Life’s tumultuous road of ups and downs is often hidden from view until the last minute, keeping you in suspense until it takes a turn that changes you forever. For Dana Leach, one of those turns started in an ambulance, amid flashing lights, and concluded with an emergency caesarean section to deliver her fourth child, James Ryan Leach, a month earlier than expected. What should have been a joyous moment quickly turned somber as the doctor announced issues with low muscle tone and whisked her baby and husband away. Mrs. Leach was left to wait alone for three hours. “I had no idea what was coming, but it did not sound good,” Mrs. Leach recalls. “It was just a horrifying experience.”
After just one look at her doctor and husband when they returned, she feared the worst.
“When the doctor sat down and said James Ryan had Trisomy 21, otherwise known as Down syndrome, I breathed the biggest sigh of relief because my baby was alive,” Mrs. Leach says. James Ryan had a very surprising entrance into this world, and little did they know “he was going to change our world and make it better,” she shares.
After a year of 14 hospital visits, an open-heart surgery (common for babies with Down syndrome) and a scare that a bout with petechiae would lead to leukemia (all while caring for four children under the age of six), Mrs. Leach says they learned to live in community with people more deeply than ever before. “It was tumultuous, but it was good,” she reports with utmost sincerity. “It was hard, but we learned that hard is not bad. We learned that we still have each other and how to get along. We learned that there is a world of people around us who love us and wanted to be part of our success.”
Even so, Mrs. Leach found herself drilling doctors with questions, until one day, her long-term pediatrician, Dr. John Dalton, said, “You are the expert on this baby, and I’m just the professional.” Mrs. Leach has repeated that statement to other young mothers over and over again. “I did not know this world existed,” she admits. “I had not experienced a world that had people with disabilities in it … and our weaknesses. We were able to embrace that and realize we all have special needs. I tell people all the time that if you look at my family and you think you know who has a special need, nine times out of 10, you are wrong. James Ryan has Down syndrome, but our special needs are changing on a daily basis, sometimes hourly at our house. So, to see the generosity and the community that comes from needing each other, because I cannot do it all by myself, I think that is what changed me.”
Surrounded by love, and despite any limitations he might have, James Ryan continues to surprise the world around him by beating milestones doctors said he would never reach, sprinkling the world with laughter through his humor and by melting hearts with his magnetic smile. “If we had one word to describe James Ryan, it would be ‘determined,’” Mrs. Leach says. In fact, James Ryan’s daily mantra on his way to school is, “I am smart. I am strong. I can and I will. Just watch me!”
Now, as a seventh-grader at Dowell Middle School in McKinney, he loves to play the cello, dabble in art, work puzzles, admire his extensive Captain America collection and wear lots of fun ties. Inspired by the ties worn by the “Glee” television character, Finn Hudson, James Ryan wears bow ties for special occasions and his pizza tie every Friday (complete with an “I am Batman” tie clip).
After an orchestra field trip in sixth grade and a class party that followed, Mrs. Leach says James Ryan “busted out the bow tie and that was that. He pretty much wore them every day after that.” That led them on a challenging search to find ties that a 13-year-old could wear. “We have always known we would need a way to provide for him in the future, and it just kind of came to us one morning. I had just been praying that we needed some answers … and that was one of them. I just had a thought on a Saturday morning — Ry’s Ties! We can do this! And that is how we got started,” Mrs. Leach shares. They launched their website, with 10 minutes to spare, on National Bowtie Day on August 28, 2018.
Mrs. Leach says, “We have learned there are some really good people in the world. We have had suppliers take a chance on us because they like our story and want to support it. It is humbling to know someone is going to do that for you because they believe in him.”
One supplier, whose own baby has Down syndrome, started making hand-crafted leather bow ties to pay for his baby’s heart surgery. He made James Ryan a leather business card holder that says “Ry’s Ties,” and, now, he passes out business cards like they are candy.
Just like James Ryan’s entrance into this world, Ry’s Ties started with flair. A craft bazaar hosted by the McKinney Education Foundation at McKinney High School started a snowball of requests for Ry’s Ties at additional events. Having already agreed to participate in a 4,000-shopper event at Central High School in Keller, they received a call from the Collin County Junior League, asking Ry’s Ties to fill in for a last-minute vacancy at their annual, 18,000-shopper ‘Neath the Wreath event, with just one week until opening day … on the same weekend as the Keller event! “Where God leads, we will go!” Mrs. Leach states enthusiastically. “We had prayed we would have the discernment to see where God was leading and the courage to follow with faith. Three hours later, we got the call to go to Junior League.” She adds, with a laugh, “If you have prayed that prayer out loud in front of your children, and then you get an opportunity, you really have no choice!”
Friends, family and suppliers rallied behind Ry’s Ties to make that weekend happen, with suppliers giving them credit and shipping supplies via second-day air.
The Ry’s Ties website tagline is “Dress to Impress — Some People Were Not Born to Fit into a Box,” and their booth banner proclaims they are “Changing the World One Tie at a Time, One Challenge at a Time.”
Mrs. Leach says, “We are really beginning to see that happen. My eyes have been opened to a new world by living life through his eyes and seeing there are people out there who are not given a chance just because they are a little different. My family is better because he is a part of it. He changed us, and he made us better. I want everyone to have that same chance.”
So, the Leach family set out to find a way to create a cool, nonprofit hang out for teenagers and college-aged students, where kids with all abilities can work together, create together, learn from each other and change each other. Inspired by James Ryan’s love for art, they initially landed on an art studio/store and the name “Inkorporated,” knowing James Ryan could help fill orders, sort, organize, do art subscription boxes, pack them and ship them. “When your eyes open that way,” Mrs. Leach explains, “you begin to see job opportunities all around you.”
After taking a quick poll, they discovered teenagers would only hang out if there was coffee. Mrs. Leach laughs when she says, “I do not drink coffee, and at that point I didn’t even know how to make it, but our product is community, and we will do whatever it takes to make that happen.”
She adds, “Our hope and plan is that kids who go away to college will make different decisions for careers — vote differently, insist on policies that support everyone and hire differently because they remember their first job experience at Inkorporated.” They have already received requests for a location in Plano and Frisco, and they have not even opened their McKinney location yet.
$2.5 million would help them achieve their pie-in-the-sky location, already pinpointed in McKinney, and donations would be gratefully accepted by emailing email@example.com. In the meantime, they are hoping to raise $25,000 for a mobile Volkswagen® coffee van. James Ryan is hoping the members of Pentatonix, his music favorite group, will one day wear his ties.
“We are better together,” Mrs. Leach says. “Find somebody who is not like you and allow yourself to be changed by a relationship with them.”
Amy Day Richmond is a writer who relishes faith, family, intriguing conversations and inspiring words. She wishes time could be saved in a bottle, because one lifetime isn’t enough.