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451 || An Unlikely Family

Here you had two boys with labels of disabilities. They lived in abject poverty … had experienced homelessness, loss, trauma, all before the age of 18, and yet their primary coping mechanism wasn’t drugs. It wasn’t gangs. It wasn’t entitlement. It was the simple, beautiful friendship.”

Lisa Fenn remembers with great detail the first moment she walked into a Cleveland gym in February 2009 to produce an ESPN feature that would change her life. She was pursuing a story she heard about from her father, who had read it in his newspaper that morning. While the article about two disabled high school wrestlers intrigued her, it was the accompanying picture that really caught her eye.

Dartanyon Crockett, who is legally blind, was carrying on his back Leroy Sutton, who lost both legs in a train accident as a child.

“I was absolutely gripped by this photograph,” Lisa said. “I just wondered who they were, how life brought them together, what could we learn from them. If I had to put a tagline to that photo, it would be: ‘The one who could not walk carried by the one who could not see.’ And I knew something in me was just stirred to find them.”

Breathing Life into Trauma

When Lisa and her camera crew walked into the gym where Leroy and Dartanyon wrestled, their coach met her by saying she was an answer to his prayers; he knew this was more than coincidence. Both boys had talent on the mat, but he wanted more for them than what their poverty-stricken situation could offer.

But Leroy and Dartanyon, who had met in high school and become close friends as a result of wrestling in the face of their disabilities, didn’t see the following months of filming as an answer to prayer. While Dartanyon was excited to be on TV, Leroy said he offered nothing but silence at first. Both were nervous Lisa would turn into a turkey lady—someone who came to help them on her terms but would end up leaving.

Things began to change when Lisa proved to Leroy she wasn’t just there as a producer. She was there as a friend. So when she arrived at Leroy’s house to spend time with his grandma, he began to believe her.

“[She] said, ‘If you don’t want to share your story, that’s fine. But if you ever need a friend, don’t be afraid to call or ask,’ ” Leroy remembered. “Once she actually put that line of friendship out there, I became acceptant in talking to her and being a part of the story.”

As trust began to form more deeply between Lisa and the boys, she learned more of their story and their strength. She learned about Leroy’s new normal that came after the train ran over his legs, and she learned about Dartanyon’s motivation to keep moving in a positive direction despite his homelessness.

“Just seeing the negative outcomes and destructive choices people made, it just didn’t look like something I was attracted to,” Dartanyon said. “It’s definitely easy to fall into that cycle, especially if that’s all you know. But for me, I just didn’t want that. I wanted something better. And I felt that I could accomplish something much better than what was presented to me and what was sort of expected of me.”

Lisa realized throughout the interviewing process that putting words to their traumas became life-giving for Leroy and Dartanyon. As they began talking about their pasts, the shame and pain became less suffocating. She couldn’t answer all their questions about where God was during their years of struggling, but she learned to demonstrate God’s love instead of trying to answer their questions with tidy Christian answers.

“How could I ask a boy who had been hit by a train, abandoned and neglected to believe in a loving and faithful God?” Lisa asked. “I couldn’t. But they taught me that suffering yearns not for logical arguments, but for a compassionate relationship.”

A Second Chance

Lisa knew this story would grow into more than just an ESPN feature. She prayed throughout the better part of five months of filming, asking God for at least one viewer with a compassionate heart to help these boys she had quickly grown to love as her own family.

She didn’t get one viewer with a compassionate heart. She got nearly a thousand. And they all wanted to know how they could donate money to help Leroy and Dartanyon. The boys were amazed at the support.

“It was sort of astonishing to see that there was so much love and care and kindness and support in the world that is offered by strangers,” Dartanyon said. “It was cool to see that growing up, especially growing up in a society where you’re taught how to survive. And a lot of times it’s every man for himself—with the exception of family. So to have someone reach out of their comfort zone and support Leroy and myself was something that was very new to us.”

Lisa soon realized it would take more than money to help the boys out of poverty. Leroy and Dartanyon’s high school, which had a 40% graduation rate, hadn’t prepared them for college or taught them necessary life skills. Supporters began accusing the boys of laziness and stupidity.

“I knew in my heart that wasn’t true, and I knew they deserved a chance to bridge this gap,” Lisa said. “So we worked tirelessly together for many, many years, teaching them how to navigate adult responsibilities. … These years were marked by constant failure. I think when you grow up in the toxic stress of poverty, even minor challenges feel like major threats. So it was like everything in their life had taught them how to endure a problem, but nothing taught them how to solve a problem.”

From Producer to Mom

Those years were also marked with the growth of deep bonds between Lisa and the boys. Slowly, she grew to be a mother figure for them. This was no turkey-lady relationship. Lisa was a part of their lives to stay, and the boys knew they could rely on her completely. Leroy even calls her his adopted mom without the papers.

“I don’t think any of us expected to grow into this close, mother-son, sister-brother relationship for all these years,” Lisa said. “But as a result of us working together, those bonds grew quite deep, and they began to make progress and take strides forward.”

And those strides forward brought Leroy and Dartanyon to places they had not thought possible. Leroy earned a college degree and now works for Electronic Arts as a game tester. Dartanyon is now a judo athlete and won a bronze medal in the Paralympics in 2012 and 2016. He’s currently training for the 2020 Paralympic Games and will earn his degree in social work this fall.

Lisa lives in Boston with her husband and two children, but she stays in touch with the boys not only through frequent phone calls, but also through their speaking tours. The three have traveled all over the country, talking on leadership, poverty and overcoming trauma. Lisa has also written a book about her experiences with the boys, entitled “Carry On.”

“I’ve never gone into any of this with an agenda,” Lisa said. “It’s so clearly been God’s story since the day I walked into that gym. I’ve just tried to be faithful to each step He lays in front of us.”

This unlikely family continues to touch lives as they share their story of suffering, hope and redemption. The boys proudly talk about what they’ve gone through, understanding how they can encourage others through their story. Lisa said she feels blessed God used her in His redemptive process to help the boys pick up their broken pieces and make something beautiful out of them.

Their full story can be read in Lisa’s book, “Carry On,” found on Amazon.

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