Pulitzer-worthy coverage spurs public reaction, changing life for a Lisbon boy and his family

A year ago, Strider Wolf was homeless, living with his grandparents and little brother in a cramped camper parked in a corner of the Oxford Walmart parking lot.

He was 5 years old and none of those years had been easy. When Strider was 2, his mother’s boyfriend locked him in a shed and beat him nearly to death. By last spring, he was acting up in school and shuttling from temporary homestead to temporary homestead with grandparents who loved him fiercely but had struggles of their own.  

A reporter and photographer from The Boston Globe wanted to tell his story. 

“(It’s) so much about resilience in the face of so much,” said photographer Jessica Rinaldi.

The result was “The life and times of Strider Wolf,” a November Globe feature and photo package stunning for its detail and stark, four-month chronicling of a Maine family’s plight.

Within hours, strangers were clamoring to help. Within days, a trust was set up by the newspaper to handle the tens of thousands of dollars flooding in.

Thanks to the Globe and those strangers, Strider today is a happier almost-7-year-old working through his traumatic early years with new advantages: a stable place to live with his grandparents in Lisbon, new clothes, a desk to do his schoolwork, a couple of weeks at sleepaway summer camp.  

“I look back at the pictures and I read the article, I think, ‘How did we make it through that?'” said Strider’s grandmother, Lanette Grant, 52.

The feature did something else. Several days ago, it won photographer Rinaldi a Pulitzer Prize.

Strength amid tragedy

Globe feature writer Sarah Schweitzer stumbled across Strider’s story last year while looking up New Hampshire court records. The man who’d locked 2-year-old Strider in a shed, punched a hole in his stomach and flung him to the floor — all on the same harrowing December night — was appealing his conviction. 

What, she wondered, had become of this little boy?

Schweitzer tracked down Strider, his younger brother, Gallagher, and their grandparents, Lanette and Larry Grant, in Oxford. The Grants’ son — the boys’ father — had no part in the abuse, but he had his own challenges and could not care for his sons. The boys’ mother had lost custody of them. Her boyfriend was sentenced to at least 22½ years in prison.

Strider and Gallagher had lived with their grandparents since Strider was released from the hospital. 

The timing of Schweitzer’s visit was fortuitous. Lanette and Larry owned a mobile home, but they had just moved out because they could no longer afford to rent the land it sat on. When Schweitzer visited them for the first time, they were living with the boys in a 24-foot camper parked for a couple of days at Walmart, most of their belongings left behind at the trailer they’d had to abandon.

In Strider, Schweitzer saw something remarkable.

“He was sitting there in that trailer in the middle of a Walmart parking lot. It was raining, and it’s 5:30 and he hadn’t had supper, and the world is falling down around him and he’s trying to do his homework,” she recalled. “I just said, ‘Oh my goodness, he has something in him that the rest of us don’t have … some kind of strength that pushed him forward.'”

For his part, Strider was curious but wary. Only when Lanette introduced her as a friend did he seem to relax, “as much as a kid under those circumstances could,” Schweitzer said.

Back in Boston, the Globe’s editors agreed to a feature on the family. Rinaldi was called in to photograph.

During her two years at the Globe, Rinaldi’s assignments had varied, but her heart lay in long-term projects.

“To my mind that’s the Holy Grail of photography,” said Rinaldi, who last year also followed a heroin addict trying to break away from drugs and a little boy from Burundi who was receiving treatment in Boston for severe burns.

No one knew how long Strider’s piece would take. Schweitzer figured it would be a short story, something about an abused little boy whose life had turned around.

Lanette and Larry expected something short, too.

“We didn’t realize it was going to be four months. It was supposed to be just a little story, ” Lanette said. “As time went on, it was like, this needs to be told. This needs to be told for the perspective of we as grandparents being robbed of being grandparents. Because we have been. We’re mom and dad again.”

One visit by Schweitzer and Rinaldi turned into two. Two turned into three, then more. Each time, they stayed a night or two at a local hotel, rising early enough to be there when the boys woke up and leaving the family after they’d gone to bed. Sometimes weeks would pass between their visits, sometimes only days. 

“We began to realize we wanted to understand the family more,” Schweitzer said. “We just kept going back.”

Together, Schweitzer and Rinaldi recorded Strider’s life: the tiny flower he picked for his grandmother, a visit with his father, his school troubles, a nightmare, the Legos he had to leave behind at the mobile home, moving from campsite to campsite, his 6th birthday party.

“It was raining and miserable, and my husband said, ‘How many pictures can a reporter take of him eating the same piece of cake?'” Lanette said with a chuckle.

By August, four months after Schweitzer first showed up at the camper’s door, the family had found a rental house in Lisbon. Schweitzer and Rinaldi recorded that, too — the freshly scrubbed pink-tile kitchen wall, the lawn Larry mostly got trimmed until the lawnmower broke, the fenced yard with the pear tree that captured Strider’s attention. 

Things weren’t perfect, but they finally had a home. 

‘I think you won a Pulitzer’

Schweitzer wrote her 6,400-word story on and off over a couple of months. 

Rinaldi winnowed down her thousands of photos and presented about 100 to the Globe’s director of photography. In the end, 34 would run with the story.

One of her favorites — Strider shirtless, climbing a tree — would lead the package online. It was one of Rinaldi’s first photos of Strider and the one that told her she might have captured something special.

“I said, ‘Wow, I think we’re onto something.’ But I certainly didn’t know,” Rinaldi said. “In general, I think you just keep working and keep hoping you’ll be able to tell the story with everything you’ve got.”

“The life and times of Strider Wolf” appeared in the Globe on Nov. 8, 2015.

“I didn’t know what to expect,” Schweitzer said. “I thought, ‘Who in Boston is going to have a deep interest in a struggling family in rural Maine?’ I just didn’t know that people would take an interest.” 

Within hours, readers from around the world flooded the Globe with offers of money, clothes, toys and other help for Strider and his family. Schweitzer, who has worked for the newspaper for 15 years, had never experienced such an overwhelming reaction to one of her stories. She was shell shocked.

“Nobody saw that coming,” she said.

The Globe scrambled to connect with a Boston trust attorney who could handle the donations. Sara Wells works for Morgan Lewis, the same law firm that represents the Globe, and she quickly agreed to set up and administer a fund for the family.

“The thought being that people want to know that their money is going to be used properly and used to benefit the boys,” she said.

Hundreds of checks poured in — two for $10,000 each. A GoFundMe page added another $22,000 to the mix.

Wells sends the family money for approved requests. So far they’ve asked for, and have gotten, help paying for rent, a used minivan, an after-school program for Strider and summer camp.

For people who wanted to donate items rather than money, Wells helped the family set up a wish list on Amazon. Soon, five to seven boxes a day were appearing at the post office: a firetruck bed for young Gallagher, a LeapFrog reading system and a desk for Strider, clothes for both boys.

“I was able to go through their drawers and take everything out, underwear included, and refill all the drawers with new clothes,” Lanette said.

Other donations found their way to the family : Legos, bikes, stuffed animals, snow pants, winter coats, a truckload of used high-end furniture, a swing set. Lanette passes on the extras to other families in need.

“We know there’s other grandparents (raising grandchildren) out here,” she said. “My husband was doing side jobs and ran into a set of grandparents raising twins. Newborn twins, thank you very much. Their daughter was drug addicted. So if we can’t use the help, then we will pass it on to whomever. But we’re OK. We’re OK because of the people who cared.”  

Schweitzer’s story and Rinaldi’s photos were each nominated for a Pulitzer, one of the most prestigious awards in journalism. 

On Monday, Rinaldi was in Atlanta, driving to lunch after covering a Celtics practice, when she got a call from her director of photography.

“Jess, you won a Pulitzer,” he said. “I think you won a Pulitzer.”

Rinaldi wasn’t sure she understood at first. Then she pulled over and got out of the car.

“I think I sat on that stone wall for about two hours,” she said.

 Schweitzer’s story, though, did not win. 

“There is a gigantic part of me that just really wishes both of our names could be on this because this is every bit, if not more, Sarah’s story as it is mine,” Rinaldi said. “We really reported this as a team. We really did.”

Schweitzer was happy for Rinaldi’s win. She called both the photographs and the photographer “amazing.”

“She’s dogged, first of all. The woman doesn’t give up. She’s empathetic and just has an incredible well of empathy for everybody in the situation. I felt like the whole time we were there, she was taking in the story the same way I was,” Schweitzer said.

Lanette was also happy to hear about Rinaldi’s win, saying she considers both Schweitzer and Rinaldi to be part of her family “and will be forever.” But she admitted some uncertainty, too. Her family’s tragedy — the life they were living — was so heart-wrenching that photos of it won a Pulitzer.

“To be the center focus of it, I don’t know what to think,” Lanette said. “You know what I’m saying? I mean, we were going through a horrific time when those pictures were done.”

After considering it for a few minutes, she came to a decision.

“It’s an honor,” she said. “It’s an honor to be at the center of why she got that.”

As Rinaldi credited Schweitzer for the story, she credited the family for their bravery in sharing their lives with the world.

“Lanette and Larry and Strider and Gallagher were all tremendously amazing to put up with us and allow us into their lives in a very, very serious way,” Rinaldi said. “It was such an honor to be able to tell this story that a lot of people live but few people get to see.”

While the award was stunning, she said, it’s the outpouring of help for Strider and his family that makes her most proud.

“That is a million times better than any Pulitzer,” Rinaldi said. “The idea that readers just, unsolicited, wanted to open up their hearts to these people and help them any way that they could. That, to me, that’s the biggest reward of doing this story.”

A year after Schweitzer and Rinaldi started chronicling Strider’s life and four months after the story appeared, the family is doing much better. Counseling helps. So does living in Lisbon, a town that doesn’t evoke the traumatic memories that Oxford did.

Strider is doing well in the first grade, without the behavior problems that plagued him in kindergarten. Lanette and Larry are working to legally adopt the boys, an important move to bring Strider a sense of security but one they never could have afforded without the help of strangers. 

On Friday, Strider, Gallagher and their cousin ran around the yard of the family’s rental house, bouncing between the swing set and Strider’s “secret hideout,” a crooked tree whose branches dipped to the ground to form a screen between the boys and the rest of the world. Strider tooled around on a new bike that Toys for Tots had given him at Christmas; he’d learned how to balance without training wheels the day before.

Before he went out to play, Lanette had told him Rinaldi won a big award for the pictures she took of him last year. He’d seen some of them, Strider thought. He definitely remembered the one of him climbing the tree without a shirt. 

He thought the award sounded really nice. If he could tell Schweitzer and Rinaldi something, he’d want to tell them that.

“Great job,” he said. “Tell Jessica she did a really nice job. Tell her to keep on doing that.”

Strider will likely get the chance to say that in person. The family still keeps in touch with Schweitzer and Rinaldi, and the women plan to visit soon, maybe for Strider’s upcoming 7th birthday.

“I hope that the Pulitzer will bring a set of new eyes around to the story and it will continue to help the family, and hopefully help other children and families that might be in similar situations,” Schweitzer said. “I guess that sounds cliche, but it’s true.”

[email protected]

Strider Wolf and Gallagher Irrevocable Trust

c/o Sara Wells

Morgan Lewis

One Federal St.

Boston, MA 02110

“I said ‘Wow, I think we’re onto something.’ But I certainly didn’t know,” Rinaldi said. “In general, I think you just keep working and keep hoping you’ll be able to tell the story with everything you’ve got.”

“There’s such a sense of hope there and so much innocence. I think that sort  of captures their spirit,” she said.

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