Barbara Campbell once wished her little boy would say something. Anything.
Autism rendered her son, Ryan Barts, silent in his first few years.
Things have certainly changed.
"I'm a celebrity in Central Kentucky, I am, maybe in Kentucky," said Barts, now 22. His speech takes on its own particular cadence, especially when he is excited. "It's a wonderful thing, it is, a wonderful thing."
As one of five Kentuckians representing the United States at the Special Olympics World Games in Athens, Greece, starting June 24, Barts happily rattles off his successes and failures on the track. He compares the time he fell in the finals of a state meet to infamous miscues by Dallas Cowboys football stars Leon Lett and Roger Staubach. (He's a big fan of sports bloopers on ESPN.) He explains, in detail, how he studied to became a softball umpire in Scott County and how people at his Kroger job are always coming up to say hi because they remember him from the years he managed the Scott County High School football and basketball teams. He will tell you, asked or not, about particular scores and plays that made Cardinal teams great.
"Everybody knows me," Barts said with unassuming confidence.
The difference in her sone before he started Special Olympics and now is, Campbell said, "pretty amazing."
Like many autistic kids, Barts liked his world neatly ordered and self- contained. He would spend endless hours in his room, watching old movies and playing video games. The stimulation and noise of large crowds was overwhelming. He had few friends but, he said, "I didn't know what I was missing.
He started out playing baseball when he was in middle school, spending much of the first year on the bench. But he liked it. He wanted to learn more. That lead to unprecedented back-yard practice sessions, interacting with his mom; his stepfather, Don Campbell; his father, Ron Barts; and his sister, Amanda Barts. After getting some playing time in baseball, he eventually came to track, the sport that propelled him to the competition in Greece.
He was competitive from the start, crying after early meets when he'd win a silver not a gold medal. ("I don't like to talk about that," Barts said recently.)
That interest in Special Olympics unlocked a fanatical appreciation of all kinds of sports. It led him to become manager of his high school basketball and football teams and a special fan of the girls softball team, which once came to his house in the team bus to pick him up for an away game.
Those friends from high school have stayed in touch via Facebook, which has been "a lifeline," his mom said. Her son doesn't go out like other people his age, but he feels connected to his old friends and continues to make new ones.
At the 2010 Special Olympics USA National Games in Lincoln, Neb., he won four medals: gold in the four-by-100-meter relay, silver in the 100-meter dash and the long jump, and bronze in the 200-meter dash He was voted one of two Special Olympics athletes of the year by the Kentucky Special Olympics for 2010, and he was the only Kentucky athlete chosen to travel to Washington, D.C., where he met Sen. Mitch McConnell and Special Olympics chairman Tim Shriver.
The confidence he gained in Special Olympics helped him venture into the work force. He has held a job as a bag boy for three years at the Georgetown Kroger.
"Ryan is very well known and well thought of in our community," Kroger associate manager Kelley Hackworth said. "He seems to know everyone. The Scott County community is really behind him."
Store officials decided to collect money to send Barts and his family to the games in Athens. Coffee cans converted to collection containers featuring his picture are placed at registers throughout the store. Corporate officials heard of the effort and now, Saturday will be Ryan Barts day at several Central Kentucky Kroger stores. Employees can pay $1 to wear red in support of Barts' efforts and in honor of his beloved Scott County Cardinals. A number of other fund-raisers are under way, including a motorcycle run sponsored by local firefighters.
Barts has trained for months for the competition, following a regimen laid out by his national coaches that requires daily stretching and running multiple laps. He's trying new foods, something that has always been a particular challenge for him, as evidenced by his wiry frame.
His mom is watching as her once-silent child takes his place in the wider world.
Achievements once unimagined — getting a driver's license, going to college, getting a place of his own someday — seem not only possible but probable.
"I'm just getting better and better," Barts said. "Better and better."