Manatee High senior Chasten Whitfield was waiting to sign her fishing scholarship offer from Savannah College of Art and Design on Tuesday when she received quite a surprise.
At the entrance to the signing ceremony, 7-year-old Easton Gonzalez was no longer confined to a wheelchair.
He was walking for the first time in public, using braces and a walker to move.
Getting through the doorway, Easton looked up with a smile from ear-to-ear.
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Emotion filled Whitfield’s eyes with tears of joy and surprise.
“This means so much more than just signing for college,” Whitfield said. “That’s amazing how he just did that.”
Easton, who has spina bifida, and Whitfield, who joined the only all-women’s college fishing team in the United States, first met a couple years ago.
Whitfield, who overcame bullying to become a community role model with her charity work and teaching kids how to fish, was conducting a fishing camp at the Anna Maria Island Community Center.
Easton’s mom, Jennifer Crowfoot, was working there at the time and brought her son.
The two hit it off with Easton catching seven fish off a pier.
“It’s been a really good journey,” Crowfoot said. “It’s really symbiotic. They are so good for each other. This really fuels her to chase her passion when it comes to kids and teaching people to fish. And this really fuels his passion to go out there and do normal things.”
Crowfoot said Easton’s spina bifida, which is when the spine and spinal cord do not form properly, was diagnosed when she was 22 weeks pregnant.
“He’s got an amazing spirit,” Crowfoot said.
A student at Bradenton Christian School, Easton has only ever known life without walking. But his mom said they don’t treat him any different at school, and he has so much energy.
Whitfield said he was doing doughnuts with his wheelchair the first time they met after catching some fish. Seeing him walk for the first time, though, wasn’t something she was prepared for.
“I saw him and I was like, ‘I do not have waterproof mascara (so) just hold it in,’ ” Whitfield said. “Then it just hit me.”
Easton said he was looking down when he walked in so he could focus on walking.
“He started (training to walk) a little over a year ago, because he started expressing interest walking in general,” Jennifer said. “So he’s been working in physical therapy to do this.”
Jennifer said Easton’s walked in front of his kindergarten class before, but hadn’t done it publicly before Tuesday’s surprising revelation in front of Whitfield.
“I asked (Chasten’s mother) Kapi, she invited us to this, and I said, ‘What can we do to make this special for Chasten,’ ” Jennifer said. “She said, ‘Well, how’s Easton doing with his walking?”
The moment, with Chasten’s joyful tears, wasn’t lost on Easton.
“I just (thought), ‘Maybe she’s just really proud of me,’ ” Easton said.