Yesterday, I went in seach of Good People for this post, and as always, found some really impressive examples of Humanity at its best! And I had planned to spotlight 3 or 4 such people, but then I found … THE ONE! It happens that way sometimes … something just crosses my path and I say, “Eureka!!! That’s it … that’s the one!!!” This story, this man, will blow you away …
The Cantos triplets, Leo, Nick and Steven, attained the rank of Eagle Scout this past October, the highest rank in the Boy Scouts of America. They met every requirement, including zip lining, whitewater rafting, knot-tying, first aid and archery skills. It is an achievement accomplished by only about 4% of all scouts, so it really is a big deal, but for the Cantos triplets, it is an even bigger deal, for they have all been blind since birth.
Leo, Nick and Steven were born in 1999, each weighing only about a pound, and each with a disease called retinopathy of prematurity, a disease that occurs in premature babies and causes blindness. The boys got off to a rough start. Born in Colombia, they moved to Arlington, Virginia, at age three when their father took a job at the Colombian Embassy in Washington, D.C. But only a year later, the father left them high and dry, moving back to Colombia, and the boys were left to be raised by their mother and grandmother, never seeing their father again.
The boys’ mother, Ceila Gracia, was working two jobs trying to support her family, and had little time for them. Teachers and Columbia Lighthouse for the Blind volunteers took turns helping them have experiences common to others their age, such as ice-skating and trick-or-treating, and they went to a weeklong CLB day camp five summers in a row. But by and large, Leo, Nick, and Steven didn’t stray much from their routine. During the week they went to school, on Sundays to church, and the rest of the time they were housebound. They heard other children laughing and playing outside their apartment windows, but were never allowed to join them.
Enter Ollie Cantos, a lawyer with the U.S. Department of Education in Washington D.C. Ollie Cantos had heard about the brothers from a friend in church, was told that they were having a rough time and being bullied. Ollie Cantos would qualify for the “Good People Doing Good Things” hero of the week, even if he had never met Leo, Nick and Steven. Allow me to share a few brief highlights from his biography:
Ollie got his start at age. 20, holding positions of responsibility at the local, state, and national level within the National Federation of the Blind. Subsequently moving into the cross-disability arena and in spite of significant obstacles, he became a civil rights attorney and worked at the Disability Rights Legal Center in Los Angeles. Following a three-year term there, he was recruited to relocate to Washington DC to become General Counsel and Director of Programs for the now-130,000-member American Association of People with Disabilities. That led to him serving as a leader in the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice as Special Assistant and later Special Counsel to the Assistant Attorney General.
But, Ollie’s work spans far beyond his leadership in the public arena. He has served as a long-time attorney mentor for the American Bar Association Commission on Mental and Physical Disability Law and was once a member of the Commission as well. For almost 20 years, he has been a Big Brother mentor to a kid who was once in a Los Angeles-based program, who has since grown to adulthood, and who has just honorably completed six years of military service as an airman with the United States Air Force. In addition, Ollie has mentored African-American foster children living in Washington, DC while serving on the board of a local non-profit organization providing social services to the local Latino low-income community.
Ollie has also spent years on disability-related issues including assistive technology, civil rights, criminal justice, emergency preparedness, employment, entrepreneurship, parenting, special education, transportation, veterans’ issues, and independent living.
With a uniformed equivalent rank of Lieutenant Commander, he was the first blind person in history to serve as “District Staff Officer – Legal Parliamentarian” in the United States Coast Guard Auxiliary.
There is much more, but I am limited by time and space, but as you can see, Ollie has let no grass grow under his tireless feet. Ollie hopes to run for Congress some day … I sincerely hope he does! And so, Ollie meets Leo, Nick and Steven, hoping to be able to help them. I will let Ollie tell some of his own story …
“In spite of whatever personal and professional milestones I had reached, absolutely nothing could have prepared me for what was to come. What began as a mentoring relationship quickly grew into something far more powerful. I spent much of my spare time with the boys, taking them places and showing them how to travel more independently with their canes. I facilitated them in making age-appropriate decisions such as selecting and ordering their own food at restaurants and picking out items at convenience stores, where they learned to speak to the cashiers directly. I did homework with them.
One day, when I took Leo to the store, something happened that I will never forget. The co-owner asked me if Leo was my son. Before I could explain that he was one of the kids I was mentoring, Leo put his arm around my shoulders and said, “Yeah, that’s my dad.” His answer caught me off guard, and a whole range of emotions swept over me all at once.
Outside the store, I bent down to his level and placed both my hands on his shoulders. Facing him, I asked, “Leo, with what you said, do you know what that means?”
“Well,” he said, “you take us places, protect us, do homework with us . . .” He shrugged his shoulders and said matter-of-factly, “Sounds like a dad to me.”
I wish I could let Ollie tell you the entire story, but I hope you will be encouraged and read the rest.
Ollie ended up adopting the boys, with the blessings of both their mother Ceila and grandmother Margenia. Ceila remains very much a part of the boys’ lives, as did Margenia until her death in 2014. Although at first, having a limited education and limited exposure to other blind people, Ceila did not believe the boys could ever lead ‘normal’ lives, she is now convinced that they can be and do almost anything they put their mind to.
The boys have now graduated from high school, all three have jobs and are involved in community service projects, and all three will be attending four-year colleges, thanks to Ollie. Leo hopes to become a computer programmer, while Nick and Steven plan a career in law. What might have become of these young men, had Ollie not come into their lives when he did?
You know why you’ve likely never heard of Ollie Cantos until today? Because he is not out at rallies screaming about how bad things are today, he is not complaining about who uses what bathroom, or abortion, or how refugees are taking jobs. Ollie is quietly putting his shoulder to the wheel and getting a number of important jobs done. Ollie is doing what we should all be doing … working to help people. Ollie Cantos is among the best of the best … he is what makes me have faith in humanity once again. Thank you, Mr. Cantos.