Steven, a Special Services student at Southern Westchester BOCES for six years, died in late August a few weeks after turning 21.
On Jan. 6, members of his family attended a ceremony at Tappan Hill School in Tarrytown to dedicate a bench in his honor. Sara Salvatore told the dozens of teachers, administrators, staff and visitors at the ceremony that it was a privilege to have taught Steven, who touched many people in his 21 years.
“Although he appeared to be frail, he possessed strength, perseverance and the ability to overcome incredible odds and physical challenges,” she said. “His courage led us to believe that each day is an opportunity to create lasting memories.”
Steven loved music, “Pirates of the Caribbean,” the color red, slapstick humor and laughter, Ms. Salvatore said. “Staff would go around the room tripping just to get his infamous laugh,” she said. “His gentle smile could melt the hearts of those around him. Even though he never spoke a word, his voice, thoughts and sense of humor could always be heard.”
Dr. Steven Coleman, school psychologist, talked with staff members about doing something in Steven’s memory. He reached out to Richard Thomas, who teaches plumbing and construction at the Center for Career Services Campus in Valhalla. Two of Mr. Thomas’ students – Jonathan Maldonado and Christian Perez from Port Chester High School – volunteered to build a bench. They built it out of pine, and it is situated in the Tappan Hill lobby. School staff members donated money to purchase a memorial plaque that is affixed on the bench. The school plans to hang photos of Steven above it.
“I am very impressed with the skills that the students at Careers are developing and their willingness to help a student they never met,” said Phyllis Rizzi, Tappan Hill principal, who described Steven as “a wonderful young man who, despite his physical and mental disabilities, always came to school with a big smile on his face.”
Adrianne Moses-Ridley of New Rochelle, Steven’s mother, attended the event with Steven’s grandmother, his godmother, and one of his four brothers.
“I think it’s absolutely wonderful,” she said of the dedication. “It’s a beautiful bench. I feel honored. I feel grateful.”
“I was a little anxious about attending because it’s still new for me. But I knew I had to be here,” she added. “That they thought enough to do this makes me feel like he wasn’t in vain.”
Steven was the fourth of her five sons, Ms. Moses-Ridley said. He was cheerful, even-natured and he liked to have fun, she said of him. “I’m very thankful to my family because they’ve always included him, so he was never a child that was off to the side by himself,” she said.
Steven had a number of health challenges, including cerebral palsy, seizures and not being able to eat through his mouth. He was in a lot of pain, Ms. Moses-Ridley said. He wasn’t able to speak in words or sign language, but the family understood him through other ways, such as smiles and frowns.
His mother said the family took Steven to every state in the continental United States and Alaska, visiting Mount Rushmore, the Grand Canyon and other sites. They did a lot of the exploring with road trips so he would get to see everything. They also took him to Broadway shows and the circus, among other activities. “We traveled and let him be exposed to things,” she said.
“He was a great kid. He liked to see things. He liked to learn things,” Ms. Moses-Ridley said. “I think had he been able to communicate better, I’m sure there’s a whole lot that he would have had to say.”
Jianni Ridley, Steven’s 17-year-old brother, said it’s a different experience for parents to raise a typical child than one who is disabled.
“Parents with well children look at the world through their own eyes and introduce their children to the world,” he said. “Parents with disabled children look at the world through their child’s eyes and introduce the world to their children.”
Minister Jackie Bozier, a teacher’s aide at Tappan Hill, said Steven is “with the angels. And Steven is not in a wheelchair. Steven doesn’t look the same. Steven has a whole new body. He is in a better place and he’s at peace,” she said.
“No matter whether you are in a wheelchair, or whether you can’t talk, but still God gives you one thing that you have a smile and you can use that smile to cheer somebody else up, and that was Steven’s gift. He cheered a lot of us up.”