Joe Foster stood before the congregation at Faith United Methodist Church last Sunday and began to speak. His shoulders trembled in his scoutmaster's uniform. His voice broke before he finished his first sentence.
"On my honor, I will do my best," Joe began, quoting from the Scout Promise, a pledge he has recited countless times with the young man he raised as his own son.
Then he continued: "I want to tell you about someone who has spent his whole life, from birth to now, doing his best."
Ryan Wilson sat in the back of the church, watching the emotional speech about his own life. Ryan, 29, has Down syndrome and a serious heart condition that nearly killed him. The doctors said he likely wouldn't live past 10, probably would never talk. He proved them all wrong.
Ryan recently earned the top rank of Eagle Scout, joining an elite club of high achievers that includes astronaut Neil Armstrong, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer. Roughly 5 percent of the general Scouting population reaches Eagle rank. Only a relative handful of Down Scouts have mastered the skills to join them.
Ryan's mother, Tammie Foster, and sister, Ashley Georgantas, watched the Court of Honor ceremony at church through a blur of tears. Many onlookers sniffled as Ryan slowly, methodically, worked the Dads' Pin onto Joe's shirt, his fingers refusing to become frustrated at the task. Choking back tears of his own, Pastor Howie Grimmenga took a moment to regain his composure before delivering the benediction.
"If you look in the dictionary for the meaning of the word family," he said, "it should just say Tammie, Joe, Ashley and Ryan."
If you looked for the meaning of persistence, you'd find Ryan.
• • •
Doctors diagnosed Ryan at birth with Down syndrome, a chromosomal abnormality usually dictating a lifetime dependent on others, as well as severe heart problems. Tammie had no warnings prior to the normal birth at the end of a full-term pregnancy.
The 19-year-old mother shunned the advice of the doctor who told her to give him up, he'd never amount to anything.
"He was my baby," Tammie said.
Tammie and Joe were longtime friends who married when Ryan was 8 and Ashley was 3. Tammie now works as an instructional assistant at Mitchell High School. Joe is a bus driver for the Pasco school district. They believed the formula for raising a Down child was the same as anyone else: give love, provide structure, instill faith and discipline.
"We wouldn't let Ryan stop and get lazy, same as for any child," Joe said.
He saw fliers for a Cub Scout Troop and took Ryan, then 8, to their first meeting. They found a welcoming group and a program that could help Ryan build self-esteem and confidence.
At age 10, one thing stood between Ryan and his promotion from Bear Cub to Webelos: He had to learn how to ride his bike.
One day Ryan peddled down a slight incline and lost control of his bike, crashing into a large mailbox a half-mile from his Hudson home.
Joe and Tammie watched from some distance, making sure Ryan was not hurt but also allowing him time to pick himself up and figure out how to get home without relying on anyone else.
Ryan unleashed a growl: "I AM a bear!" He got back on his bike and peddled home, then ran inside and dissolved into tears.
It took a few months before Joe could remove the second training wheel, which Ryan used as a crutch. Joe held firm: Ryan couldn't graduate to Webelos until he mastered the bike. When he did, Joe said proudly, "Ryan earned the right to move up."
• • •
Ryan stuck to Scouting, showing a dogged determination to nail the skills for each badge. He worked on canoeing for weeks until he could flip the canoe, get back in and return to shore. Carol Hess, a teacher at Crews Lake Middle, volunteered her time to help Ryan understand U.S. laws and government so he could earn his Citizenship and Nation badge.
Three years after joining Scouts, Ryan moved from Cub Scouts to Boy Scouts in Troop 595, which has a focus on special needs individuals. He worked his way through school, graduating in 2005 from Hudson High alongside his sister.
Two years later, he asked the manager of Carrabba's Italian Grill in Port Richey to give him a job. "I can roll silverware," said Ryan, who learned how to create the tidy napkin bundles in a life skills class at Marchman Technical Education Center. Manager Paul Khoury gave him a shot, and handed Ryan his first paycheck a few weeks later. Ryan stared at it through tears.
"Now I am somebody," he said.
His co-workers voted him Employee of the Year 2010.
• • •
Ryan's fragile heart lasted longer than the doctors once predicted, but in 2008 it weakened. Physicians at Shands at the University of Florida said he needed a pacemaker and a defibrillator. Given his condition, the surgery was as risky as it was necessary.
After the operation, Ryan repeatedly went into cardiac arrest. Tammie and Joe hurried to the chapel to pray and were called back. Approaching Ryan's area, they saw curtains drawn, his cooling fan moved to the hall. Joe supported Tammie, her knees buckling. They feared the worst.
But Ryan was there, recovering, quietly defying the odds.
He remains at high risk for cardiac failure, but he doesn't dwell on it. He spends his days at AFIRE of Pasco, a training center for disabled adults, learning skills to help with more independent living. The center does an annual Christmas program in which the adults learn to use sign language to accompany carols.
"Ryan is good at signing and remembers songs from years past and still signs them," Tammie said.
Ryan's favorite activity?
"Camping ... cooking ... my dad's meatballs," Ryan said slowly, glancing at Joe with a grin.
• • •
Ryan dreamed of becoming an Eagle Scout from the moment he joined his first Cub troop. Normally, Scouts have until their 18th birthday to complete the tasks for Eagle rank. The time limit is waived for special needs Scouts, but otherwise they must meet the same requirements.
Aspiring Eagles must earn 11 required merit badges plus another 10 of the Scout's choosing, for a total of 21. Ryan accomplished nearly double that, earning 38 badges. He learned how to rotate tires and do an oil change for his Automotives badge. He fired an arrow to pop a balloon 100 feet away for his Archery badge. He even managed to hook an 8-foot Hammerhead shark while earning his Fishing badge. (Joe helped cut the line to release the shark, which was half the length of their fishing boat.)
The Scout must also plan and execute a public service project. Ryan thought of the youth groups that frequently come to his church for festivals, and how there never seems to be enough seating for the storytelling sessions. He decided to build two more sets of outdoor bleachers. He went before the congregation one Sunday, explained his project and asked for donations and volunteers.
By the end of the service, he had all the volunteers and pledges for supplies he needed.
Once the project was complete, Ryan was ready for his board of review, when Eagle candidates are interviewed about their project and accomplishments. Again, Ryan went before the church congregation, this time asking for their prayers — not for himself, but for the board to understand special needs people.
• • •
Don Schaefer is an Eagle Scout who has coached other young men through the process, and now sits on one of the review boards that evaluates Eagle candidates. He believes the dedication and excellence involved makes Eagle Scout "a mark of the highest distinction among boys and men."
He also knows several individuals with Down syndrome and has seen how they sometimes struggle with everyday tasks. He entered Ryan's board of review session Oct. 24 with concerns and hesitations.
The board kept its questions simple for Ryan's comprehension, and gave him as much time as he needed to answer.
His parents couldn't accompany him into the interview. He had to stand on his own.
"There were some awkward moments during the usual question-and-answer routine. However, they were only awkward for those of us reviewing and listening to Ryan as he explained in his own words and at his own speed," Schaefer said. "Sometimes we had to reword and simplify questions to make it comfortable for him to understand and to respond."
Despite being nervous, Ryan made eye contact and directed his answer to the person who asked the question, Schaefer said. He impressed the board with his persistence, overcoming life's obstacles and conquering the challenges to become an Eagle Scout. After the interview, everyone shook hands, and Ryan chatted with the board members like they were old pals.
Schaefer was convinced Ryan had earned the Eagle Scout honor.
"Ryan was a humble reminder to all of us that God doesn't make junk; each and every individual is a prized creation," he said. "We are each a unique piece of a puzzle that makes up what we call life. We just don't get the see the overall picture. And Ryan is just one of the more ornate and beautiful pieces of that picture."
• • •
Ryan was bursting with pride when he earned his Eagle rank.
"Nobody could take it away from me," he told Tammie.
It also gave him power.
"I want to come back and help other Scouts like me and show them they are somebody," he said.
After Joe shared Ryan's story last Sunday with the congregation, Ryan joined him at the front of the church, where he was presented to everyone as an Eagle Scout.
Ryan's merit badge sash, heavy with 38 badges, slipped aside, hanging crooked.
Ashley reached out from her seat and straightened the sash, so every badge stood distinct.
Times staff writer Gail Diederich can be reached at email@example.com.