PENDLETON — For 10-year-old Christopher Morton, Monday and Wednesday afternoons are reserved for him to visit Patriots’ Place and meet with newfound buddies Drew Pitman and Jeremy Max, and other student veterans who are friends and fellow classmates of his father, Jeff, at Tri-County Technical College.
Christopher was diagnosed at age 3 with autism and mitochondrial disease, an inherited disorder resulting in mental disabilities as well as developmental or physical disorders.
He has asked to see both men every day since Drew, Jeremy, other members of the Student Veterans Association (SVA) chapter at Tri-County and campus safety officers invited him to visit Patriots’ Place, a campus veterans’ center, under the guise of playing.
They surprised him and his parents and his service dog, Buddy, with gifts after learning about the family’s struggle with finances and the health setbacks associated with a recent car accident that injured Christopher and Buddy.
Drew, 24, an Air Force veteran who is back at Tri-County in the university transfer program, said he hasn’t been able to get the family off of his mind since learning of their plight.
“I was in Patriots’ Place studying for a chemistry exam when Jeff’s wife, Kelli, and Christopher came in to wait for him while he was in class. I was a canine handler in the military and I talked with her about their service dog, Buddy, who is a comfort and calming agent for their son,” Drew said. “I noticed Christopher was in a wheelchair and I learned they had been in a car accident months ago which had set him back and injured the dog.
“Christopher showed me his toys and as I listened to him and Kelli, I realized how hard they have had it, what they are sacrificing and what go they go through to give him quality of life. They have devoted themselves to him and he is their life,” he added. “He told me he was getting braces on his legs and he began to cry. He told me he was scared. I realized that as a group of veterans at Tri-County, we could touch this family and bring a smile to his face.”
Drew wanted to give Christopher a “big day” after getting his leg braces so he went into overdrive, gathering toys and donations for the boy.
Within 48 hours, he, other student veterans, and Tri-County faculty and staff were able to get a trunk full of toys, which included GI Joe and Star Wars toys, and a stamp set and legos to help Christopher with his cognitive skills. The group also obtained pet supplies, including medication for Buddy.
Campus Safety Officer Teresa Summers arrived at work with a car full of items, including a handicap shower chair she and her husband had purchased for the family.
Tri-County Campus Safety Director Jonathan Finch, a veteran himself who serves as the advisor for the SVA, is proud that the veterans are helping others and making service projects a part of their mission.
“I was very quickly impressed with their motivation and initiative. After meeting Christopher, the SVA team immediately determined this was something they wanted to help with. The attitude displayed by these young TCTC student veterans is amazing,” he said.
“Not only is this just a great experience with someone having been helped, there is no doubt in my mind Tri-County students have been impressed with the immediate and overwhelming support shown by College employees. I look forward to working with this impressive team,” said Finch.
The next project for the SVA is to raise enough money and donations to build a handicap-accessible shower for Christopher. Currently, Kelli has difficulty bathing him in their small bathroom in their single-wide mobile home.
“We hope to raise $2,000 through upcoming fundraisers,” Drew said.
SVA is planning an angel tree for Christmas and a food drive. They plan to visit an elementary school on Veterans’ Day and read to the students and talk about Veterans’ Day.
Jeff, who spent eight years in the Army (working in homeland security), is now an associate degree nursing student.
After Christopher was diagnosed, he began to rethink his career. After leaving the military, he worked in food services at resorts, as a ski lift operator and at an animal shelter. He says Christopher’s medical condition was a motivating factor for choosing the health care field.
His wife, Kelli, a Tri-County Computer Technology graduate, is a stay-at-home mom now and homeschools Christopher. Jeff, who doesn’t qualify for the GI Bill because he has been out of the service so long, is attending Tri-County on a Pell grant and lottery, leaving the family strapped for funds.
“He knows he has a second family here. That’s what we do for each other. We reach out to veterans and their families and help them,” said Jeremy, an Army veteran and university transfer major who serves as a veteran student ambassador. “As veterans, we gave to our country. Now we want to continue serving other veterans and their children. They’ve got my back and I’ve got theirs.”