Are you ready for some good news? 

At the age of twelve, Jon Thomas Robertson (aka JT) has appeared on the April 2007 cover of USA Weekend as a 2006 Make a Difference Day (MAD) honoree, complete with a $10,000 Paul Newman MAD award, one of just ten gifts given each year.

Then, while appearing on Good Morning America, JT was surprised by his hero, Ty Pennington, plus Paige Hennis and Michael Moloney from Extreme Makeover-Home Edition, all there to help him realize a big 2008 dream. 
Finally, the preteen has managed to pull off a feat some believed nearly impossible- make the historic Arcade & Attica Railroad train station and arcade in New York wheelchair accessible while maintaining its historic essence and accreditation.

…and Jay Leno is still waiting for his call back.

Whew! That’s pretty heady stuff for a twelve year old. JT may be a seventh grader, but he’s got the spirit, determination, wisdom and heart of a seasoned sage. This determined young man reminds us what’s possible when you act from your heart and believe you can do almost anything you set your mind to, anything. Having the Extreme Makeover team and his mom solidly in his corner hasn’t hurt either.
It was the heartfelt letter and video his mom sent to the popular ABC program that finally took JT’s life-long dream of taking peers on a train ride to a whole new level, capturing the attention and admiration of the nation and offering brief reprieve from recent tough economic news and unsettling election coverage. This enterprising young man knows all about living frugally, and he’s no overnight success. JT’s dreams have been years in the making and have survived more than one disappointing setback.
His involvement with the Stone’s Buddies Program at Women’s & Children’s Hospital of Buffalo has helped inspire JT’s work. Stone was a young boy who passed away from cancer at age four, but not before using his voice to help raise money to help other kids and teens facing life-threatening illness. After his death, Stone’s parents expanded their son’s dream and began a free, on-going support program in his honor. Thousands of kids have since benefited from Stone’s Buddies, and its impact on JT’s life and advocacy has been powerful and long lasting.
Jon Thomas Robertson was born in Florida. His mom returned to her childhood home town of Cuba, New York nine years ago after a tough divorce to raise her son in what she calls the most impoverished town in New York. Monica Simons admits they live simply, with no money for extras, including all those technological gizmos so many of kids today take for granted. She works part time, has no car and worries about how she’ll be able to afford to send her son to college. It hasn’t been easy for either of them.
Simons finds purpose in helping her only child become the best person he can be, minus all the trappings and with the invaluable support of extended family. Her son has found solace and true calling in his commitment to improving the lives of other kids, while understanding some of their pain. One thing JT has always been sure of is his love for trains, which began years ago with a gift from one of his grandpas. “My mom says I watched that train go around for hours and hours,” Jon Thomas says. That fascination never wavered. As he got older, JT wanted his friends to experience a bit of train magic, too. “I thought it would be a cool way to share something I love with them,” he explains.
That intense desire to share began when JT was a 4-year-old preschooler. He promised to take his classmates on a ride on the town’s Attica and Arcade Railroad. “But I had to turn them down because my mom didn’t have a job at the time and we couldn’t afford the tickets,” he recalls of the humbling lesson about keeping your word. JT refused to let his dream die. It just took a bit longer than he’d planned. With help from his mom, he had to figure out how to raise money. ” I was saving pop cans to pay for a visit to see my relatives in Michigan and I thought why not use that money to take kids on the train. What kid doesn’t want to ride a train?” he asks. JT was just seven. “When I had finally had saved enough, all my friends had moved away.”
It was on national Make a Difference Day 2005 that JT finally realized his dream of sharing the train, but with a twist. Two school buses were already prepared to transport classmates. But just three weeks before the event, New York passed a law requiring seat belts on buses. The buses didn’t have them and the trip was cancelled. Most would have given up the dream right then. But JT’s not like most people. He and his mom took the money to the train station and bought tickets for twenty one children- total strangers. JT was running a 103 degree fever and too sick to ride with them. “But it was a good dose of medicine for me and made me feel a little better,” he says of realizing a dream for others.
In 2006, JT and his 8-year-old friend, Joshua Tsujmoto (aka Josh), who JT’s mom calls the “unsung hero” of this effort, raised enough pop-can money to provide tickets for 84 kids and 44 adults. In 2007, 422 kids and adults took rides. But when those using wheelchairs couldn’t ride due to accessibility issues with the 100-year-old cars, JT was devastated. He got angry, and then he got busy expanding his mission. Jon Thomas raised his goals and set sites on MAD Day, October 25th, 2008, complete with realizing rides for for all. His mother had already sent a letter and video to Ty Pennington asking for help in making her son’s dream come true.
Months later, Good Morning America had one big surprise for a small-town boy with a huge heart, an on-air interview that included a surprise meeting with Ty Pennington, Paige Hennis and Michael Moloney, key members of the Extreme Makeover-Home Edition team. They answered Monica Simons’ call on behalf of her son to address train accessibility. “I was completely shocked, speechless and awestruck,” JT recalls of the surprise meeting with Ty Pennington. “I thought it was a dream.”
But it was real. Hennis and Moloney had just three days in their hectic schedules to repaint the station, hang new signs, and make two baggage cars handicapped accessible for sixteen wheelchairs. JT wasn’t allowed to see any of the progress until the final reveal on September 26th, which he says won’t be shown on television. When he saw the changes, Jon Thomas says he was overjoyed, especially when he realized that his good friend from Stone’s Buddies, Ian Cameron, and others using wheelchairs, could take their first ride in the newly accessible Arcade & Attica Railroad baggage cars.
Ian is a cancer survivor and uses a wheelchair. JT met him on a photo shoot when Ian was ten months old. “He was throwing a tantrum,” JT says, “but when Ian saw the train, he looked like a while different kid and calmed down.” It’s something JT has never forgotten, and it’s fueled his quest for accessibility for other kids. Three years later, the two are best friends.
The power and meaning of Ian’s first ride goes beyond words.
This Saturday, two of the three scheduled train rides on the Arcade & Attica Railroad will be full, while a generous donation from a California company is helping buy out a third scheduled ride. That’s 984 kids and adults riders, including those using wheelchairs. “I’m pumped,” JT admits. “I’m ready to ride all three trains, armed with candy bags and lots of grins. It’s eye opening and heart opening,” he adds. “We’re raking in the smiles.”
No doubt on October 26th, Jon Thomas will get busy realizing dreams for Make a Difference Day 2009. Next year’s goal? East Coast to West Coast train rides. Asked to sum up all the attention his efforts have received, JT calls it eye opening. “It’s shown me what the world is really like and all the different opportunities that I have to give back,” the unselfish preteen adds. “It’s made me want to be a better person.”
Out of the mouths of babes…
Just don’t forget to return Jay Leno’s call, JT.
Now, it’s your turn. Jon Thomas and I share a few simple ways you can make a difference in the lives of others on Oct. 25th and beyond. Do it honor of this remarkable young man. ” Start anywhere you think is best,” JT says. “A little effort goes a long way. Our project motto is ‘you gain a lot with a little’,” he adds. “A pop or soda can CAN make a difference.” Can it ever!
  • Don’t park in handicapped parking spots unless you have a valid permit. Respect someone’s freedom to move about more easily in this world. It does matter.
  • Offer to rake or mow your neighbor’s lawn, or shovel driveways, especially for seniors.
  • Send a card to a friend who’s having a rough time or who recently experienced a loss.
  • Visit someone who is home bound and listen attentively to their life stories.
  • Practice forgiveness, especially with challenging family members during the holidays. Be the first to extend an olive branch.
  • Offer to babysit for parents of children with special needs so they can have some time off. 
  • Offer to cook a full dinner one night for a close neighbor or friend. Or do their laundry.
  • Volunteer for agencies like Meals on Wheels and help others counter deadly isolation.
  • Give what you can to your local food bank and help feed the hungry.
  • Share a smile, say please and thank you, and teach these simple manners to your children. In these tough times, civility is needed now more than ever.
  • Donate gently used clothing, coats, shoes and blankets to children and adults in need.
  • Do something good for someone else with no expectation of anything in return. Encourage them to pay it forward.
  • Send a written thank you and card to someone who’s made a difference in your life.
  • Support the troops through established efforts or come up with one of your own.
  • When you make a new purchase, donate a similar item in good shape to a cause in need.
  • Teach your children to be charitable and to share. Let them donate their extra toys. Support their ideas for giving and assist them only where needed.
  • Give up the morning lattes for one week (or longer) and donate the money to charity.
  • Tell your children and your spouse what they do well. Put away technology and connect.
  • Barter services with others to save money. Donate that savings.
  • Adopt a family in need and help support them year round, not just during the holidays.
-To learn more about supporting JT’s efforts, visit:
-To learn more about Stone’s Buddies, visit:
-To learn more about National Make a Difference Day (MAD),
-To learn more about Extreme Makeover-Home Edition, visit:
-To learn more about Mattie Stepanek & Muscular Dystrophy, visit:
(Photos courtesy of Matt Williamson of Matt Williamson Photography 2008. Used with permission. All Rights Reserved.
Photos from top left to right: Jon Thomas and friend Josh on reveal day, Sept. 26th, 2008/Michael Moloney showing JT the station changes/Crowd of kids yelling ‘move that train!”/Paige Hennis and Michael Moloney on the job/Paige hanging new station signs/Michael greeting the crowd/JT’s buddy, Ian Cameron, getting ready to board the train/JT riding in the conductor’s car.
Be sure to come back to read part of my interview with Monica Simons, and check–and back next week for an update on JT and Saturday’s Make a Difference Day Express train ride.
JT and Josh, you guys rock, and what a difference you make!