He heard a child screech uncontrollably. He saw a mother turn red, fraught with worry.
So he smiled, and waved to the girl.
He explained to his 8-year-old son Connor that sometimes, children have disabilities, and can’t control their actions. So, Connor also smiled and waved to the little girl.
The girl, 9-year-old Ragan Thursby, smiled back. She also clapped her hands and giggled. Her mother, Kasi Thursby, turned to see who her daughter was waving to, but she didn’t recognize anyone they might have known.
Bruce, his wife Melissa and their six children finished their dinner at the Olive Garden on Bruce B. Downs (BBD) Blvd. in New Tampa and went home, hardly thinking for a second he would ever hear from the little girl or her family again.
PHS is an extremely rare genetic disorder that affects Chromosome 18. Among its symptoms are developmental delays, breathing problems, seizures and epilepsy, gastrointestinal issues and lack of speech.
You can learn more by visiting Ragan’s Facebook page.
Kasi first knew something was wrong with Ragan when she was slow to walk and talk, and was beset with horrible stomach pains and a host of other issues, like enhanced sensitivity to noises and light. When she was 2-1/2, Ragan was the first pediatric patient at the Undisclosed Diseases Program at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, MD. It took roughly six years and countless trips to hospitals all over the country, visiting with endless geneticists, neurologists and neurodevelopmental specialists, before she was finally diagnosed.
Kasi Thursby, whose family recently moved to Wesley Chapel from Tallahassee, enjoyed her dinner that night at Olive Garden, maybe as much as she has ever enjoyed any dinner out with her family. Her stomach was full, and so was her heart.
“Ragan was staring and laughing when she realized they were responding to her. She started clapping her hands, and he encouraged his kids to wave to her,’’ Kasi said. “When I realized what he was doing, I was kind of taken aback. When his 2-year old kept waving and waving and waving….well, no one wants to cry in public, so it took everything I had to not have tears running down my face.”
It wasn’t the typical reaction they receive during hair-raising moments in public places. In fact, it was the first time Kasi could remember anyone smiling or waving. Usually, she says, she hears people muttering under their breath that she needs to control her children.
To be clear, Kasi completely understands why people can grow annoyed. She can even sympathize with them. As a result, every meal her family eats out generally starts with a large helping of anxiety.
“I wouldn’t want to hear a screaming child at dinner either,’’ she says. But she always tends to her daughter, making every effort to quiet, distract and entertain her with an iPad and to keep everyone else from being disturbed.
“It would be one thing if I was ignoring my child and texting on my phone and my kids were running wild,’’ she says. “That’s not the case.”
Ragan, who attends school at Connerton Elementary in Land O’Lakes, can make uncontrollable ear-piercing sounds because it’s her only form of communication. She does it when she is excited, and sometimes when she grows frustrated. Kasi says there are times she has to take her daughter out to the car while the rest of the family — her 11-year-old daughter Reeslyn and fiancé Milton Pulliza, a software developer who works in Tampa — finishes their meal.
That night at the Olive Garden, Bruce Leggett heard the screech, and instead of ushering his family away or rolling his eyes, he embraced Ragan from a distance, which seemed to soothe her.
“It just wasn’t the reaction we are used to,’’ Kasi said.
Later that night, once she said she was able to process everything that had happened, she was moved to post her experience on Facebook, to share with her 400 or so friends, many of them with special needs children, about this simple act of kindness.
The reaction to her post, she says, was joyful. Someone suggested Kasi post it to her local community page, to find the man who smiled, to let him know how much the small gesture meant to her and how it moved her to tears. It wasn’t long after she posted it on the Wesley Chapel Community Facebook page, which has almost 8,000 members, that a screenshot of that post found its way to Melissa Leggett.
It was 5 a.m. when Melissa walked into the room where her husband was taking care of their adopted newborn and said: “Hey, I think this lady is talking about you.”
Bruce Leggett, who lives with his family in Meadow Pointe, frankly says that he finds all the attention he has received from friends and family a little embarrassing.
He says he simply heard a screech after entering the restaurant, but he did not find it unusual in a place that was packed with families, and certainly not to the ears of a father who has six kids all under the age of 10, including three he and Melissa adopted. In other words, he has had his share of nervous restaurant moments.
“I could see in the mom’s face she was a wreck,’’ Bruce said. “It was easy to see she was really concerned that (her daughter) was going to bother someone. It wasn’t even that bad. I told her it’s not that big of a deal.’’
Perhaps the person affected most by the gesture was Reeslyn, who attends Veterans Elementary in Wesley Chapel. Reeslyn also took part in the smiling and giggling that night. Many of Reeslyn’s childhood experiences are different because of Ragan, Kasi said. But on the way home after dinner and into the next morning, Reeslyn kept talking about the man and his wave.
“Going to a restaurant (for her) is not like everyone else’s experience, it’s not the same and can be very tough for Reeslyn,’’ Kasi says. “She wants normalcy, but she doesn’t want people to be mean to her sister. She gets worried about her. People can be mean.”
Not Bruce Leggett.
“It seems we have such a low tolerance for everything,’’ he said. “A lot of people have lost that neighborly touch. Everything has to be a big ordeal. A cute little girl made a noise…it happens. Sometimes, all you need to do is smile at them, make them laugh, and then, the whole thing is done.”
Kasi said she was most impressed with the way Bruce handled it with his son, Connor. Many people will try to shield their children from someone with a disability, she says, but the man with the smile and wave gave his son a lesson in empathy.
“I told him if she’s acting up, there’s a reason for it,’’ Bruce recalled. “He became less worried that she was making a noise and became more curious about what exactly was wrong. When we got home, we looked it up.”
Kasi has had a chance to thank Bruce. She said since moving to Wesley Chapel from Tallahassee, she has noticed that people are more understanding and patient. “It’s just different here,’’ she says.
Not perfect, she says, but for one night, and one moment, it was as close to perfect for her as it can be.
One smile and one wave from a father and a family who think we should all smile and wave more.
And, one appreciative mother who will never forget it.