Riley Meester’s ability to sing and inspire has touched the hearts of many in EllsworthELLSWORTH — Riley Meester can’t play basketball. He can’t run, jump, dribble or shoot, and he’s uncomfortable around bright lights, camera flashes, and gymnasiums full of raucous fans. Meester has both cerebral palsy — a group of disorders that affect one’s ability to move and maintain balance — and a relatively mild form of autism.
By: Matt Huss, Worthington Daily Globe
ELLSWORTH — Riley Meester can’t play basketball.
He can’t run, jump, dribble or shoot, and he’s uncomfortable around bright lights, camera flashes, and gymnasiums full of raucous fans.
Meester has both cerebral palsy — a group of disorders that affect one’s ability to move and maintain balance — and a relatively mild form of autism.
He weighed just more than a pound after being delivered by Cesarean section three months prematurely, and doctors immediately diagnosed him with 11 different symptoms. He was about an inch longer than a pop can, and his hands were so small that they fit on the nurse’s thumbnails. He had to spend 109 days in intensive care before his parents, Larry and Gwen Meester, could take him to their home in Ellsworth.
“He was over three months early, and (the doctors) said, ‘We’re just going to take the baby and see what happens. He probably won’t live long, but you can enjoy him while you have him,’” Gwen said. “It was very bleak and blunt. I can’t even explain how hard that was for me.”
Riley returned to the hospital 15 times before he turned 2 years old, and he spent the first three years of his life hooked up to an oxygen tank. He didn’t speak, and he barely moved. Doctors said Riley’s progression during this period would determine if he would survive or not, and it didn’t look good.
Riley proved the experts wrong.
Riley, 12, is talkative, attentive and healthy. He weighs 52 pounds, and his constant smile and positive attitude have gained him popularity in the classrooms of Ellsworth Elementary School.
There still are many things he’s unable to do. He loves sports, especially NASCAR, professional wrestling and Ellsworth High School basketball, but he can’t play. He’s unable to hold a pencil and write his own name. He can’t stand up on his own. He wears leg braces, and he can’t take more than a few steps without assistance.
Riley can’t play basketball, but that’s not his purpose. He has the power to do much more important things.
Riley can inspire, change lives, and touch hearts. After spending the first three years of his life in silence, Riley has used his voice to fulfill his purpose on a larger scale.
On Feb. 6, in front of a large crowd waiting to see the two-time defending Class A boys’ basketball champions, the Ellsworth Panthers, host Westbrook-Walnut Grove in one of the most anticipated Red Rock Conference games of the season, Riley sat in a wheelchair next to the scorer’s table and took hold of the microphone to sing the national anthem.
The people stuffing the stands rose to their feat. Some removed hats, and some put a hand over their hearts. Everyone, however, remained silent, focusing on Riley’s notes, his crescendos, his inflections, his passion. When he finished, the crowd erupted, showering the court with cheers louder than any that followed during the game.
“It brings tears to my eyes and gives me goosebumps and such a pride because I’m so glad that he can give back, that everybody can see how much he can give back,” Gwen said. “People have to look for their purpose in life, but you don’t have to look for Riley’s purpose. You meet Riley, and he’s got such a loving, outgoing personality that you can’t help it — you know his purpose.”
Riley’s performance energized Ellsworth’s fans and motivated Ellsworth’s players.
“It was a good warm-up — it was pretty intense,” senior guard Adam Van Der Stoep said. “And when he got done singing, it was just like so much intensity; it just made me want to get after it.”
Said junior center Trevor Gruis: “It gives me goosebumps and sends shivers down my spine when I think about it, a kid like that signing the national anthem. Some games there are kids laughing at him from the other team, and I just hate that. To have enough nerve to go and sing in front of a crowd like that… he just wants to be part of the basketball team, because he can’t play basketball, and he’s just doing his part to help us out. And we really appreciate it. He’s awesome.”
Using the extra boost from Riley, Van Der Stoep, Gruis and the Panthers cruised to a 65-45 victory over the Chargers.
“I guess you could maybe call him our secret weapon,” Ellsworth boys’ basketball coach Tyler Morris said. “I just think the guys get fired up a little bit more than they already are. They see him up there doing his thing, and they think, ‘OK, now we need to do our thing.’ We even talked about it that night: ‘Look how much he enjoys what he’s doing; you guys should be the same way on the court.’
“I think the biggest thing is everyone sees how much he’s enjoying himself and how much fun he’s having and how hard he’s trying, and I think everybody just really appreciates that.”
By providing the Panthers with some extra motivation, Riley accomplished his goal for the evening.
“I was going to pump some fireworks at them,” he exclaimed, smiling, days later at his home in Ellsworth.
Riley’s inspirational performance had been planned from the beginning of the basketball season.
“That was a big game on our schedule, and toward the beginning of the season we said that we need to get Riley to sing the anthem this year, and we need to have him do it for a big game because it gets everybody really excited, and we saw that one on our schedule and we thought, ‘OK, we’ll go with that,’” said Morris, who also is a sixth-grade teacher at Ellsworth Elementary School and has Riley in some classes. “It’s not too hard to ask him, and, of course, he jumped at it right away and wanted to do it.”
But that was a month in advance. When the day arrived and Morris announced to his class that Riley was going to sing the national anthem that night, Riley was apprehensive. He had forgotten the agreement.
“I said, ‘Riley, these guys have been looking forward to you singing this whole season; they knew it was going to be the Westbrook game, and they’ve been looking forward to it,’” Morris said. “I said, ‘If you don’t sing, who’s going to pump these guys up?’ And, apparently, I said the right words.”
After getting home from school, it was all Riley could talk about.
“The whole time, before he has to sing, he goes, ‘I’m going to pump those boys up! I’m going to make the fireworks tonight,’” Gwen said. “He just talked about it nonstop.”
Gwen said Riley started singing as soon as he began to talk. He would listen to country music on the radio for hours at a time, and when he finally discovered how to sing, he’d recite the songs by memory.
“He didn’t even talk at all for the first three years of his life, but my father-in-law believes he was listening and absorbing the whole time, and all of a sudden, when he started talking, he started singing,” Gwen said. “By 5 or 6, he started singing at home — full country songs.”
With his autism comes a seemingly super-human memory. Riley is able to recite entire songs, TV broadcasts and conversations. At the dinner table, Riley has repeated telephone conversations his personal care assistant, Krista Meyeraan, has had with her husband, along with her bank account number, and things Morris said during class.
“One day, he just sang the national anthem,” Gwen said. “We watch a lot of NASCAR, and I think that’s where he picked it up. My dad went to Iraq for a year — he was one of the oldest soldiers over there — and when he came back, Riley sang the national anthem out at church for my dad. And, after that, he progressed into singing at the school for the boys and their team.”
Riley eventually became a standout in Nathan McAmis’ music class at Ellsworth Elementary School.
“He was always singing,” McAmis said. “He was the loudest singer in the class. Every time we did a song, his eyes would light up and he’d smile and start waving his hands. He’d start swaying in his chair until he almost fell over.”
Eventually, McAmis found a way to enable Riley to share his talent and passion on a bigger stage.
“The basketball team was doing really well, so a couple of boosters had asked kids from the music department to start singing (before games),” McAmis said. “(Meyeraan and Riley’s parents) had him come in and sing for me, and it was just like, ‘Wow.’ So, kind of spur of the moment, I asked him, ‘Do you want to sing at a game?’
Riley agreed, and last year, he sang the national anthem before a boys’ basketball game for the first time.
“The first night they did it, they seated him in his little wooden chair, and I was in front of him and kind of hummed the first note to him, and, once he took off, he was great,” McAmis said. “Sure enough, the crowd goes crazy, and he screams into the microphone, ‘Play ball!’ And, of course, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house that night.”
“I was nervous to death for him, but he nailed it.”
Morris arrived as the boys’ basketball coach the next year. One day, during the fall, while Riley, Morris, Meyeraan and another of Riley’s aides were hanging out at school, Morris learned of Riley’s talent.
“His aide was like, ‘Go ahead, Riley, sing the national anthem for him,’” Morris said. “And he started singing, and it was just the four of us in the room, and I looked at the aides and they had tears in their eyes. Then I started tearing up. It was just a neat moment.”
Morris wanted to give Riley an opportunity to sing again, and he circled the Panthers’ matchup against W-WG.
Although Riley is a huge Ellsworth fan, he doesn’t like to attend games. After singing the national anthem, he asks to go home and listen to the play-by-play on the radio.
“It’s the social part; he doesn’t want to be around all those people,” Gwen said. “We look at the light and say, ‘The light is on.’ But, to Riley, (his mind) keeps saying, ‘The light is on, the light is on, the people are talking, the people are talking’ — everything goes through his head all the time. So, socially, it’s hard for him to be at a crowded game like that.”
He also gets nervous about the possibility of the basketball flying in his direction, and he doesn’t want to see anybody getting hurt.
“He was really, really sick as a baby, and he was in the hospital for so long when he was growing up that he’s really conditioned to people being hurt and people crying and stuff, so when those things happen, he starts bawling,” Morris said. “I had a (student) one day come in and not have his homework done, and he starts crying. And Riley, he’s so conditioned to feel bad for kids, he started crying back there. So we have one kid who is crying because he doesn’t have his homework done, and we have Riley sitting in the back of the room crying because he saw this other kid feeling bad. So, when he sings the anthem, he’ll stick around for a little bit and watch the game, but he usually ends up leaving before it’s over because he wouldn’t be able to handle someone getting hurt and he’s always really nervous about the basketball flying toward him in the stands.”
Instead, Riley relies on the radio.
“If he’s not at the game, he commentates on the radio nonstop,” Gwen said. “He knows who shoots the 3s, and he knows who does the slam dunks, even if he’s not sitting right there in the gym. He was on the edge of his seat with that Adrian game. He can’t stand, but he can sit on his knees, and he’s bouncing up and down and hooting and hollering.”
Ellsworth’s boys’ basketball players do as much for Riley as he does for them.
“He’ll tell me in the morning, ‘Mom, I had a great dream last night. I dreamed I hit a home run and ran so fast around the bases.’ But he’s not saying that to make you feel bad — you do because you know he can’t — but in his mind, that’s what he does; he’s running all the time — he just can’t physically do it,” Gwen said. “He lives through sports. For other people to play sports, he is so happy for them to be able to do that.”
Gwen and Larry both said that Riley has never produced any evidence of self-pity.
“I only get that from other people,” Gwen said. “They’ll say, ‘Oh, I feel so sorry for him.’ And sometimes you say that to yourself: ‘Oh, I feel bad for him because he can’t ride a bike and he can’t go play ball.’ But Riley’s happy. Riley’s happy with the things he can give people. He knows his purpose; he didn’t have to look for it. If you’re having a bad day, he’ll say, ‘What’s the matter? Do you want to give me a hug?’
“He had laser-eye surgery; he had hernia surgery; his kidneys are bad; but he never complained about pain; he never complained about anything. He’s just amazing, and he touches every person’s heart. If you talk to Riley, he’ll touch your heart.”
Said Larry: “He’s gone through more in his 12 years than I have in my 40 years. People will say how they feel sorry for you. Well, I’m sorry for them that they think that way, because Riley’s a blessing. I couldn’t be prouder of him. For everything they told us he would never do, he’s proven everybody wrong.”
Riley isn’t finished.
He’ll attend high school in Ellsworth, and his parents are hoping to send him to college.
“Technology is advancing, and we’re hoping he’ll go to college and do something awesome with computers,” Gwen said.
In the meantime, Riley will continue singing, playing “Country SingStar” and the new wrestling video game he got for his birthday, reading his science book for fun, listening to the radio, and dreaming of country music star Taylor Swift.
“He actually will tell you that his girlfriend is Taylor Swift,” Meyeraan said, laughing. “She doesn’t know that yet.”
Said Riley, with a wide smile: “She’s my lover.”
Most importantly, Riley will continue giving, inspiring, changing lives, and touching hearts.
“I’m so thankful, so blessed,” Gwen said. “He’s brought so much joy into the family; I don’t know how to even put it into words. He’s touched so many people. People forget, and they take things for granted, but not him. He’s happy with anything. We’re lucky. Everybody’s always like, ‘Oh, you’ve got so much work with him.’ No, you have no idea. He has brought so much to our lives.”