Making a difference

Aidan and Tristan Ryan visit a baby in the neonatal intensive care unit at PeaceHealth Southwest Medical Center with music therapist Susan Palmieri. The brothers’ fundraising helped make the NICU’s music therapy program possible. Photo: Janis Olson Aidan and Tristan Ryan visit a baby in the neonatal intensive care unit at PeaceHealth Southwest Medical Center with music therapist Susan Palmieri. The brothers’ fundraising helped make the NICU’s music therapy program possible. Photo: Janis Olson

Brothers Tristan and Aidan Ryan share a passion for helping those in need, and they’ve raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to do it

As they drove away, Tristan Ryan voiced his doubts to his brother, Aidan: “There’s no way we’re going to be able to raise $25,000 — there’s no way.”

Their first meeting had not gone well. They’d worked hard on their pitch, gotten dressed up and everything. And still they got shut down — by a close family friend, no less. How were they going to convince anyone else to support their cause?

It was early 2015, and Tristan and Aidan — then a junior and a sophomore, respectively, at Seton Catholic College Prep in Vancouver — were trying to raise money for the neonatal intensive care unit at PeaceHealth Southwest Medical Center.

They were inspired by the experience of Rob and Ami Kyne, family friends whose twin sons, Samuel and William, had been born premature and spent their first three months in the NICU.

It was a stressful, anxious time, Ami had told them, but one day toward the end of their stay a harpist had come to play in the hallway.

“Having beautiful music just really changed that environment for me,” Ami recalled recently — and she could only imagine the good it did her tiny babies to hear soothing sounds for once, amid the barrage of monitors beeping, doors opening and closing, doctors and nurses exchanging medical jargon.

Ami wanted other families to have the same calming experience, she told the Ryans one night over dinner, and Tristan and Aidan “took that idea and kind of ran with it.”

“It was something that was really dear to our hearts,” Aidan said.

Tristan and Aidan Ryan with Samuel and William Kyne
Tristan (right) and Aidan Ryan raised over $100,000 for a music therapy program, inspired by Samuel and William Kyne, who spent their first three months in a neonatal intensive care unit. Photo: Janis Olson

‘It just kind of took off’

The boys set up a meeting with staff at the NICU and found out they were actually hoping to start a music therapy program — studies suggested it could aid neurological development in premature babies. Tristan and Aidan became “the champions of getting [the program] started,” said Alison Lazareck, the hospital’s annual giving coordinator.

They set a goal to raise $25,000 and began arranging meetings every day after school with family friends and local business owners, which Lazareck marveled at.

“I’m a professional fundraiser, and I still find it daunting to go out and take meetings and ask people for money,” she said.

But the boys’ father, Kevin, wasn’t surprised — Tristan, who took the lead on the fundraiser, is “not afraid of anything,” he said.

At first the boys worried they’d bitten off more than they could chew. “Honestly, my brother and I were looking at each other and we were saying ‘This isn’t possible,’” Tristan admitted.

But they kept plugging away, taking more than 70 meetings and holding fundraising events around the Super Bowl and Valentine’s Day. Eventually they got some traction.

“It just kind of took off,” Tristan said, and the boys were “shocked” by the generosity of their community. In two and a half months, they raised $103,432.

The NICU was able to start offering music therapy in December 2015, and more than 100 families have now benefited from the program, said nurse manager Melanie Fain. “The results have been beyond my expectations,” she said. “It’s been incredible.”

For instance, if a baby has to have blood drawn or an uncomfortable eye examination, music therapist Susan Palmieri can provide soft guitar strumming or other sounds to soothe the baby.

“We see their heart rate doesn’t go up as far, they don’t get as upset,” Fain said — and the developmental benefits to the babies could continue for the rest of their lives.

Fain was amazed by Tristan and Aidan’s generosity and initiative, which she said give her hope for the future. “There’s an energy and a goodness about those two kids that makes you feel that we’re going to be OK.”

Ryan family
The Ryan family: Kevin, Erin, Aidan, Annemarie and Tristan. Photo: Janis Olson

‘What would Jesus do?’

The NICU fundraiser was the Ryan boys’ biggest service project to date, but it was by no means the first or the last.

From an early age, the importance of service was instilled in them by their parents, Kevin and Annemarie; their parish, St. John the Evangelist in Vancouver; their grade school, Our Lady of Lourdes; and Seton Catholic.

“My Catholic education has been huge and instrumental in creating me to be who I am,” Aidan said.

The brothers grew up being taught by their dad to ask “What would Jesus do?,” Aidan added, and they took that seriously.

“Jesus lived a life of giving everything he had away and serving others,” he said, “and it inspires me to go and serve every day, to go out and give people the shirt off my back and to do what I can to make others happy, because that’s what we’re here for.”

Since they were 8 years old, Tristan and Aidan have worked with a local nonprofit, Courts for Kids, to help build basketball courts in poor communities around the world — in the Philippines, Costa Rica, Honduras, India, Samoa, Uganda, Indonesia, Liberia, Panama. To cover their airfare and a portion of the construction costs, they sell poinsettias each year around Christmas.

The trips taught the boys many things: how privileged their lives were, how happy people could be living with less, and how big a difference their efforts could make.

Their experience with Courts for Kids was so “life-changing” that a few years ago Aidan decided he wanted to make the opportunity available to kids who wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford it. He raised about $35,000, Kevin said, to sponsor several of his friends, as well as low-income students from Portland public schools, on a trip to Panama in the spring of 2015.

It was “incredible,” said Courts for Kids president Derek Nesland. “We’ve never had a student do that before.”

food donations
Aidan Ryan’s first 40 Days of Giving campaign collected $67,000 and 6,574 pounds of food. Photo: Courtesy Kevin Ryan

‘It gives me purpose’

Courts for Kids helped Tristan and Aidan understand the reality of poverty around the world, and it made them more attentive to the poverty in their own community. One experience in particular drove that home for Aidan.

For years, the boys’ mom, Annemarie, has been making custom birthday cakes for kids at a local homeless shelter. One day, while helping her with a drop-off, Aidan was surprised to see a girl he knew living at the shelter.

“It was really eye-opening for me,” he said. “It made me realize how blind I think we are sometimes, to realize how close, really, poverty is.”

It made him want to do something. So last year, as a high school junior, he started the first annual 40 Days of Giving campaign during Lent to support the Vancouver Conference of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul and the Clark County Food Bank.

Matt Edmonds, the director of the food bank, initially figured this would be a typical food-and-funds drive — maybe a few hundred pounds of food, a couple hundred dollars.

He soon realized how wrong he was. Aidan’s “passion for helping people in need in our community … was really contagious,” he said.

Aidan and his brother enlisted students at Seton Catholic, Our Lady of Lourdes and King’s Way Christian High School to bring in different items each day.

“These two boys were never afraid to stand up and say ‘This is what we’re doing — we need your help,’ and they really got the help of their peers,” said Seton Catholic Principal Ed Little. “They’re just an example of what’s right with the youth of today.”

Aidan asked friends to make announcements at their parishes, and he convinced the owner of several Carl’s Jr. franchises to donate his proceeds one Sunday.

Garrett Wellman, a friend who helped organize the campaign, marveled at the brothers’ dedication. “Aidan and Tristan are probably the two hardest working young men I’ve ever met in my life,” he said. “They’re always looking how to help someone else.”

Garrett recalled one day when he and Tristan had planned to go door to door collecting cans of food, but “it was pouring rain, windy, just nasty out.” Garrett asked if they should just stay in, but Tristan told him, “It’s go time — we’ve got to do it.”

They spent the next several hours knocking on doors and getting soaked. “It was horrible,” Tristan said — but they did gather a lot of food.

By the end of the 40 days, the campaign had collected 6,574 pounds of food and $67,000 — enough to provide 270,000 meals for people in need, Edmonds said. As Northwest Catholic went to press, the 2017 campaign was on track to be nearly as big.

The campaign will continue next year when Aidan is off at college — he’s been mentoring his little sister, Erin, an eighth-grader at Our Lady of Lourdes who’ll start at Seton Catholic in the fall, to take the reins.

And the Ryan brothers won’t be giving up their commitment to service anytime soon. “It gives me purpose,” Aidan said. “That’s really the purpose of life, is taking what you have and the gifts that God gave you and sharing that with everyone so everyone can benefit.”

Tristan, now a freshman at Seton Hall University in New Jersey, agreed.

“Jesus gave up his life for us,” he said. “The least I could do is give up a little bit of my time or a little bit of my abilities to help other people in need.”

Northwest Catholic - May 2017

Kevin Birnbaum

Kevin Birnbaum is the assistant editor of Northwest Catholic and a member of Seattle’s Blessed Sacrament Parish. Contact him at Kevin.Birnbaum@seattlearch.org.