"At our CORE we are for
people making a difference
in our world."

Turning Heartache Into Hope

Northwest Arkansas residents to make CD in boy’s honor

The Morning News - Sunday, September 17, 2000
By Bettina Lehovec

At what should have been the worst moment of his life, Shaun Turner said, he felt a peace so strong it transformed him forever. The moment was his son’s death and the transformation a certainty that each life has purpose within a divine plan.

Now, three years later, the Rogers resident is part of a musical venture that spreads the same message: "You can make a difference in this world if you have the heart to do it."

Turner and three other Northwest Arkansas residents are making a CD in honor of Ryan Turner’s struggle with leukemia. Calling themselves COREfor..., the musicians have created a largely instrumental sound track that tells the story of Ryan’s life and death. They plan to donate 25 percent of the proceeds to cancer research, Turner said, an amount he thinks might be $50,000.

Ryan was 7 years old when he was diagnosed with leukemia in 1997. Russell Dorch, pastor of the Fellowship Bible Church in Lowell, came up with the idea of commemorating Ryan’s life in music. Together with Darren Novotny of Springdale, Blake Fougerousse of Rogers and Turner, Dorch wrote the arrangements that tell Ryan’s story.

The four musicians met in church. An informal arrangement playing music for the Saturday night service led to closer bonds and, eventually, a desire to collaborate for greater good.

The name COREfor... expresses the men’s desire to use their group — the "core"— to do things for other people. In this first project, the cause is cancer research. Later, the group hopes to raise money for other organizations.

"We want to embrace the belief that ordinary people can impact the lives of others," Turner said. "That’s COREfor...."

The CD, called "Of "Things To Come," is a blend of jazz, rhythm and blues, pop and gospel, Turner said. A 16-page sleeve will accompany the CD, filled with photographs of Ryan and an explanation of the events and emotions that inspired the songs.

"Our desire is to share this story — of a little boy’s faith and his character and his constitution. Why I felt such peace when I held him in my arms."

Ryan has become an inspiration to people who never met him, Turner said. The endowment created in his name at the Stanford University School of Medicine, where Ryan was treated, has raised $120,000 to date. More that 3,000 people logged on to www.ryanturner.org, a Web site Turner recently created, in the first month he posted it.

Ryan met his illness with a dignity and grace that impressed the adults around him, Turner said.

"There’s no question that his demonstration of faith has impacted people. ... It’s a huge price to pay, (but) a lot of good has come out of this."

Shaun and Miriam Turner had only lived in Northwest Arkansas for two months when they learned that Ryan had leukemia. To be closer to family and medical specialists, the Turners moved to California with Ryan and their other children, who were then 5 and 2 years old.

Ryan spent six weeks undergoing an intense treatment regime at the Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital at Stanford. According to his father, Ryan’s only complaint during that time was, "There are too many scrambled eggs in this hospital."

After six weeks, the cancer went into remission, and Ryan spent more time at home with his family. The maintenance therapies seemed to be working, and the Turners thought about returning to Arkansas. Then, in the beginning of June, the cancer came back full force.

"That was when the character of Ryan started to come out," Turner said. "When he relapsed, we sensed in him a peace and calmness that really helped us."

That peace found a larger audience, too. Ryan, who had been memorizing bible verses since he was 3, learned some favorite poems by heart and shared them with whoever came into the room — be it a custodian or a doctor, Turner said. When Ryan learned that another boy in the treatment program had died, he said, "He’s in heaven now. I can’t wait to get there, too."

The family was devastated by Ryan’s relapse, Turner said. "We were scared to death. Through the whole thing, there were times you thought it was all a bad dream — you’re going to wake up from it."

They turned to their religious faith for support. Determined not to let Ryan suffer more than he needed to, the Turners agreed that one parent would always be with him. For the eight months of his illness, all of Ryan’s hospital stays included a parent in a rollaway bed next to him at night.

"The last thing we wanted was for him to experience fear," Turner said. "He was still a child. He still needed to have fun."

The Turners decorated his hospital rooms in lavish Hollywood-themed motifs. They wheeled him to the hospital grounds fountain to find gifts they had hidden under its spray. Via computer, Ryan played games and compared stories with other sick youngsters in hospitals nationwide.

The Turners were contacted by the Make-A-Wish Foundation, an organization that works to grant children with life-threatening illnesses a special wish. Ryan wanted to meet Arnold Schwarzenegger. The actor was in Japan at the time but called anyway. Ryan was sleeping that night but was awake the next day for a 30-minute telephone talk with Schwarzenegger.

By mid-August, Ryan had suffered three relapses. "We’re down to miracle time," Turner said the doctor told him. One evening, Ryan shared dinner in his room with both his parents, an aunt and a grandmother. His grandmother led them all in singing, Turner said, something they had never done before. When the other adults had left and Turner tucked Ryan in for sleep, he and his son exchanged the phrase that had become their password: "Just like air, God’s there."

The next morning, Ryan woke and recited the psalm he was memorizing. Two hours later, as he slept, the monitors hooked up to him showed that his vital signs were failing. He died just minutes later in his father’s arms.

As he held Ryan, Turner said, a feeling of immense peace came over him.

"I’ve never felt as much peace as I have at that moment, when I should have been at my absolute worst."

He has no doubt what those two or three minutes were about: "I know it was God."

Despite the heart-wrenching pain of losing his child, the impact of the whole experience lingers.

"If I could, I would have him back in a heartbeat ... (but) my life changed dramatically through this experience, to every degree to the better."

Ryan is buried in Colville, Wash., a place where he had spent summers visiting Miriam Turner’s family. The Turners returned to Northwest Arkansas and tried to resume a normal life. The help and support they found here was a continuation of all they had received throughout Ryan’s illness, Turner said.

"The support was absolutely phenomenal. We could not have done it without the support of our church community."

Turner’s employers bent over backward to help him through the ordeal, he said. As a business director for Johnson & Johnson, Turner had just started a new position as a Wal-Mart Stores Inc. liaison when Ryan became ill. Turner was able to put his career on hold to attend to his son, he said.

Before he left Rogers to join his wife and son in Stanford, Turner had made a video of Ryan’s life. The boy had appeared in more than a dozen television and print commercials and in a country music video, "For Pete’s Sake" by Suzie Luchsinger. Turner used these images to create a composite of Ryan’s life, which he sent to church members.

"Now you know who you’re praying for," he told them. An expanded version of that video continues to be circulated, enlarging the circle of Ryan’s impact, Turner said.

Turner hadn’t picked up his saxophone in more than 10 years, but once back in Northwest Arkansas, he began playing at the church.

Earlier this year, the three men he plays with approached him about making the tribute CD.

Turner didn’t hesitate in his response.

"I’m totally excited to be able to share Ryan’s experience with people. Over the past three years, people are being touched by this story.

"Some people close off the room (of grief), seal it up, never go in there again. ... I choose to wear Ryan — like a shirt — in my daily life. He’s still here, in my memories. ... It still hurts, at some level, every day. ... I miss him."

Ryan’s life is an inspiration for his own, Turner said. "If I could ever have one-tenth of the courage and character he demonstrated, I would be a much better person."

Sharing that inspiration with others is the heart of the COREfor... project.

The group performed a free concert Sept. 15 at the Jones Center for Families in Springdale.

More information about the CD can be found at www.corefor.com.

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