A wish is granted as boy visits eagle association

Wildlife a passion for Georgia eighth grader
Apr. 12, 2013 @ 11:37 PM

Sometimes we teach our children, and sometimes they teach us.

Three years ago, Chad Stevens, an eighth grader from Augusta, Ga., was diagnosed with embryonal rhabdomyosarcoma, a type of cancer that develops in connective tissues.

Stevens' prognosis looks bleak. Extensive radiation and chemotherapy treatments have proven largely ineffective, yet his faith remains steadfast.

"Now God can heal me and people won't say it's the chemo," Chad said.

"He's been unwavering," said his father, Robbie Stevens. "He's taught me forgiveness and kindness. He's made me see that sometimes things aren't as bad as they seem."

Intelligent and precocious, Steven has always been passionate about wildlife and history.

That's why Wyndham timeshare owners Jamie and Kathy Turner, and a myriad of attraction owners in the area, worked together to create a memorable trip for Stevens.

Upon hearing Chad's story, Al Cecere, Founder, President, and C.E.O. of the American Eagle Association, rearranged his schedule to guide the family on a private tour of the facility. During the tour, Stevens saw just-hatched baby eagles, as well as several other species of birds. The grand finale was seeing Challenger fly.

Named in honor of the lost space shuttle crew, Challenger is the most famous bald eagle in the world. He's been featured on "Good Morning America," "Fox & Friends" and the Jay Leno and David Letterman shows.

Imprinted by humans after being blown from his Louisiana nest, Challenger is nonreleasable. Serving as an ambassador to his species, he's traveled to Washington, D.C., to visit Congress and to New York to boost the morale of rescue workers after Sept. 11. He's met four U.S. presidents. And today he met Chad Stevens.

Chad said he became interested in birds while learning about them in science class. "I like learning about different animals," he said. "I pay attention. I probably think too much, but I never study. I'm a straight A student because I listen in class.

"I think I have a photographic memory," he added.

Indeed he might. As Chad enthusiastically shared his vast knowledge of each bird, Cecere joked, "I might hire you to give tours."

Though inquisitive and talkative, Chad said he can't quite explain what it was like to watch Challenger fly. "He's such a big and magnificent bird," he said.

While Chad enjoyed seeing the birds, he said it was "a little bit scary when they get anxious and flap around." He said he also realized that "TV can't capture them as majestic as they really are."

Chad's father, Robbie, said watching Challenger fly reminds him of freedom – a freedom his son hasn't had in a while.

"Maybe that's what he represents – Chad's freedom from this disease," Robbie said. "We've had our breakdown period, but our family is at peace now. We've prayed and spent time in the word. The Lord's handling it."

Cecere also presented Chad with a copy of "Challenger: America's Favorite Eagle," which he signed, and an official Challenger T-shirt. "After seeing what an educator you are, we will certainly be proud to have you wear this," he said.

Following the tour, Cecere arranged for the family to have front row seats at Dollywood's bird show and a behind-the-scenes look at the bird barn.

"What we will always remember about this trip," Robbie said, "is the graciousness and kindness of people who don't even know us. There's really a sense of famiy about this community. We've been treated like we've been here our whole lives."

"This isn't a wish trip," Chad said. "It's a victory trip."

jfrye@themountainpress.com