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'He just stepped in': Teacher carries student with spina bifida on field trip

An upcoming class hiking trip wasn't going to be accessible for 10-year-old Ryan, who uses a wheelchair. Then a teacher helped her participate.
/ Source: TODAY

A fourth-grade teacher in Kentucky went above and beyond to make sure a 10-year-old student with spina bifida could be included on a recent field trip.

Ryan Neighbors' class at Tully Elementary School was planning a hike at Falls of the Ohio State Park, but since the site isn't wheelchair accessible, her mother, Shelly King, tried to find a way to make sure her daughter could participate. Ryan had missed out on a similar class trip last year as a third grader.

Ryan Neighbors, 10, is a fourth grader with spina bifida whose day was made by a school teacher's kind gesture.
Ryan Neighbors, 10, is a fourth grader with spina bifida whose day was made by a school teacher's kind gesture.Courtesy of Shelly King

"Normally with field trips like this, when they're not accessible, we take an educational day, and she and I go out and make our own field trip in the city," King told TODAY.

This time, the mom planned to use a specially designed backpack to carry Ryan. Ryan's teacher and her personal assistant were talking about the plan when Jim Freeman, a fourth-grade science teacher, reached out and offered to carry Ryan on his back all day.

"I overheard their conversation and said, 'We can do that. We can make that happen. Done,'" Freeman said in an appearance Thursday on TODAY. "That was just one obstacle we got over quickly. ... When it was time to strap her in, she was ready to go. She was pumped and had a big smile on her face."

King wrote about the heartwarming experience on the "Team Ryan" Facebook page, where she chronicles her daughter's day-to-day life and achievements. The post from over the weekend quickly went viral, amassing over 2,000 shares to date.

King said Thursday on TODAY that it's been great to see the sweet story go viral.

"The world needs hope. The world needs love," she said. "Sometimes people feel awkward about stepping forward and saying 'Hey, let me help you,' especially when it comes to people with disabilities because a lot of people don't know how to handle them. I think that seeing his act of kindness, people are relating to it and saying 'Hey, maybe it's not so awkward.'"

With Freeman stepping in, King said Ryan got to spend quality time with her peers without having her mom around.

"(Ryan's) your average 10-year-old, where she wants to be independent from me," King said. "Especially because I'm with her most of the time, helping her in most of life's situations, so the fact that she got to be independent from me, and I didn't have to hover over her or be there was a huge deal for her. She felt grown."

King added that Freeman's unexpected offer was a big deal for her as well.

"A lot of times, if you don't deal with disabilities on a daily basis, you don't really understand having to finagle these situations," she said by phone. "And you don't really think about what's accessible and what's not. For him to step in and automatically take that responsibility on himself, and not give it any second thought — I mean, it's not even her teacher. This is somebody I've seen in passing at school, but never really spoke to, and out of the kindness of his heart, he wanted to make a difference for her."

Jim Freeman volunteered to carry Ryan Neighbors for the duration of the field trip.
Jim Freeman volunteered to carry Ryan Neighbors for the duration of the field trip. Courtesy of Shelly King

"When you're a special needs mom, you're used to doing everything yourself," King added. "To know that someone else out there has the empathy and compassion to step up and say 'Hey, let me help out, let me give this opportunity, and I want to do this'. ... None of us ever thought it was going to end up like this."