Fire department volunteer overcoming disabilities with community support.
By John O'Neill
Sam Everly sank the free throw that sent both teams and their fans into chaotic applause that shook the bleachers of Eagle Valley Middle School.
In another moment of celebrity, Sam also received a standing ovation for his performance of Billy Idol’s “White Wedding” at the Battle Mountain High School talent show his freshman year.
Sam, at only 20 years old, is one of the valley’s biggest personalities, and is easily recognizable at any restaurant or movie theater, prompting countless friends to pop over for the strongest, most sincere high-five of their day.
His strident voice spills from both his nose and mouth with a manner of austerity, unique to him and impossibly replicated. His appearance mimics the individualism of his voice -- dark goatee coats his chin and a thin mustache etches his upper lip, waiting to be filled in. He is skinny, but strong – hence the tendency for a huge high five that nearly knocked his father out at the end of a marathon years ago.
You’ll find Sam many afternoons volunteering at the Vail Fire Department. During a summer of high fire danger, his services have been recognized, and he will have the honor of captaining the fire truck in Vail’s Fourth of July parade. Sam, however, will not be driving.
Sam has a rare form of epilepsy that causes brain damage. He has trouble articulating responses to questions and labors for fluid control over physical movement. Most of his answers are “yes” and “no,” while he reaches deep to elaborate on a story in two or three sentences.
Waking up from a nightmare
Sam was born in Guam in the midst of a hurricane that nearly pulverized the Guam Memorial Hospital, and his mother, Honore Everly, feels that her son’s life has been the semblance of that very storm since returning to the United States shortly after his birth.
“Devastation,” says Honore, holding back tears while describing her son’s condition. Born with no apparent problems, Sam spent the first couple years learning to walk and talk just as his older brother, Gus, did. Until, at two and a half, Sam dropped to the ground in seizure.
“We all have dreams for our kids, even before they are born or before we get married or before we even plan on having kids,” Honore says. “One day our dream just happened to turn into a nightmare.”
She and her husband, John, took to their son’s new condition with robust courage and the optimism. Immediately following the collapse, doctors insisted Sam would never walk or talk again. At 35 pounds, Sam was ingesting enough medicine to sedate a 245-pound man, and Honore and John found this an unacceptable lifestyle for their son.
“I really didn’t know what to do,” Honore says. “Everyday I don’t know what to do. I just get up in the morning and go.”
Sam saw some of the best doctors in the country. Then, one day, Sam came out of the day-to-day drawl and began clapping to music – the twinkle of hope that would turn into a quest for recovery. He moved along and began physical therapy riding with a trainer on horseback. His physical movement began to improve.
Years later, Sam would shoot down the diagnosis of his original doctor when Berry Creek Middle School basketball coach Todd Huck put Sam, then his water boy, in the game for a few minutes against Eagle Valley Middle School. Not long into his playtime, Sam sank a free throw sending the stadium into a pandemonium of cheering.
Then Sam took on high school, with the fearlessness of a fireman, and with every intention of having the best experience. He stopped playing sports and instead took to managing them.
“I always watch the Husky football team,” Sam says. Even in the heat of the Euro cup, when asked what his favorite soccer team is, he quickly and happily responds, “The Huskies.”
A village of help
It has been a long road, Honore says, and a lot has changed in this valley to accommodate Sam and others with special needs.
“People don’t understand that when Vail was formed, nobody died and nobody had kids with disabilities,” Honore says. “Sam was one of six kids in the valley with a disability, and nobody knew what to do.”
Getting a big jump in 2009 was the valley’s transition program - the Exceptional Student Services Program - which aims to help students with disabilities adjust to a more independent life after high school.
“After these students hit 21 they lose a lot of support,” says Donna Johnson, the transition teacher and head of the program in Vail. “The transition program curbs this by teaching the students skills they will need for independent living.”
The program, in which Sam partakes, starts with students when they are 14 years old and starts looking into what life will look like after 21 or when the school bus no longer comes. Johnson and the teachers look broadly at what the student’s interests are and where they want to live, all the way down to future transportation.
The program then places the student in various jobs around the community for three years in a trial-and-error process. As the student becomes more independent, the transition program fades out.
“It has been a huge success, an unbelievable success,” Johnson says. “It is really neat to see the connections the students have made in the community where they live and how that allows them to become more independent. It has been incredible.”
Help in fiery times
Sam is a testament to the transition program. Having always taken an interest in first responders, Sam now volunteers two days a week at the Vail Fire Department with Chief Mark Miller. The impact the firemen have had on Sam mimics the impact Sam has made on the firemen.
“(Sam) came into our program in September,” Miller says. “There was a transition period where we were all getting used to what each other were all about.”
Sam’s duties include rolling the fire hoses, washing the fire trucks and putting away the oxygen tanks, which Sam says are not too heavy for him. Miller and the guys at the fire department even equipped Sam with a work shirt and helmet with his name on it as an official technician.
Miller, the crew, and one fireman in particular – J.R. Rulapaugh – spend extra time with Sam setting up obstacle courses that challenge his hand-eye coordination. The skills paid off as Sam’s performance and presence in the classroom improved. Socially he has become more relaxed. Physically he has become more controlled. Mentally he has become sharper.
For as much as the guys in the firehouse have helped out Sam, somewhere along the way Sam turned from a special-needs volunteer into a sort of mentor for simple, happy living.
“He touched all of our hearts in a very big way,” Miller says. “He is so authentic, so genuine and so willing to help. We learned to love him.”
Knowing of the long journey into adulthood now facing Sam, Honore gives special thanks to Johnson, the transition program and the firemen in Vail.
“We have a ways to go,” Honore says. “But when my son can go into a movie and see a fireman, he feels so welcome and part of the group. There has been a huge transformation and such a boost of confidence.”
Now, 18 and a half years after his seizure, Sam is considered to be doing fantastic.
“Look at him today,” Honore says, in tears. “He gets to go snowboarding and hang out with his friends. He gets to walk and talk.”
As for Sam, helping out at the fire department is the first piece in the puzzle of adulthood. Sam also helps at the school district offices in Eagle. Honore and John don’t know what exactly will happen next. Neither does Johnson, Miller or the rest of the firemen.
Sam, though, has a fairly concrete plan.
If you ask Sam what’s next, his response is simple: “Keep putting out fires.”