Teacher carries student with spina bifida during outdoor field trip

Teacher Jim Freeman didn't want the fourth-grader to feel left out.

September 24, 2019, 5:24 PM

10-year-old Ryan King has never let her wheelchair stop her from doing anything.

"Ryan is a spitfire," Ryan’s mom Shelly King told "Good Morning America."

The fourth grader with spina bifida, a birth defect that causes a deformity in the spine and often results in paralysis, plays golf and dances ballet. She’s participated in pageants and done fashion shows, even making it all the way to Chicago Fashion Week. Her face appears on a billboard in her hometown of Louisville, Kentucky.

"Everyone in Louisville knows her," King said.

But a recent school field trip to a rugged fossil bed by a river -- unaccessible by wheelchair -- almost proved to be one thing that she couldn’t do.

PHOTO:10-year-old Ryan Neighbors.
10-year-old Ryan Neighbors.
Shelly King

After hearing that the trip would occur at the Falls of the Ohio State Park, King prepared her daughter for their usual backup plan. For class excursions that aren’t wheelchair-friendly, the school lets Ryan go on "alternative" field trips with her mom.

Though educational, King said their alternative trips are not the same for Ryan who acts like any other 10-year-old despite already enduring 38 surgeries in her life.

"She doesn’t want me hovering all the time ... She wants to be able to hang out with her friends," King said.

King considered carrying Ryan around the state park in an infant backpack that holds up to 50 pounds. She wondered if there was a safe way Ryan could investigate the fossil bed with her friends while also maintaining the independence any preteen craves.

That was the case until a teacher at Ryan’s school stepped up with an idea.

"I got the pictures (from the trip) and my heart just melted," King said. "I could not even believe that this really happened."

Jim Freeman, a fourth-grade teacher at Tully Elementary School in Jeffersontown, Kentucky, has always said "hi" to Ryan in the hallways even though he doesn’t teach her class.

"Ryan always has a smile on her face. That’s what we all love and adore about her," Freeman said.

He's taught at the school for three years, and when he heard about Ryan's predicament, the self-described "bigger guy" offered to carry her on his back across the state park himself.

"A little time out of my day and a little extra effort can give Ryan something to remember," Freeman said.

During the field trip, Freeman carried her around in 90-degree weather for over an hour. She weighs 50 pounds. Once they got to a safe place, she managed to get around on her own.

Freeman also told "GMA" that before they began the difficult descent, Ryan was "pumped" and turned around, looked at him and said "this is what I’ve been waiting for all day."

"That’s as careful a stepping as I’ve ever done in my life," Freeman added with a laugh.

PHOTO: Teacher Jim Freeman carries 10-year-old Ryan, who has spina bifida, so she can attend field trip.
Teacher Jim Freeman carries 10-year-old Ryan, who has spina bifida, so she can attend field trip.
Shelly King

With Freeman’s help, Ryan was able to circumnavigate the boulders and twists and turns that would have made the trip impossible. She said she felt grateful that she could explore with the rest of her class.

"I felt really blessed and special, and I felt good that I got to go on the field trip with my friends," Ryan said.

She even offers some advice to kids like her that may be frightened of taking risks.

"You can do anything. No matter what ... someone is going to be there to help you," Ryan said.

King was also happy that her daughter was able to go on the trip without mom. King emphasized that she was touched by how Freeman worked with her on properly carrying Ryan and highlighted his uncommon compassion.

"When you see someone who's willing to go out of their way and physically exhaust themselves just to make sure she’s included ... That meant the most to me. You don’t deal with this every day," King said.

She said that she hopes Ryan's story will inspire families facing similar situations, and she encouraged others to continue to improve how they include special needs individuals.

"One small act of kindness can make the biggest difference in the world," King said.