His first Christmas was in the neonatal intensive care unit. His mother was an alcoholic. She brought him into this world premature, then abandoned him.
He spent his first months in a Plexiglass box.
They say he was a strong kid, cheerful. Much smaller than others his age. He was a cracker-jack at school, smart, respectful toward foster parents—he’s had several.
Early on, they discovered he liked animals. Dogs and cats, especially. When he turned fifteen, his foster parents, Michael and Debbie Gaynor, let him volunteer at an animal shelter.
“Basically,” said Michael. “We just wanted him to do what he loved, no matter what that was.”
A shelter volunteer remarks, “We gave him all the not-so-fun chores, because he made them fun. He’d talk to animals like they were people, he really cared.”
He cared, all right. One day, somebody dropped off a stray. The dog was uncontrollable, with a bloody gash, bearing its teeth at anyone who came close.
In only a few minutes the kid managed to calm the dog and guide it into a kennel. He sat with the dog a few hours, soft-talking.
That was when the shelter manager contacted her friend, a veterinarian. She told her about the exceptional teenager. She arranged a meeting.
The next morning, the doctor stopped in. They hit it off. She offered the kid a job at her clinic. It was a paying gig.
He spent two years helping vaccinate rowdy cats, rubbing the tummies of sick puppies.
Christmas was around the corner. So was college. His foster parents conspired to make the holiday a good one.
In secret, they signed him up for federal tuition scholarships. They called the veterinary clinic where he worked. The doc pulled a few strings at a local university and managed to get him accepted into an animal science program for freshmen.
For icing on the proverbial cake: Michael put money down on an apartment near campus.
“Christmas morning,” said Michael. “We woke him up early and took him to see his new place. You could’ve knocked him over with a feather.”
Because it was more than an apartment. Waiting inside the place were vet techs, past foster parents, foster friends food, egg nog, and even a decorated tree.
They say he cried—something not many foster kids do.
“I learned a long time ago,” says Michael, “You only get one shot at making a kid feel important, so you’d better go big.”
Anyway, that was a long time ago. The kid’s a full-grown man now. He’s got a family. A wife. Two kids.
And a bunch of letters behind his name.