At a fast and testimony meeting, a father leads the way to the pulpit with a cane in his hand. His three sons follow, their hands on each other’s shoulders and canes in hand, too. They each stand and bear a heartfelt testimony of the divinity of the Savior and the promise of eternal families. But, just eight years ago, these four men were not members of the same family.
In 2010, blind lawyer and former White House staffer Ollie Cantos never thought he would be the father of triplets—until he met Steven, Nick, and Leo. The initial visit became the beginning of a family.
Before the boys met Ollie, they were bullied, teased, and friendless. Because of their blindness, their biological mother mostly kept them at home, which significantly limited their interaction with others to the point where they hardly ever went outside except to go to school. Born in Colombia but raised in the United States since 2002 by their biological mother and grandmother, life at home for the triplets was challenging in many respects.
However, things started to change after they met Ollie, who was also born blind. Ollie introduced the boys to a whole new world of possibility. He passed down his parents' philosophy that they could accomplish anything they set their minds to, showing the boys how to shatter limits just as he was able to do with the loving guidance of his family. Little could any of them know the bond that Ollie shared with the three would lead to history being made in unanticipated ways.
►You’ll also like: How an LDS Mom Overcame Blindness, 3 Amputations and Found Her Faith in God
As the boys gained new skills, learned about their potential, and grew closer to Ollie, their original struggles gave way to moments they will all cherish. In fact, the boys recently made scouting history by becoming the first blind triplets to achieve the rank of Eagle Scout. In 2016, Ollie became the proud legal guardian of Steven, Nick, and Leo, and the family of four now looks forward to becoming sealed in the Washington D.C. Temple once it reopens in two years. Their story of resilience and love has inspired millions throughout the world.
“This Is My Dad”
Though now at the U.S. Department of Education, Ollie was a lawyer at the U.S. Department of Justice in Washington D.C. when he first met the triplets. He had been mentoring both kids and adults with and without disabilities for many years. In 2010, a man in his ward, who worked for a social services agency, introduced Ollie to 10-year-old triplet brothers, who were bullied at school and had never met another blind person like them. From the very first meeting, Ollie felt something different about these boys.
“It’s really hard to describe. I just felt more protective of them,” Ollie says. Before he met the boys, Ollie was given some tips to prepare him. “They said Leo was a friendly guy and he smiles all the time. Steven was very serious, the analytical type. Nick was the toughest one, who actually harbored the greatest bitterness about everything,” Ollie remembers.
When Ollie came to their apartment, Nick was the only one of the three who was still awake. At first, Nick did not believe that Ollie was also blind. He put Ollie’s hand on the Bible, Genesis chapter one, to have him prove he could read Braille. After reading from the scriptures, Ollie also wrote a note to Nick, using the slate and stylus that he typically carried in his pocket to write Braille, saying, “Dear Nick, You are awesome! Your Buddy, Mr. Ollie.” This initial visit was intended to last 15 minutes but instead lasted three-and-a-half hours.
When he first met the triplets altogether the very next day, Ollie broke the ice by showing the boys how to use a computer to watch movies that were accompanied by verbal descriptions of visual elements and introduced them to a childhood experience many take for granted, the fun of shoulder rides. “Pretty scary at first, but I did trust him a little bit after that,” Steven says.
Leo even showed Ollie his musical keyboard and guitar. “He liked it, but he later taught me something better," Leo says. "That was the best day I will remember for the rest of my life."
Ollie started visiting regularly and taught the boys how to do their school work, use their canes more confidently, get their own laundry done, etc. “The shared experiences that we had and the experiences relating to blindness that we had in common really enabled me to feel close to them from the beginning,” Ollie says.
One day when Ollie took Leo to get soda at the store, the woman behind the counter asked if Leo was his son. Before Ollie got a chance to explain, Leo put his arm around Ollie’s shoulder and said, “Yeah, that’s my dad.”
“Just when he said that it felt like something I had always known somehow,” Ollie says. After they left the store, Ollie bent down to Leo’s level, faced him, and put both of his hands on Leo’s shoulders. “Leo, do you know what that means?” Ollie asked. Then Leo said something that Ollie will never forget. “You take us places, you protect us, and you do homework with us," he said, adding with a shoulder shrug, "sounds like a dad to me.”
Ollie said every time when they were together, the idea of adopting them just felt right. “We know by testimony we were foreordained to be a family. There is nothing that will change our minds with that. Ever. Had I not come into the Church I would never have been in their lives, and they would not have been in mine. I just can’t imagine my life without them. It is impossible,” Ollie says.
Finding the Church
Ollie’s family was part of the same denomination for generations, and he attended Catholic schools for eight years.When the missionaries first contacted Ollie in 1995, he did not believe in the message they shared. “I just kept questioning and questioning them with whatever they said. Finally, one day, the missionaries stopped coming. I thought ‘Ha! I got them, because they must think I’m right.’”
A year later, on a cold winter night, a set of sister missionaries knocked on Ollie’s door. He told the sisters he had been through the missionary discussions before and he had no intention of joining the Church. However, though the missionaries always asked him to pray for confirmation that the Church is true, it was not until the seventh or eighth visit when the sisters felt inspired to invite Ollie to pray for the truth on bended knee. When they kneeled and prayed together at the end of the lesson, Ollie said there was an intense peace he had never known before that overcame him. Ollie felt overwhelmed by the feeling and started to cry. “I looked at the sisters and had no idea what was happening. I said to them ‘I don’t know how to explain this, sisters, but may I please be baptized?’” Ollie was later baptized on December 8, 1996. He remains in close communication with one of those missionaries today along with the family who gave the missionaries his name, resulting in the second series of visits.
When Ollie formally introduced the boys to the Church in 2012, their mother and grandmother were strongly against it. At that time, the boys went to the Salvation Army church and were often bullied by the kids at church. “All it really took for us to go to [the LDS] Church was for Ollie to say the kids were really nice and they won’t bully you,” Leo says. However, their mother insisted that, if the boys were going to church with Ollie, they needed to go to the Salvation Army church first. Every Sunday, Ollie would join the boys at the Salvation Army church to protect them and then take them to LDS Church services.
As they started attending the Mormon Church regularly, the boys began to realize that they truly do belong. One night, at a ward Halloween party, the boys went to the chapel, wanting to know what an organ looked like. While they were in the chapel, they noticed a distinct feeling. Steven remembers thinking, "There is definitely something here. And that [feeling] said, 'This church is good; this church is good.'" Ollie later pointed out that what the boys had experienced was the Spirit. That same day, the boys decided they wanted to join the LDS Church, and they got baptized on December 8, 2012, the same day 16 years after Ollie was baptized.
“The thing that was remarkably different from the boys’ past interactions was the amazing countenance of members of the Church, including youth their own age. Everybody just instantly believed in the boys. No cutting down. No exclusion or being ignored as the kind of treatment to which the boys had to become accustomed. No limited expectations or negative assumptions based on disability. Just full acceptance from the get-go. It didn’t matter to anyone that the boys and I are blind. I knew that already, but this was the first time they were able to experience it directly,” Ollie says.
The boys saw the Church as a refuge. At church, they felt loved and appreciated; they also learned how they can serve others, which they never thought possible before. The changes in their standards were visible to those around them; they stopped cursing, were constantly serving, and even raised money for the Salvation Army church. Their grandmother and mother eventually allowed them to attend the LDS Church only. “Personally, it really changed me. I used to have a bitter, tough-guy attitude. Being at church and with my father, I really feel I can be peaceful,” Nick says.
►You’ll also like: 5 Things for Parents to Remember When Your Child Doesn't Choose the Church
“The members of the Church did not consider blindness when it came to whether we could become Eagle Scouts or not. They just let us go through this experience and all the stuff everybody else went through, and they supported us all the way,” Steven says.
In late July 2017, the boys officially became the first blind triplets to earn the Eagle Scout Award in the then-107-year history of Boy Scouts of America. They said the process of becoming Eagle Scouts was extremely hard but worth the effort. “The process of getting admitted to college was not as hard as the Eagle Scout process,” Nick says.
“It took years of camping, of learning skills that I never thought I would learn. It came down to hard work,” Leo says. “But, it was also fun because of all the things we got to do that we never knew we could, including safely shooting guns and driving three-wheel ATVs on our own, though totally blind.”
For their Eagle Scout projects, Nick collected more than $2,000 worth of hygiene supplies for a nonprofit that helps abused and homeless women and families; Steven collected a year’s worth of school supplies for 130 students who were coming from low-income families; Leo collected 88 units of blood and 77 fleece blankets for the local hospital, saving up to 352 people’s lives.
Steven said they were given a choice to apply for disability-related modifications and to be given more time to complete their projects beyond the time they turned 18, but they chose to do it without any special conditions. “It would be completely out of character for us to do that,” he says.
Nick said he had no idea how big of a deal being an Eagle Scout was until media outlets started reporting on their story as word of their achievements went viral online. Even people on the street would recognize them from the news and stop to talk to them.
Speaking about their accomplishments, Nick simply says, “I try to take the principles I learn from the scriptures and embody them. For me, it’s not so much about the work; it’s what I can do to help people. My goal is to make myself as much like Christ as possible.”
Although their scouting journey took longer for them in comparison to many, becoming Eagle Scouts helped the boys know they can do more than they thought possible. “To say that I was extraordinarily proud would be an understatement. . . . It represents a victory lap, a celebration of something that did not come easy but eventually did come. It also was the result of a lot of planning over more than five years,” Ollie says. “It unlocked the entire way of thinking that they carry today.”
“Blindness Is Not a Challenge, It’s Just a Characteristic.”
“For them to make it so far and to have done so much so early, that is a glimpse of what they are going to do throughout their lives as adults. It’s just the beginning,” Ollie says.
To Ollie, Leo, Nick, and Steven, their blindness is not a challenge but merely a characteristic. They believe that, through hard work, they can accomplish anything they put their minds to. “I feel that for me, the Lord has given so many blessings in having this disability,” Steven says.
“Personally, I just submit my life to the Lord and try to be the best person I can be. That is my way of living,” Nick says.
“Sometimes people think our number one prayer is to be healed. That is honestly not on our minds. We just feel the way we are is the way the Lord made us, and because of that, we are grateful for who we are. It is the experience of blindness that positively binds us together, and that’s why we are a family now. We are just here to improve a little every day. We don’t feel that being blind is such a big deal. The real problem that comes with blindness is what people think about blindness; it’s not the blindness itself,” Ollie says. “God loves us just as we are, and he does not make mistakes.”
Every day, the Cantos Family feels grateful for being Latter-day Saints, and as they continue to serve others, both through their callings within the Church and through helping others in additional ways, their testimonies become stronger, which motivates them to serve more. “We do more because we love the Lord so much, and we know that happiness is in the journey right now as we keep counting our blessings and feeling the gratitude that comes with knowing that we have the gospel in our lives," Ollie says. "We have such a deep love for one another and for the opportunity to give and to grow. We are grateful to live our lives under the guidance of the scriptures and as led by President Nelson.”
Steven and Leo are both planning to attend George Mason University this August to start their degree in legal studies in preparation for their becoming attorneys. Nick will also begin his freshman year in August but at Southern Virginia University, whose student body is 90 percent LDS. He has already started his own business and wants to be successful as an entrepreneur. Seeing his sons each reach great achievements and surpass their own expectations, Ollie said he believes the best formula for parenting is being centered in the gospel, along with being consistent, loving your children, and recognizing their unique abilities and talents.
“It makes me realize even more the depth to which a father can love his children. My love for Leo, Nick, and Steven is literally beyond description,” Ollie says. “You would need to give me a billion years to describe, to think, and reflect on how much love I have for them. It is just a glimpse into and a fraction of the love that our Heavenly Father has for us as His children,” Ollie says.
“Life has taught me that I can be a good person and I can help others. I understand that things can be difficult sometimes, but I know that with the Lord, I can be me and be proud of it,” Nick says.
“It doesn’t matter if you are rich or poor or what disability that you have. What matters most is that you take what you have and adapt it to your situation. For me, it has been a hard eight years because I push myself to the limit. But I know that, over all this time, I have made myself into a better person. This wouldn’t be possible without the Lord. I believe if people continue to do what is right, in the end, they will be able to make it where they need to be,” Leo says.
“I can’t tell you how much love I have for my dad. [Without him] I would not have had these experiences. That relationship is foreordained. The Lord has definitely helped us out,” Steven says.
“We know that families can be together forever,” Ollie says. “Our time here on earth is just the beginning of the rest of our existence throughout all eternity. People have asked us what keeps you guys so close. It’s our love for our Savior that does it.”