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He wasn’t on the field, but Tristian Castleman has been on the sidelines for every football game of his career at Jamestown High School.
For every snap, every pass, every down and every point, Castleman has rallied the Jamestown community behind the team on the football field as the Eagles mascot. Now he hopes that same community will rally behind him as he faces the biggest challenge of his life.
Many of Castleman’s 294 classmates at Jamestown will go on to college in the fall. Tristian wants to join them, but as his mother would attest, it isn’t that simple.
Tristian has an intellectual disability, and a traditional university curriculum would not match up with his abilities.
“It’s the learning process,” Stephanie Castleman said. “Reading is not that difficult, but comprehension is, understanding what people are saying is. … He does well when we do the same thing every day.”
It isn’t that simple for Stephanie, either. She was diagnosed with breast cancer when 18-year-old Tristian was a freshman in high school, and has been fighting it for four years. She is in remission now, but still has marks from the battle — cropped hair and an occasional forgetfulness she calls “chemo-brain” from repeated rounds of chemotherapy.
Shepherds College in Kenosha, Wis., a school geared toward students with intellectual disabilities, would provide Tristian with the resources and education to live on his own and conduct a normal life with a real job, but at more than $42,000 per year, the tuition is more than his family can afford.
Stephanie launched a GoFundMe campaign in November 2014 to raise money to cover the costs, hoping his Eagles comrades will help Tristian soar. As of this week, it has raised more than $7,000 of its $50,000 goal.
Tristian is reserved on most subjects. He avoids eye contact and speaks quietly, but when his mother asks him what he likes about being Jamestown’s mascot, a different child emerges, one with a playful look and an easy smile.
“Understanding language is difficult, especially with students that are the same age,” Stephanie said. “But he’s very social.”
Being the team mascot is a large part of who Tristian is, and it has defined his school experience since middle school. As a middle school student, Tristian knew two things: he was going to go to Jamestown, and he was going to be Jamestown’s mascot, the eagle. As an eighth-grade student, he went to a mascot camp to prepare for the job.
“In our family, you have to do a sport, an art and a club, and that was his sport,” Stephanie said.
Stephanie said Tristian has difficulty understanding language, making it difficult to communicate with his classmates. Being a mascot was the way he could connect with his peers.
Being in front of the crowd and rallying it for the Eagles brought a sense of normalcy Stephanie always hoped Tristian could have. But as his high school career approached its end, Stephanie began to worry: What happens after graduation?
“I want him to become a productive member of society,” Stephanie said.
Stephanie was thinking about that as she and Tristian dropped off her daughter to begin her freshman year at Longwood University. During a tour, an admissions officer struck up a conversation with Tristian and suggested he could attend Longwood and be the university’s mascot. Stephanie’s heart sank. Due to his condition, she knew Tristian would not go to Longwood.
Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, special-needs students can attend public schools until their 22nd birthday. After that, their options decrease, and many disabled people have to rely on family members for support.
Stephanie didn’t want Tristian to fill a classroom seat for another four years, while his peers started down their own paths; she wanted him to have a normal life.
She began to research a school she had heard about that focused on students with intellectual disabilities, Shepherds College. The school provides students with career training and skills for living on their own.
Over the course of three years, students prepare for careers in the culinary arts or horticulture, living together in atmospheres of increasing independence. Tristian wants to study the culinary arts.
“You get a job to be a part of society,” Stephanie said. “You learn to cook, you get skills to live on your own.”
The school was perfect, but the price — $42,300 per year — was not. Stephanie and her husband were separated, and she would have to find a way to cover the cost of tuition.
With her freshman son’s future already on her mind, Stephanie received devastating news. She was diagnosed with breast cancer.
As she was fighting the disease, she started planning for Tristian’s future — one she did not expect to be a part of.
“It helped, in a way,” Stephanie said. “You set the small goals to look forward to the big one.”
She received treatment, and her cancer is in remission, but the challenge of sending Tristian to Shepherds remains.
Since the GoFundMe page went up, Tristian has received a few scholarships, including the inaugural Don Samuels Scholarship, named after Jamestown’s outgoing athletic director, but it is not enough to cover the full cost.
Unlike four-year university scholarships, Stephanie said scholarships for students with intellectual disabilities are difficult to find.
A friend helped create a YouTube video to publicize the fundraiser, which Stephanie said has been viewed more than 3,000 times.
Stephanie wants Tristian to be able to live on his own, but for now, she’s hoping he can rely on the community to help him and others like him.
“The dream is for it to go viral and raise way more than we need and start a scholarship for other students with intellectual disabilities,” she said.