Aug 28, 2013
Back-to-School Inspiration: Wallingford Student's 'Transformation' Philanthropy
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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.”