Banjo-playing dad with hand defect teaching son with same disability
After a whirlwind week during which their story was told nationwide — of a banjo-picking father with a hand defect whose family adopted a boy with the same defect and was teaching him how to play — the Times-Courier finally caught up with Barry Abernathy Monday morning.
He was deep in the woods turkey hunting.
Barry and his wife, Beverley, have been foster parenting two young children for almost a year now. On April 20, Zoey, 6, and her brother, Tyler, 5, became part of the Abernathy family for good.
“The adoption was final on Monday a week ago,” Barry said from inside the Blue Ridge Wildlife Management Area. “Judge (Jan) Wheeler did it over Zoom.”
Beverley posted the adoption with a photo on Facebook that same day, and it went viral. Good Morning America, The Today Show, Shore Fire Media and NPR’s Appalachian Roadshow were all calling.
“He got a blister the other day,” said Barry of Tyler, whose left hand is missing most of its fingers in the exact same congenital defect Barry has. “GMA wanted a video, so we took a little video. It ended up that The Today Show called, and we sent it to them. I think it’s going to air one day this week. Whenever they air it, they’re going to do a Skype interview live.”
And so it went. By Friday, the family’s inspirational story was on Today.com. It all began when Barry himself was just a boy. Intrigued by music at a young age, he recalls, “I used to beat on a guitar, and sing to the neighbor kids that were older than me when I was only 2 and 3 years old.”
At Flat Branch Baptist Church, he grew to love the old-style “shaped note” singing.
“By age 12, I was singing with my cousin, Lowell Davis, during the services, and at age 15, I started learning the banjo,” he said. “My Mom didn’t think it was something that was possible, but God had other plans.”
Then came an incentive from the maternal realm.
“Mom made me a promise that if I could learn a song all the way through without messing up, she would buy me a Gibson banjo,” said Barry. “A month into this venture, she was making payments on a new RB-230.”
His early influences were Doyle Lawson — he eventually joined the gospel bluegrass legend’s Quicksilver band — and, of course, Earl Scruggs.
“I have always felt that music was my purpose, or calling, in life,” Barry said. “When times have gotten hard and I wanted to pull away from that calling, I have always been drawn back … I don’t have the physical abilities that others have, but I learned that a melody can be found on an instrument without getting too awful complicated about it.”
Fostering — another challenge
Beverley recalls their daughter, Chassady, came home from work excitedly in June last year.
“She told Barry she had a child at work that was born with a left hand just like his,” Beverley said. “She asked him if he would please help Tyler. He’d been in eight different foster homes in 10 months.”
Just as worrisome, there were people telling Tyler when he was 4, “he wouldn’t be able to do certain things.”
“I picked Chassady and the kids (Tyler and Zoey) up from day care and didn’t even have car seats,” she recalled. “Tammy Ledford and Olivia York let us borrow some. Sarah Mooney (at Gilmer’s Department of Family and Children Services) stopped the kids from going to their ninth foster home that day.”
Juvenile Court Judge Judge Jan Wheeler of the Appalachian Judicial Circuit knew of the Abernathys’ desire to adopt Zoey and Tyler.
“She asked me every time I saw her if we needed anything,” Beverley said. “I’m so honored she did our adoption. It was a little different (utilizing Zoom), but just what we needed. It’s impossible to thank everyone, but thanks to everyone who’s helped along the way. We’ve been so blessed. Please continue to pray for our family.”
“We never even thought about fostering children or adopting,” Barry said. “However, when these children came into our lives, Beverley and I both felt God’s calling once again.”
‘Amazing what you can do’
Young Zoey and Tyler have known neither a father nor family stability, but Barry and Beverley plan to change all that. And Tyler seems to be catching the music bug.
“He just turned 5, and he and Zoey both came from a home without a lot of teaching,” Barry said. “Tyler is interested in music big time, and he sits and beats on his guitar in time with me when I play.”
Barry’s advice to parents, and children with or without disablities, is the same.
“I would tell anyone that has a dream or goal to trust God in the calling he has given you — even if you have the cards stacked against you,” he said. “It’s amazing what you can do if you stay focused and determined. If you can be the best you can be, that will always be sufficient.
“We can’t worry about what everyone else’s opinion is of what we are called to be. Be an inspiration in someone else’s life. What greater reward could there be here on this Earth?”