Aug 28, 2013
Back-to-School Inspiration: Wallingford Student's 'Transformation' Philanthropy
School started in many districts across the state this week, which meant families all over Connecticut had survived a back-to-class ritual that likely involved significant expenditures on everything from new backpacks, notebooks and supplies to the latest fashions, or uniforms.
Even as parents surely wanted to discuss things like upping grades a notch and gilding scholastic résumés with extracurricular activities, students doubtless pushed the conversations toward their need for iPads and smartphones.
Anyone feeling fatigued by the process, or jaded about misplaced priorities in the world of education, might benefit from the perspective offered by the story of 12-year-old Ryan Bell of Wallingford, who will start 7th grade next Tuesday at James H. Moran Middle School.
“Ever since we received a letter about Ryan Bell almost three years ago, we’ve known there was something extra special about him,” it begins. “He hasn’t had the easiest go in life, but he’s never let his differences stand in his way. And despite his hardships, Ryan has always wanted to make life easier for others.
“As a 10-year old, Ryan convinced his family that they really could be doing more with their annual penny auction fundraiser that benefited both Heifer and a local charity. He just wasn’t satisfied with the amount they were able to donate,” the post says.
“In the past two years, with the help of his family, friends and his community, Ryan has raised nearly $40,000 for Heifer International,” it continues. “And he just doesn’t quit. When Ryan reached his lofty goal of raising $25,000 for Heifer just before Christmas of 2012, his first thought was that he should go for another Gift Ark, or $5,000 more. When he reached THAT goal, he immediately said he wanted to go for $50,000.”
His project, Heifer’s Gift of Transformation, and his determination to only do better and make more of a difference are inspiring and impressive for a young man not yet in his teens—and that favorable judgment grows exponentially when you learn why the word transformation is so important to Ryan’s narrative.
"I was excited when I saw the Gift of Transformation in the gift catalog because it reminds me of the transformation that I went through this year,” Ryan says in telling his story on his Team Heifer fundraising page. “I want to send herds of heifers, llamas, and goats, flocks of sheep and chickens, a pen of pigs, a school of fish and a gaggle of geese to an underdeveloped area of the world and let a transformation take place as the gift is received, utilized and passed along. I want to give my own Gift of Transformation to the world.”
His own ongoing transformation has involved 37 surgeries so far, the most recent of which was to lengthen his jawbone so that his tracheal tube can come out in another year, and Ryan’s mom, Laura, said this week that the family was just talking about surgery number 38.
Ryan was born with a rare genetic condition called Treacher Collins Syndrome, which involves underdevelopment in the structure of the face and head—and his inner strength is such that rather than being held back by his medical issues, Ryan is only increasingly committed to the fight against world hunger as a way of transforming the world.
That’s the status of the conversation in the Bell household on the cusp of the new school year—that and the fact that for his “innovative volunteer efforts,” Ryan was recently selected as a regional scholarship winner from the Kohl’s Cares Scholarship Program, which comes with a $1,000 scholarship.
He is among nearly 200 students receiving the scholarship, out of 35,000 nominees nationwide, and joining Ryan as winners in Connecticut are Charles Proctor of Durham—who just started his freshman year at Yale University—and Anna Murphy, 11, of Stafford Springs.
She led a Warming Families Makes Cents penny drive at Stafford Elementary School that raised $3,000 to help five local families heat their homes, and Proctor founded the Honduras Children’s Project in 2011 to improve the lives of 43 children who live at the Copprome Orphanage in El Progreso, Honduras, raising $30,000 over two years for teachers’ salaries, special education classes and supplies.
For Ryan Bell, the philanthropy that is changing his life for the better as much as the long string of surgeries “started out as an innocent suggestion,” according to his mother. A few years ago, around October or the beginning of November, the reality sunk in that “the Christmas lists were just getting out of control.”
Laura Bell decided that for Thanksgiving she wanted Ryan and his 9-year-old sister, Meghan, to focus on giving. The family learned about Heifer International from a magazine that came in the mail, and everything clicked.
“I said, ‘This is the right match for him,’” recalled Bell, explaining that despite Ryan’s speech issues, his first word was elephant and animals are his favorite thing.
“I’d be shocked if he didn’t go into something animal related down the line,” Bell said. “He would tell you if he asked him that he would like to run the zoo.”
That first year, the family focused on raising money to provide a trio of rabbits. At the beginning of October the next year, Ryan came to his mother and said, “I want to do it again but we have to better than rabbits.”
He wanted to do a water buffalo, Bell recalled, and she responded that it would require more serious fundraising. The following year, the goal was to raise enough to provide a family with a camel, and then Ryan transitioned into the Ark mode, which involves multiple animals—and now the goal going forward is large scale transformation.
“The response that we’ve gotten is just amazing,” Bell said.
As if Ryan’s story isn’t enough to inspire all of Connecticut’s families with students going back to school this week and next, Bell offered some other perspective-grounding thoughts about the status of Ryan and the family.
In taking on the philanthropy and endeavoring to help the plight of the less fortunate, Bell said, “We talked about all the blessings in his life,” and what it would be like if he lived elsewhere or the family had fewer resources.
And as for transformations, Ryan’s is multifaceted. When the Heifer advocacy process started, Bell said, he was the kid who would cling to her from behind when someone spoke to him. “I really made him do the talking, and said if he wanted to do this he had to explain it himself.”
Now that confident young man is articulate about his mission, and he’s also confident in other ways. “Last year we did a lot of facial surgeries on him,” which changed his appearance, Bell said.
In his “story” on his Heifer International fundraising page, Ryan writes, “Now that it's over … everyone makes a fuss about how good I look. But it is still just the same me.”
That “same” Ryan and his story will make families and students across the state pause to wonder about their own priorities and obsessions—hopefully.
It was Ryan’s teachers who nominated him for the Kohl’s scholarship, and through its Kohl’s Cares Scholarship Program, “Kohl's is encouraging promising youth to further their education at a time when college costs continue to rise and parents are relying heavily on federal and private student loans to fund higher education,” the release on the awards explained.
Winners are chosen based on initiative, leadership, generosity and project benefits and outcome, the release said, explaining, “In 2013, Kohl’s celebrates its 13th year of rewarding young volunteers. Since the Kohl’s Cares Scholarship Program began in 2001, Kohl’s has recognized more than 19,000 kids, including the 2013 winners, with more than $3.9 million in scholarships and prizes.”Back-to-School Inspiration: Wallingford Student's 'Transformation' Philanthropy