Some people are heroes; others need saving. Eight-year-old Gabriel Lavan-Ying of Gainesville, Florida, has the soul of the former, but the body of the latter. He suffers from chronic inflammation, loose joints, skin that breaks open at the gentlest bumping, and his body is polka-dotted with black and blue hematomas—all symptoms of the connective tissue disorder Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome. Eventually, he’ll have to get surgery to repair the delicate tissue of his aortic route.
“He doesn't heal well or hold stitches, and we've learned that the hard way with his skin rupturing," says Gabriel’s mother, Tara. "So you can imagine what we're looking at when he needs surgery on his heart."
Even with his condition, Gabriel craves time adventuring outside, especially within state and national parks. At a fort in St. Augustine, Gabriel fell upon the Junior Ranger program—if he studied a handout, wrote an essay, spoke with rangers about their jobs, and completed various activities, Gabriel discovered, he could be part of the park system, too.
“He got a certificate and a patch, and that was it, he was hooked,” Tara says. “So every time we went back to the fort, he would do it over again, although he got the same patch. He didn't care. “
And now, despite Ehlers-Danlos, Gabriel wants to be a park ranger when he grows up.
“With that kind of hardship, being a ranger is certainly not ever going to be his reality,” Tara says. Most people suffering from EDS don’t start experiencing the worst symptoms until their 20s, but Gabriel has had EDS since infancy; his condition has progressed well beyond what’s normal for his age.
But after Florida representatives of Make-A-Wish learned about Gabriel’s condition this spring, Gabriel got his chance. On June 3, more than 100 Yosemite National Park employees worked with Gabriel and his family to help him achieve his dream of becoming an honorary park ranger.
The event was just as significant for Yosemite’s rangers as it was for Gabriel: Yosemite has planned events for people with illnesses previously, but park representatives said the park had neither worked with Make-A-Wish before nor created a means of becoming an honorary ranger before Gabriel dreamed up the possibility.
“We have had things like this in the past, but we've never had anything either this formal, this complex or this big,” said ranger Scott Gediman.
Park employees made Gabriel’s experience as official as possible. Chris Raines, the park’s education ranger; Ed Visnovske, the park’s law enforcement supervisor; and naturalist ranger Erik Westerlund worked together to create a day jam-packed with challenging activities that would give him contact with every kind of ranger and make him feel like he earned his badge, but—thanks to input from Gabriel’s medical team—wouldn’t put him in harm’s way.
Gabriel arrived at the park with his twin sister Angelica, his baby brother Dominic, and his parents. He wore a child-size version of the ranger uniform, the hat covering his scarred forehead and the jacket large on a frame made small by an emergency stomach surgery. Though Gediman, Raines, Visnovske, and Westerlund met Gabriel amidst the click-clicks of perfectly positioned photographers and TV crews, the rangers and his mother all said Gabriel seemed completely invested and in the moment—to him, this was real.
The rangers put Gabriel through his paces right out of the gate. At 9 a.m. Gabriel went through yet another junior ranger program, complete with programs about wildlife and bird watching, which earned him a spot at the morning briefing table. While meeting various rangers, an “emergency call” came in about a forest fire in the park. Gabriel and two rangers quickly hopped into a fire truck and met 20 other fire rangers on the scene.
“They actually set a small ground fire,” Gediman says. “They gave him a hose and he actually put out the fire.”
A small group of rangers took Gabriel to lunch in the shadows of Yosemite Valley’s arching waterfalls and cliffs, where they conveyed to him in what it means to be a ranger: participating in preservation history and the importance of conserving natural resources.
But the park wouldn’t stay quiet for long. Gabriel’s Yosemite-assigned radio (“This is Ranger Gabriel, do you copy?”) soon buzzed with an even bigger emergency: Gabriel’s search and rescue skills were needed.
“We had a victim (read: a very safe ranger) that was in a litter that we lowered down a cliff,” Gediman says. “Gabriel took the victim to the ambulance and then he rode in the ambulance to the meadow” where a helicopter was waiting.
Proving his well-rounded worth, Gabriel was finally swept up by patrol car to a ceremony around 3 p.m. to celebrate his hard-earned victories. In front of family, new friends, and park visitors, Superindendent Don Neubacher and judge Michael Seng officially made Gabriel an honorary Yosemite park ranger.
“By the end of the day we were all just tired, but I mean, it was a special thing for me seeing that his high fives at the end of the day were stronger than in the morning,” Gediman says. “His mom tried to get him to drink water and relax but he just didn't want to sit; he just wanted to go.”
For Tara, seeing her son power through his wish was a little nerve-wracking. “I kept asking him, ‘Do you need me to carry you, do you need a ranger to carry you?’ and he said, 'No no no,' because he didn't want to look weak in front of the rangers,” she remembers. “I thought, well I'm gonna have to put his legs in cold water tonight to numb and cool some of this inflammation that's bound to be going on.”
But carrying Gabriel through the Sequoias the following day was a small price to pay. “It was emotional,” Tara continues, “just how much work everyone put in to make it so special for him.”
Going through treatment is rough at any age, but for Gabriel, the prospect of becoming a ranger eased the pain. “For a lot of kids, a wish come true empowers them to continue to do their treatment,” says Josh deBerge, senior manager of national communications and public relations for Make-A-Wish.
If recent events are any indication, Gabriel’s wish experience will be a driving force for a while. The day after his ceremony, his family was driving to a rafting event when they saw a real rescue occurring within the park: a woman had been bitten by a snake.
Gabriel put on his ranger hat and was acknowledged by his ranger colleagues. “Even though it wasn't his wish day, he was still included,” Tara says. “To him, it wasn't a day, he's an honorary park ranger,” she adds, “And that's what he is, forever.
Photos courtesy of Yosemite National Park and Josh deBerge.