Waterford Country School to celebrate life of 'natural born farmer'
Waterford — Staff at the Children's Farm and Nature Center at Waterford Country School trusted Ryan Tierney with the most challenging animals — even a feisty alpaca named Peanut Butter that few could handle.
"He walked Peanut Butter routinely on our nature trails. None of the other kids or staff could do that," said Ben Turner, the outdoor educational director of the nonprofit school, which educates children with behavioral and emotional struggles and where Tierney graduated from in 2017 and worked for more than a year as a farm staffer.
Tierney, of North Stonington, was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer last October. His mother, Stacy Morataya-Pilkington, said he was a fun, caring 6-foot, 6-inch young man whom cancer temporarily paralyzed from the waist down but who kept on fighting and was at peace when he died Nov. 3. He would have turned 20 on Thanksgiving.
Gaia, a double yellow-headed Amazon parrot in Tierney's family for 16 years, still calls out his name in the family's aviary room, Morataya-Pilkington said.
"During Ryan's struggles with emotional wellness, the bird was absolutely terrified," she said. "But Ryan had matured so much over the last year or so that he had the patience to completely rebuild his relationship with her, and she trusted, loved, sang and talked to him."
Morataya-Pilkington said her son didn't want people sitting around crying at a funeral; he wanted music, good food and people gathered with his extended family of beloved animals.
On Dec. 9 at 11 a.m., Waterford Country School will host a celebration of Tierney's life at the Otto Graham Gymnasium. Instead of flowers, Tierney's wish was to raise money to upgrade the school's older farm equipment.
"The pitchforks, the wheelbarrows ... he went on a whole tear," said Morataya-Pilkington with a laugh. She added that Tierney always wanted to give back to the community, whether serving lunch to homeless people at church or helping her at mobile food pantries and toy distributions when she served as co-chair of the Mashantucket Pequot Tribe's charitable giving campaign and on the board of the United Way of Southeastern Connecticut.
Morataya-Pilkington said Waterford Country School helped Tierney starting in his elementary school days when he struggled with emotional problems and a regular classroom environment. In turn, Tierney gave back to students and staff, earning an internship at the school's farm and joining the farm staff after graduation.
"They found a way to make him shine," Morataya-Pilkington said. "He always did well when he had other kids to guide. He needed so much attention and so much care that he said, 'I know what these kids need.'"
Whether helping Wilbur, a potbelly pig with an entourage of goats, or Bo and Otis, a pair of Holstein cows that Tierney "bottle fed and helped raise into 2,000-pound animals," Turner said Tierney thrived at the farm from his youth, inspiring students and staff alike for years.
"He loved taking care of our wide variety of misfit animals, which had gone through some of the same experiences he and his friends went through," Turner said. "He was a natural born farmer and leader."
Turner noted that Tierney created his own farm sanctuary at his home in North Stonington, and that after his death he donated many chickens, birds, ducks and parakeets to Waterford Country School.
"A piece of Ryan remains here on the farm, which is real special and helps our kids with the challenging times," he said.