first and foremost a celebration of their covenant commitment to each other — and from there, all of the colors, flowers and other details of their wedding day just fell into place.
The pair met in high school through mutual friends, shared classes in their home-school program and began dating their junior year. About a year later, Kayla, having graduated a year ahead of schedule, left for Hawaii and then Kenya to serve with Youth With A Mission while Austin finished high school. She was studying photography, videography and journalism in preparation for her trip to Africa with a team of nine girls. “We had a goal of using our creative gifts to bring light into dark situations and to be a voice for the voiceless.”
While she was away, Kayla began to experience odd symptoms and unexplained illness. Then, just one month into her time in Kenya, she returned home to Birmingham and received a diagnosis of high-risk stage IV neuroblastoma, a form of pediatric cancer, which was followed by 15 months of inpatient chemotherapy, radiation, a bone marrow transplant and immunotherapy, among other treatments. Two weeks after the last treatment ended, Kayla’s doctors delivered the news that the cancer had grown despite the aggressive treatments. “It’s one of those things that’s hard for anybody to handle. I didn’t know what to expect of Austin or how he was going to handle it,” Kayla says. “He obviously took it gracefully. He made sure to not treat me any differently but he always made sure I knew I was taken care of and supported.” And Austin stood by and supported Kayla as she gracefully handled it the only way she knew how: by being “a voice for the voiceless.” In 2014, Kayla founded Open Hands Overflowing Hearts (OHOH), a nonprofit that works to raise awareness and funds for pediatric cancer research.
While Kayla was undergoing treatments in Birmingham, Austin started his schooling at Auburn University and despite the distance and the challenge of dealing with their reality of cancer, the couple still made each other a priority, planning regular trips up and down the interstate to spend time together. The following year, Kayla was able to join Austin at Auburn — her “happy place” — where the couple enjoyed football games, classes, coffee breaks and all of the “normal” experiences of college students, while working together to manage the immense challenge of Kayla’s cancer and treatment. “That’s the way it has always been,” Kayla says. “Even though life goes on — and it’s not like the world stops because of cancer — Austin makes it a point to let me know that he’s here for me, he’s taking care of me. He will stop his life even though the world doesn’t stop.”
Earlier this year while Kayla was experiencing a string of good health after her first brain surgery, her doctor told her and Austin that if they wanted to get married, they should go ahead and take the plunge. So, they decided that it was time to get married. Each just 21 years old, the young pair had journeyed through so much together, already — more than many experience in a lifetime — and they didn’t want to wait to plan a large, traditional wedding. So, in a nod to their love of travel, a destination wedding seemed like the perfect option. The couple set the date for a May 21, 2016, wedding in Turks and Caicos, a mere two months away. But there was one tiny detail to take care of: they weren’t even officially engaged yet.
Knowing her wedding date before Austin officially proposed put Kayla in an unusual position. The weeks between boldly setting the wedding date and eagerly anticipating the proposal, though they had an air of mystery, were filled with small clues that Kayla tried to ignore. She remembers standing in her kitchen with Austin as her dad told him where to park when he came to the office for lunch the next day, and thinking, “I’m not supposed to be hearing this!”
Austin proposed in April in Seaside, Florida. After a romantic dinner, Austin planned for them to head to the beach at sunset, where he would ask Kayla to be his wife. Friends were waiting for them there, rose petals strewn across the sand and a drone flying overhead to record the whole engagement. Many minutes later — with a mix-up with the location and a car stuck in the sand — Kayla and Austin found themselves miles from where they were supposed to be and getting the car out of the sand with strangers as the sunset was slipping away. An onlooker called out, “Just propose already!” And so, right then and there, he dropped to one knee. Kayla doesn’t even remember what he said, just that she cried tears of joy as the unknown onlookers cheered wildly. “It was so ‘us’ in that it was so different from what we had expected or what we had planned, which is just the way life is,” Kayla says. “And even though there were tons of people around, we didn’t know anybody and nobody knew us, and it was just one of those few moments were you can be completely alone while surrounded by people. It was so very different from what it was supposed to be but, honestly, I think it was so much better.”
When it came to planning the wedding, Kayla maintained the same relaxed, roll-with-the-punches approach that guides her throughout her daily life. Two short phone calls with the Sandals and Beaches wedding teams and a quick meeting when they arrived on the island the week of the wedding was all it took to achieve Kayla’s dream wedding: an intimate gathering of the couple’s close family and friends and a day brimming with joy and free from stress. To keep things simple, Kayla had her bridesmaids each find a purple dress to wear for the ceremony, and the groomsmen wore khaki pants and a white button-down shirt, while the bride provided yellow ties that coordinated with the groom’s. The bridesmaids carried bouquets of purple orchids with pops of yellow calla lilies throughout, while Kayla’s bouquet was a slightly larger version, tied with a crisp, white ribbon. Kayla’s gorgeous lace gown was gifted to her by a friend, which just happened to fit perfectly. All these details came together to create the day that Kayla had hoped for, one that was simple yet beautiful with an easy, island flair.
The ceremony was truly a dream. Shaded by island trees, Kayla and Austin stood before the aquamarine water with their toes in the sand and committed their lives to each other in front of an intimate group of their closest friends and family — not a dry eye among them. Kayla’s father, an ordained minister, co-officiated the ceremony and led Kayla and Austin in reciting traditional vows and reading their statement of intent, which they wrote themselves. He then encouraged the newlyweds with Joshua 1:9 — the touchstone verse of Kayla’s battle with cancer and of her nonprofit, OHOH — which reads, “Be strong and very courageous.”
“Everything that needed to be said was said. It was so sweet,” Kayla says. “The ceremony wasn’t rushed at all but we did it and then we were done. We had brunch and then by 1:30 p.m., Austin and I were on a catamaran. It was perfect.” The brunch reception was simple and lovely, in keeping with the ceremony. Guests gathered in a villa just steps from the beach for dancing and cake. The newlyweds spent the next few days soaking up the island at a nearby resort and then flew home to Birmingham to begin their life together.
On Facebook, Kayla wrote, “It’s so hard to believe that exactly three years ago, I had just finished my very first of many rounds of chemo, two years ago I was in and out of the hospital struggling with the side effects of immunotherapy, and a year ago today I was recovering from my first brain surgery. Over the last three years, the month of May has been typically difficult. But yesterday I married the man of my dreams, who has already loved me in sickness and in health. And today is the first full day of the rest of our lives as Mr. and Mrs. Funk. Thank you, OHOH, for your support and love over the last two years! Thank you for crying with me, praying for me and now celebrating with us!”
After returning to Birmingham, Kayla and Austin celebrated their marriage at a beautiful Birmingham reception at Park Crest Event Center alongside their many loved ones who weren’t able to attend the wedding ceremony. “There were so many people that we love and care about, and who love and care about us, who couldn’t fly to Turks and Caicos, and we really wanted to include them and celebrate with as many people as we could,” Kayla says. “We wanted it to be fun; we wanted everybody to come have a good time — and that’s exactly what we did.”
Here’s to your enduring and true love, Kayla and Austin!
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