Wineka column: A stranger’s simple gesture moves a mother to tears
KANNAPOLIS — The longer 8-year-old Riley Brown sat in his wheelchair Friday evening at the Stag ‘n’ Doe restaurant in China Grove, the more frustrated he became.
The reception on his parents’ iPhone wasn’t good, and the “Mighty Machines” movie he constantly watches on Netflix wasn’t streaming in. He began hitting the table out of frustration and was beginning to disturb other diners around him.
Riley doesn’t speak, but he can make some noise. His development has been severely hampered by epilepsy, something he has lived with since he was 18 months old.
“Let me take him out to the car,” Riley’s mother, Ashley England, finally told her husband, Jason. “I’ll deal with him out there and feed him when we get home.”
Moments later, as the family’s food came to the table, a teary-eyed waitress came in behind the delivery and explained someone had paid for their meals. She also handed Ashley a note.
Written on a guest check in three simple lines, the message said:
God only gives
to special people.
“I broke down, right there,” Ashley says. “Once she handed me that, just reading that ... the kindness of him or her. They had no idea what we’ve been through the past whole month.”
Later in the evening, Ashley posted on social media what had happened at the restaurant and linked it to WBTV, in hopes that it might reach the person who had been so thoughtful.
She added her own message: “Dear stranger, thank you for giving me a blessing tonight in a way you will never know.”
The television station reported on the story, and things went viral. It’s quite possible now that millions have heard of the stranger with a big heart for special needs children and their families.
Television stations across the country, including Hawaii, picked up the story, as well as CNN, AOL, The Blaze, Huffington Post, Nashville News and the Daily Mail in England.
“It’s a shock,” Ashley England says. “I got a call today that it was on the Yahoo home page.”
She and Jason can’t be more appreciative for the many positive comments on all the stories, she says, and what it has meant to other parents with special needs children.
Ashley refers to the stranger as “the angel.”
“I hope the angel has seen how much of an impact he had made on our life, as well as thousands more around the world,” she says.
To understand why Ashley broke down after the stranger’s simple gesture, you have to know what Riley and the family have been through.
Ashley had a normal pregnancy with Riley, and he was a typical infant during his first 18 months. He learned to walk by 10 months, and Ashley considered him advanced in other areas. She remembers him saying at least five words, including “Mama” and “Daddy.”
But two days after he received his 18-month shots, Riley had his first seizure and was diagnosed with severe intractable epilepsy. As the seizures progressed, Riley experienced developmental delays.
Meanwhile, Ashley and Riley’s doctors tried everything with medications, herbal supplements and a Ketogenic diet.
By the time he was 4, Riley had his first brain surgery. He had regressed so much that developmental tests put him at the level of a two-month-old.
At an Alabama children’s hospital, doctors performed a surgery called a corpus callosotomy in which the right and left sides of his brain were separated. The operation seemed to help for a time, and Riley regained some of his lost abilities and learned new skills.
But within 10 months, the seizures returned, and doctors performed a second operation in Alabama last October to remove the spot in the brain that was generating the seizures.
The days were made more difficult for Ashley because Jason, her husband of five years and Riley’s adoptive dad, had to be in Japan as part of his Air Force contract job for Lockheed Martin.
Riley hasn’t had a seizure since. “He has come so far,” Ashley says.
Riley’s severe epilepsy has led, of course, to setbacks in his development. He’s not diagnosed as autistic, but that’s the best way to describe his behavior, Ashley says.
The month leading up to last Friday’s dinner out had been difficult. Riley’s getting bigger, stronger and quicker, and he seemed to be testing his mother this summer. More and more, he was tearing things up, beating the walls, ripping down blinds, beating on the television and hitting his mother.
Ashley has described him as a “walking recipe for devastation,” and out in public,” strangers often view him as an undisciplined kid, ill-tempered and acting out.
Ashley has tried different disciplinary approaches, but overall it’s rough on the 28-year-old mother, who also has a 4-year-old son, Logan.
Jason England is gone on his contract work most of the week, essentially leaving Ashley to be a single mom for long stretches.
“There have been days when all I’ve done is sit and cry,” she says. “That note showed up at such a perfect time.”
Only recently, Jason and Ashley England took their boys to a local mall to shop for school supplies when Riley apparently became overstimulated and started screaming.
“We walked into one store and he couldn’t take it, so we had to leave immediately,” Ashley says.
Ashley works at Charlotte Motor Speedway, and Riley attends a special needs class at Forest Park School. He has two angel caregivers at the school, including “Miss Brenda,” who has been with him since pre-school and even was in Alabama when Riley had his first brain surgery. Since May, “Miss Morgan” has been Riley’s other blessing at the school.
The Englands are working with the non-profit organization 4 Paws for Ability Inc. to secure a service dog for Riley. A trained service dog, which costs $22,000, could be an extra set of eyes and ears for the parents, keeping Riley from chasing emergency vehicles, for example, or preventing him from wandering off, as he likes to do.
A dog might also change the public perception of Riley. The way Ashley explains it is other children would no longer see a boy with disabilities, rather they would see a friend with a dog.
The Englands have to raise $13,000 of the $22,000 cost of a dog. So far, they’ve reached $6,000, Ashley says.
So now you know a little background on the boy pitching a fit at the Stag ‘n’ Doe last Friday night.
All it took was a stranger’s kindness — and one simple sentence.
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263, or firstname.lastname@example.org. If you want to make a contribution toward Riley Brown’s service dog, visit the 4 Paws for Ability website and look for the donation page. Or checks can be made out to 4 Paws for Ability, in honor of Riley Brown, and sent to 253 Dayton Ave., Xenia, Ohio 45385. There also is a Facebook group page, “Little Man’s Fans against Epilepsy,” which supports his fight.