By Allen Palmeri
HOLTS SUMMIT—Ryan Ebersold, a former special education student who just graduated from Midwestern Baptist College (SBC), knows he is blessed.
“I’ve always said I am a miracle child,” said Ebersold, 25, whose life has been marked by many physical challenges (premature birth, frequent surgeries, bullying) and an emotional hardship known as Asperger’s disorder. “I’m not saying that in an arrogant or bragging way. You have to hear my story to understand why I say that.”
Given only a 10 percent chance to live coming out of the womb, Ebersold needed to spend the first five months of his life in the hospital. The Intensive Care Unit nurses at St. Luke’s Hospital in Kansas City called him “Mr. Personality” in honor of his rare responsiveness as a “premie.” Slowly he added to his 27-week birth weight of 1 pound, 13 ounces only to face numerous lung, heart, eye, throat and hernia ailments.
“He had eight surgeries by the time he was seven years old,” said his father, Doug.
One year later, his mother, Michelle, led him to saving faith in Christ as she knelt by his bed in Sedalia. Because he was afraid of water, he was not baptized until the seventh grade at Grover Park Baptist Church in Warrensburg. Two years later, as a freshman at California High School, he surrendered to the ministry.
Early childhood suffering
Doug Ebersold remembers holding his 12-inch son in the palm of his hand. The doctors told him that Ryan had very little chance to live a normal life. Prayer was the Ebersolds’ comfort.
When he wasn’t surviving in the hospital by means of a ventilator, which led to the chronic lung disease he has to this day, he needed to be on oxygen at home. That lasted for a total of 17 months.
“We had these huge oxygen tanks that Doug learned how to change out himself,” Michelle Ebersold said. “We tried to do as much ourselves as we could. We cut back on the nursing care.”
He had many medical scares growing up that set him up to be delayed academically. One of the simple things he had to learn was to sit up, and there were many sessions devoted to infant development, physical therapy, speech therapy, occupational therapy, and placement into a specialized preschool. The experts noted that he was two years behind and predicted he would never be in a normal classroom.
He did kindergarten twice—once in transition, once for real. His mother grew accustomed to re-teaching lessons at home. And there were troubling signs emotionally, like the time in transitional kindergarten when he came unglued because a worker mowed the playground. He panicked and ran to the door, clawing to get inside.
He also got upset if his classmates did not walk the same way to get their milk, if his parents changed their driving habits, or if how he got dressed was altered. Only later would the Ebersolds come to realize what it all meant.
Facing social hurdles
As a middle school student, Ebersold fell behind in his reading skills but could focus intently on unusual things. For example, one day as she was driving him to a learning center, Michelle noticed that Ryan was working with a notepad, a pen, a baseball statistics magazine, and a calculator.
“What are you doing?” she said.
“I’m figuring out the average age of all the American League pitchers,” he replied.
At others times he would lock in on a sports team and relate everything in life to that. He also struggled socially with inappropriate behavior and stilted interaction with peers. These are some of the telltale signs of Asperger’s disorder, and when the diagnosis was made at this stage in his life, it really did fit.
“It’s just certain little things that they have kind of a quirk on,” Doug Ebersold said.
By now Ryan had gotten used to people making fun of him because of all of his abnormalities. It started in fourth grade.
“That’s kind of the age when kids are like, ‘Hey, I’m going to be cool now,’ so they start picking on somebody who would not be so cool in their eyes,” he said. “I was that person.”
In sixth grade it got worse. He had yet to be classified as a special education student, but many students viewed him that way.
“The popular kids all made fun of me, then everybody else said, ‘Let’s make fun of him, because that’s what they’re doing, and we want to be like them,’” Ebersold said. “They seemed to kind of gang up on me at that time.
“I even tried and attempted to commit suicide. Today that’s not a problem, but back then I was in such great, deep depression because of the way that kids had treated me.”
The hope of California
When his father took over as superintendent of California Public Schools in 2000, Ryan had a new beginning. He found some friends who helped him grow closer to Christ, and the bad experiences of the past began to fade away.
He had needed some specialized instruction in the seventh grade to bring him up three grade levels in his reading skills, and he still had difficulty in the classroom in terms of knowing the material but testing poorly. California is where he finally turned the corner. He learned he was capable of paying attention to the right things in school and remaining focused on the things that matter.
His special education teacher, Barbara Wehmeyer, was one who took a strong interest in his success.
“She really helped with getting me back on track,” Ebersold said.
The youth group of Lebanon Baptist Church in McGirk was like a soothing balm to Ebersold’s many wounds. He and his friends went to youth camp by the Lake of the Ozarks and several from the group were called to ministry. Ebersold, a 16-year-old freshman, has no doubt about what happened there.
“I know that God’s definitely given me a heart and passion for the lost,” he said. “He’s definitely given me a heart and passion for discipleship. I believe that’s really missing in our churches today—discipleship.”
He oddly ran into the bullies whom he met one day in town. They told him they were sorry for making his life miserable, and he said he forgave them.
It all ended with him being a National Honor Society graduate, hugging his father on the stage as he was handed his diploma.
“He had many years there that were a real struggle, but he persevered and he did really well,” Doug Ebersold said.
Trained and ready to serve
One of his professors at Midwestern College, Alan Branch, said he wants him to go on with his seminary education.
“I want you to get your doctorate, because you’ll probably be one of the very first ones with Asperger’s syndrome to have your doctorate in ministry,” Branch told Ebersold.
Ebersold earned his bachelor’s degree in Christian Ministries, with an emphasis on Christian Education. Along the way he served as interim pastor of Memorial Baptist Church, Nelson.
“My dream would absolutely be one day to lead a conference of pastors and people in ministry who have Asperger’s,” he said. “I would love to be able to minister to people of my own kind, because I know what you go through. I don’t know very many that are in ministry right now. I know I’m not the only one, I’m certain, but I don’t hear about it at all.
“It’s not as often that I wind up really getting stuck on something as much as what it used to be. It’s gotten a lot better as I’ve gotten older, but it still happens. So I know I’m going to have to have a patient church, patient people definitely, to help deal with that. But it’s amazing that whenever I’ve preached, every time, it’s amazing how I’ve never gotten stuck on something. I’ve been known to blaze right through that, and the only way I can explain that is God.”
His current pastor at Union Hill Baptist Church in Holts Summit is also his former pastor in McGirk—Frank Whitney. He calls Ebersold “tenacious,” the type of minister who could go to a small, rural church as a bi-vocational pastor or a larger church with staff who can counsel and help solve problems.
“Ryan is a survivor,” Whitney said.
“I can’t wait to see how his life is going to play out, because there were so many times that can only be explained by divine intervention,” Michelle Ebersold said.
Ebersold, who works as a cashier at Moser’s Discount Foods, is upbeat.
“For all that I have gone through in my life, if I did not have Christ, I probably wouldn’t even be here today,” he said. “For what Christ did for me on the cross, and what Christ did for everybody on the cross, so they can know Him as their Lord and Savior, it’s amazing to think that Jesus Christ knew everything that was going to happen to Him and lived a perfect life on this earth. He knew He was going to die, knew He was going to rise again from the dead, still took everything up to the Father in prayer, knowing all that, knowing that’s God’s only Son … He came so that we could have a mediator to the Father.
“That’s what He’s done in my life. I can’t imagine what I’d be like today without Him.”