That week, I drove him around to replace his items. A new bus pass. A cell phone. A trip to the Social Security office for a state ID, which required a birth certificate, which had been confiscated during his dad’s eviction. His was a cruel world, and how he endured it baffled me. I paid for his items, crossing a journalistic line. But this was becoming less about a story and all about soothing the suffering. Dartanyon later told me that that was when he grew convinced God had placed me in his life for reasons beyond television.
I traveled to Akron to film Leroy’s old neighborhood. This required a police escort. “Welcome to Laird Street,” a police officer said. “We call it Laird Country because once they’re born into Laird, they never leave. They just move from house to house, up and down, following those drugs.”
I stayed because my heart was too heavy for my legs to walk away.
That summer, I edited their story, “Carry On,” praying that one viewer would be moved to help. After the airings, hundreds of e-mails flooded my inbox, offering money and sharing how this friendship shook their souls awake. Dartanyon and Leroy were no longer invisible. I curled up and wept.
I responded to nearly 1,000 e-mails. Each time I shared exciting developments, Dartanyon gushed with thank-yous and hugs. But Leroy’s stoic posture never budged. “Leroy, if at any point you don’t want this, you need to speak up,” I said. “The last thing I want is to inflict my desires on you.”
“No, it’s all good,” he said.
“But usually when it’s all good, people smile or say something,” I said. “Each time I call with good news, you are so quiet. I’m not even sure you’re on the line.”
“No one’s ever called me with good news before,” he said. “I don’t know what I’m supposed to say.”
I stayed because I vowed then to fill Leroy’s life with a thousand good things until he burst with joy. In November 2009, thanks to viewers’ generosity, he moved to Arizona to study video game design at Collins College. I had doubts that he could manage on his own, but time and again, he disarms his skeptics. He was the first in his family to graduate from high school, and in August, he was the first to receive a college diploma, as Dartanyon and I applauded.
Dartanyon received his life-changing offer from the U.S. Olympic Committee in March 2010. Coaches invited him to train in Colorado to learn the Paralympic sport of judo. This was like winning the lottery: shelter, sports, mentors, school, medical care, and, as he proudly showed me, his first bed.
“Top judo athletes begin training at a very young age,” his coach confided. “We don’t know that he can make up the years by 2016.” But he worked his fingers into calluses and swiped a spot on the 2012 team. At the Paralympics in London, Leroy and I celebrated as a bronze medal was draped around Dartanyon’s neck. Once forgotten by the world, he stood on top of it.
“Things like this don’t happen to kids like us,” he cried that night, his tears soaking my shoulder. He’s right. Blind and legless kids from the ghetto don’t get college degrees and medals, but they should. And that is why I stayed. Because hope, love, and redemption can happen to kids like them. And people like me, people from the “other side,” who can soften life’s blows for them, ought to help.
Those who know the story heap a lot of credit onto me for dedicating four years to improving Dartanyon’s and Leroy’s lives. I’ve removed obstacles from their paths, exposing new horizons and piling on encouragement. I taught Leroy how to pay a bill. I sat with Dartanyon at the Social Security office to apply for disability, something he could have received all his life had anyone submitted the forms. I soothed the burn of Leroy’s broken heart and phantom limbs. Through it all, we grew into an eclectic family. We carried on.
When he visited the eye doctor, I asked Dartanyon to include me on the consent form so I could access his records. Later, the administrator called. “I just thought you should know what Dartanyon wrote on his form,” she said, somewhat undone. “Next to your name is a space that says ‘relationship to patient.’ He wrote ‘guardian angel.’ ”
I stayed because we get only one life, and we don’t truly live it until we give it away. I stayed because we can change the world only when we enter into another’s world. I stayed because I love you.