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Image: Nolan Turner, who raised money to bring wheelchair basketball to his school
Courtesy of Bridge II Sports
Nolan Turner raised money to bring wheelchair basketball to his school only to have it stolen — and then got more than he ever dreamed of.
TODAY contributor
updated 3/28/2012 2:33:13 PM ET 2012-03-28T18:33:13

A 12-year-old North Carolina boy was working hard to raise money in hopes of introducing his schoolmates to his favorite sport, wheelchair basketball, when his fund-raising cash was stolen.

That single act of selfishness by one stranger has resulted in thousands of selfless acts from strangers nationwide — and surprised and delighted Nolan Turner.

On March 22, Nolan, who was born with spina bifida, was sitting in his wheelchair collecting donations in his Cary, N.C. neighborhood when a man approached him, made some brief small talk, and then nonchalantly made off with a jar containing approximately $250. Nolan screamed, but the man walked away before cutting through the nearby woods and disappearing. Local police are still searching for the man.

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Nolan had hoped to raise $1,000 for a wheelchair basketball event at Briarcliff Elementary School put on by Bridge II Sports, a nonprofit organization that helps physically challenged children and adults play team and individual sports. Once news of Nolan’s situation became public, the donations came pouring in. He has now raised nearly $25,000 in increments of $5 to $500, according Ashley Thomas, the founder of Bridge II Sports.

“It’s crazy how that mean act has turned into something positive that has allowed us to do so much more,’’ Thomas told TODAY.com. “The response has been huge.’’

Nolan just finished his second season of playing wheelchair basketball for the Raleigh Junior Thunder team, which plays from October to March and travels to places like Atlanta, Richmond and Tennessee. Bridge II Sports works with community partners to provide the equipment, coaching and playing space, as well as developing the teams.

Nolan’s fifth-grade classmates had often asked him what it was like to play wheelchair basketball, so he came up with the idea to show them. “That was the real success,’’ Thomas said. “He chose himself to make a difference.’’

As a result of the outpouring of donations, Bridge II Sports will hold a full-day event at Nolan’s school so the whole school can play. The additional money will help fund an event at Camp Carefree, a one-week summer camp in Stokesdale, N.C., for kids with health problems and disabilities that Nolan has regularly attended.

“I'm happy that there are so many good people in the world and that they are helping my team,’’ Nolan told TODAY.com. “Junior Thunder is my favorite thing in my life. Playing wheelchair basketball lets me feel like a regular kid.’’

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“I'm amazed at everyone who has donated,’’ said Nolan’s mom, Amy Moore. “Most of his life he's been the oddity, and now this is a sport he's able to compete in. I remember after his first game we went and had pizza afterward, and when we were driving home, Nolan said, ‘This makes me feel like a normal person.’ I thought, ‘This is such a wonderful thing.’ ’’

Adaptive sports also have helped Nolan work through health difficulties. Last summer, he spent a week in the hospital at Duke University Hospital with kidney failure.

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“He couldn’t get out of his wheelchair for months, but (wheelchair basketball) got him motivated,’’ his mother said. “He can walk some with his crutches now. We owe so much to wheelchair sports.’’

Nolan has raised money for Bridge II Sports before with raffles and other events, and he is a fixture in the community. On the day he was robbed, his mother had been watching from the house because the heavy pollen outside had exacerbated her allergies. The thief was so carefree that she did not realize he had robbed her son until he ran off into the woods.

After stealing the jar, he stripped it of its currency, about $150, before discarding the jar with nearly $100 in change still in it.

Image: Nolan Turner, who raised money to bring wheelchair basketball to his school
Courtesy of Bridge II Sports
Nolan will next turn his fund-raising skills to scooping up money for track-and-field wheelchairs.

“I look over and Nolan is yelling and then put his head down on the table,’’ Moore said. “I ran out to him and he said, ‘That guy just robbed me!’ ’’

“I felt so much anger,’’ said Ashley Thomas, who also has spina bifida. “You’re looked at as helpless, and it’s like, ‘I’ll take advantage of you because you can’t stop me.’ Unfortunately it made people see the disability instead of the things you can do.’’

Only minutes later, a man approached a distraught Nolan and gave him $60 on the spot after hearing his story. Once his plight was highlighted in the News & Observer, donations started coming from as far away as New Mexico and California. There are still several piles of unopened mail and donations for Nolan that have been sent to Bridge II Sports.

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“I know that I keep saying it, but we are amazed by all of the outpouring of support from friends, strangers, and basically everyone else,’’ Nolan’s father, Ken, wrote on Nolan’s fundraising site at GoFundMe.com. “Whether you donated or just offered a supporting message, Nolan has been overcome with emotion at times as we read the messages that are pouring in from all over.’’

“Nolan had been with his father when everyone started hearing his story, and he came home and said, ‘Mom! You won’t believe it! I got famous over the weekend!’ ’’ Moore said.

She said Nolan, undaunted by the crime, plans to get back to fundraising right away. After all, there is money to be raised for a track and field program, which requires wheelchairs that can cost up to $5,000.

“He is a card,’’ his mother said. “He told me, ‘I’m going to be the Martin Luther King Jr. of disabled people.’ He loves raising money. Maybe this time we should put a sign up like at the gas station or 7-Eleven: ‘Cashier does not carry more than $50.’ ’’

© 2013 NBCNews.com  Reprints

Video: Disabled children ride horses in South Africa


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