Opelika man becomes ‘angel’ for Florida boy with Spina Bifida
By Morgan Bryce
For Easton Griffith, a visit to the beach usually involved scraped arms and elbows. Unable to walk because of Spina Bifida, Easton’s only way to get the full beach experience was to crawl.
Easton and his mother Jennifer live in Bradenton, Fla., which is mere miles from some of Florida’s legendary white-sand beaches.
Recently, Easton’s painful beach trips became a thing of the past, as some “angels from Alabama” visited and gave him a beach-accessible wheelchair, which according to Jennifer, has “meant the world” to Easton.
Easton’s “angel” is Tyler Thompson. Thompson, a Lagrange, Ga., native, owns and operates Auburn Social Media, which is based out of Opelika’s small-business incubator, the Roundhouse. He, like Easton, was born with Spina Bifida, but has not let his condition slow him down.
Thompson’s childhood passion for technology led him to a career in social media and marketing.
“My dad owns a business that deals a lot with computers and other electronics, so I definitely grew up in and around technology and wanted to learn about it,” Thompson said.
As the popularity of social media increased, Thompson immersed himself in this new technological realm, particularly Twitter and Facebook.
A few years ago, Thompson was looking for a job, and thanks to his social media savviness, found a job which allowed him to work with social media for a living.
“I really enjoyed Twitter and got good at marketing myself on there, and the thought crossed my mind of working with social media on a company level, seeing if this would work,” Thompson said. “I reached out to Kyle who was doing Auburn Social Media at the time, and I started working with him in that business.”
In 2014, when Sandler started Roundhouse in Opelika, Thompson became the owner of Auburn Social Media, and according to Thompson, it is a “business that helps establish a social media presence for small businesses like the ones here in Roundhouse.”
The connection between Thompson and the Griffiths began three years ago, after Jennifer posted a picture about Easton’s story in a Facebook group called “I Run 4 Michael.”
“The group was started by a man named Tim Boyle, and Michael was the person he would run for. Michael had a disability which left him wheelchair-bound and couldn’t run. Tim found joy in being able to run for Michael and Michael got a lot of encouragement from that. Seeing their story and journey was a lot of fun to watch,” Thompson said.
Group members who were willing to run for someone with a disability could be paired with them and their families, and after Thompson saw Jennifer’s post on the group page, knew he wanted to race for Easton.
“When I saw Easton’s story on Facebook, I saw this cute kid who had Spina Bifida like me, and I felt a connection to him. I had just started wheelchair racing, and I wanted to roll for Easton,” Thompson said.
Going around the normal matching parameters for the group, Thompson paired up with the Griffiths and started racing for Easton, creating a Facebook page called “This Is How I Roll”, which Thompson used to post photos and videos of him “rolling for Easton.”
After getting to know the Griffiths through Facebook and Skype, Thompson decided that he wanted to purchase Easton a beach-accessible wheelchair.
“I started with a GoFundMe page, and it really flopped. So, all it took was three people that I knew putting in the money, $1,300, for the wheelchair,” Thompson said.
Thompson secured those funds two months ago, and paid for a custom-built wheelchair made by Eagle Sportschairs in Snellville, Ga.
When the wheelchair was finished, Thompson faced a dilemma about getting the chair to Easton. With help from S&S Termite and Pest Control owner and friend John Story, Thompson and he were able to fly to Florida to personally deliver the chair.
“The night before the trip, John and I stayed in a hotel in Atlanta near the airport. I couldn’t sleep the night before, and at 4 a.m., we were up and at em getting ready for our flight,” Thompson said. “I wasn’t nervous, but excited. I was excited to see something that had been three years in the making happen.”
On the morning of Aug. 2, they arrived in Bradenton, and met the Griffiths at nearby Anna Maria Island, where Jennifer serves as a program director. It was the first time the friends met in person, nearly three years after the start of their friendship. Jennifer said the moment Easton saw the wheelchair was incredible.
“Easton’s eyes got really big, and he asked me, ‘Is that mine?’ I told him yes and of course, the first thing he wanted to do was try it out on the beach,” Jennifer said laughingly.
Thompson was afforded the pleasure of being one of the first to wheel Easton out onto the beach, and said that experience was “one of the coolest things I’ve ever been a part of in my life.”
Besides making trips to the beach easier, Jennifer said Easton’s wheelchair is helping out in other ways.
“This wheelchair gives him independence and mobility, which is something he hasn’t had before,” Jennifer said.
During their time on the beach, the local television station arrived, and according to Thompson, the reporter kept calling both he and Story ‘’Alabama angels.” On the trip back, they decided to make the “Alabama angels” far more than just a nickname.
“I was talking to John about the nickname, and we decided we want to make this a real, non-profit organization which helps kids with situations like Easton’s,” Thompson said. “It’s made his and his mom’s life easier, and I hope we can do the same for other kids like him.”
The Alabama Angels non-profit organization is currently in its developmental phases.
Looking ahead, Thompson said his plan is to keep working with Auburn Social Media, but would like to be able to one day fully dedicate himself to the Alabama Angels, which he says will “fulfill his passion for helping disabled kids have better lives.”
According to Jennifer, Thompson is quite angelic himself.
“Tyler is an amazing guy, and has a good head on his shoulders. His gift has changed both mine and Easton’s lives, and we are so thankful to be able to know him,” Jennifer said.