On a visit to the American Eagle Foundation in Pigeon Forge Thursday, a 14-year-old boy dazzled the staff with his extensive ornithological knowledge.
"This is really cool. I've never seen a big owl up close, because you know they are nocturnal," said Chad Stevens, an eighth grader from Augusta, Georgia. "I'm really excited about seeing these eagles. They are such large and majestic birds. They can see up to a mile away, which would be pretty awesome to experience."
Chad's education on birds far exceeds the typical 14-year-old. For almost three years, Chad and the entire Stevens family has also developed an above-average knowledge of oncology.
"In September 2010, the doctors diagnosed Chad with Embryonal Rhabdomyosarcoma. He had some paralysis in his face and his eye was bulging. It was cancer in the soft tissue and his lungs," said Chad's father, Robbie Stevens. "Chad did chemotherapy and radiation. He has hit his limit for radiation and cannot do it anymore. Right now the doctors say he is not responding to chemotherapy. They told us we need to do what we want to with Chad. They doctors basically said they give him a year."
The Stevens decided to take off for a week of family time in Pigeon Forge.
"Some friends of the family back home have a timeshare at the Wyndham Resort and gave us their week to have this vacation. When we got here the folks with Guest Services at Wyndham found out about Chad and put together a whole week of things for us to do. It has been amazing."
Wyndham's staff got the entire family passes to popular attractions such as the Titanic Museum and Dollywood. They also hatched a plan for some feathered fun fit for a wildlife nut like Chad.
"I've always been interested in wildlife. My dad has taken me hunting, but we don't care if we catch anything. We just love to sit in the woods. If you get out early enough before sunrise you get to see the whole world come to life," said Chad. "When they mentioned this thing about getting a tour at the American Eagle Foundation, I definitely wanted to do it."
Throughout Thursday morning, Chad was able to handle hawks, inspect incubators, hover over baby bald eagle hatchlings, and then see the biggest bald eagle attraction of them all. The staff put on a personal show for Chad with the famous bald eagle Challenger flying up and down the hallways.
"I'm always probably going to remember Challenger flying across the room," said Chad. "It is
such a big and magnificent bird that there's no way to put it into
words. On television, it can't really give justice for how majestic they really are."
"To me, it [the eagle] is a symbol of freedom," said Robbie. "When we got this recent prognosis, Chad said, 'I'm not worried
about it. God's going to heal me. This is my victory trip instead of
my wish trip.' To see Chad holding it [the eagle],
we know the Lord is going to take care of him."
Whatever the future holds, Thursday the Stevens family victoriously seized a chance to see memories of a lifetime take flight.
"It has not soaked in yet, but I know how precious this has all been. It is the family time and the graciousness and the kindness of people that don't even know us," said Robbie.