BELLINGHAM - Now that Squalicum High School senior Dana Armerding has new wheels, the gravel paths of the world look a little smoother.
Kay Reilly, Squalicum's band teacher, was walking on the gravel path to the football field for practice when she heard one of her students ask Dana when his birthday was. The student wanted to get Dana, who has cerebral palsy, a set of off-road wheels for his wheelchair to make the gravelly trip easier.
It got Reilly thinking - what if we could pull together to get him a new wheelchair? With enthusiasm and about $1,000 in donations from students and staff at the school, plus the OK from Dana's mom and help from Patrick Madsen and James Smith of the Northwest Spinal Cord Injury Network, the idea became reality.
After school Monday, June 10, staff, students and Dana's family crowded the school's band room to surprise Dana with a new wheelchair from Madsen and Smith.
"What!" Dana said when he realized what was happening, transitioning to the new chair with a big smile and some laughs. "I've needed a new chair for a long time. Now that I have it, I can just hit the road."
He broke into tears as he thanked his fellow students for letting him be part of the band, for giving him the chance to grow with them and for being so incredibly kind. As he spoke, his words were punctuated by sniffles and laughs from the people crowded in the band room.
Senior Elise Craven, who is on the drum line with Dana, a cymbalist, said she was in tears when he got his wheelchair. It felt pretty amazing, she said, to have so many people come together to do something that would have such a big effect on his daily life. Seeing his joy was worth the challenge of keeping the new chair a secret when they'd get together for lunch.
"I'm really happy we could do that for him," Elise said. "He deserves it. He's part of the family. He's a great kid. Look, he's beaming."
Geography teacher Mark Galvin said Dana is the kind of person who brings people together. Dana was chosen by faculty to speak at the school's graduation Saturday, June 15.
"He's just Dana. He's just real and he's open and he's got this incredible charisma and this incredible joy for the world," said Galvin. "I think that joy is contagious."
Seeing so many students and staff come together to surprise Dana with his wheelchair was one of the most magical moments in Galvin's 14 years at Squalicum, he said. He thinks it will be memorable for the students as well.
"They won't remember anything from school, but they will remember this," Galvin said. "This is what it's all about: stepping outside of ourselves to make something happen."
It's something that Dana will never forget either. Any time he's able to navigate through a crowd without struggling or easily wheel over a rough path, he'll think of how many people helped get him his new chair.
"This isn't just staying with me throughout the rest of my year, but for the rest of my life," Dana said after the presentation. "It is an awesome feeling to know that everyone was willing to pull together and come out with this chair. I didn't expect to cry, but I did."