By Seth Eggert, Associate Editor
A champion is not always determined by a driver’s accomplishments on track, but rather their character. One driver that has fit that mold is Ryan Vargas, who was recognized as the 2023 Comcast Community Champion of the Year for his work with the FACES charity where he serves as a board member.
The NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series driver for On Point Motorsports was born with craniosynostosis, a birth defect that stems from the abnormal or premature fusing of bones in a baby’s skull. Vargas has used his journey as part of his advocacy with FACES, encouraging others that have craniofacial differences that they can accomplish anything that they set their mind to.
“I always go into these things prepared not to have it happen,” Vargas admitted. “The fact that it happened is a huge deal for FACES. I don’t do this to raise anything for me. I have nothing to gain out of this. I just like going to FACES camp and seeing these kids live a normal live, a normal summer. It makes me so happy.
“I’ve gotten to meet and interact with so many incredible individuals through FACES. They do so much for these kids with craniosynostosis and craniofacial differences, not just kids, but young adults too. I’m fortunate, I had surgery when I was 11 months old, and I’m healthy to this day.”
Vargas has scored one top-10 finish in the Craftsman Truck Series and two top-10 finishes in the Xfinity Series. Across the National Touring Series, he has 74 career starts. Vargas also has two top-10 finishes in the NASCAR Whelen Euro Series.
He’s also used his platform as a driver to raise awareness for children that, like him, are facing or have faced similar health challenges. Vargas lives with a ‘lightning bolt’ like scar from the corrective surgery he had as a child over 20 years ago. However, he recognizes that he is one of the lucky ones, as there’s other kids, young adults, and families that have encountered struggles. That is where FACES has made a difference.
“I don’t have any issues and I’m able to chase my dream, but there are so many other stories out there that are not the same, they’re constantly in and out of the hospital, constantly struggling to pay their hospital bills, insurance, and all of these other things. FACES is here to try and help that. Something like this from Comcast is a massive, massive deal.”
With the honor of the award from Comcast is a $60,000 check that goes to the FACES charity. The money from that award will very likely go towards paying the travel expenses for a family to reach a craniofacial surgical center, as well as the FACES camp. Vargas has been a fixture at the camp, spending several days with the campers in recent years.
“The $60,000 award that we will get from this will serve so many families to be able to get to the cranial facial surgeries that they need to,” Emily McKay, Communications Director for FACES explained. “What FACES does primarily is we help families get to the surgery centers across the United States.
“Quite often all the families have some kind of medical insurance, but they don’t have the finances to get to the craniofacial surgery center that is going to best serve their child. We’ll be able to serve more families because of this, but also, we’ll be able to support FACES camp again this year with this.”
As evidenced by Vargas’ career behind the wheel, the possibilities are endless for those that have craniofacial differences. While the road might be difficult or long, the beauty of those that have craniofacial differences is in their resilience and their determination.
“What I want everybody to know is (that) children and adults with craniofacial differences can do anything,” McKay said. “They’re only different because they’re born with a syndrome, or they have a cranial craniofacial difference because they’re born or they’re in a car crash, or they have a craniofacial difference because they have cancer, and people with craniofacial differences can do anything they want to do. That should not stop them.
“People in the workplace, in society need to know that they have so much to offer. Since I have been with FACES, while I thought I was ‘woke,’ I have been more aware of the beauty of people with craniofacial differences, the resilience, and their actual beauty, and I don’t see (craniofacial differences) anymore. I think I want people to know that about me is I don’t see it. I see the beauty. I see what they have to offer to the world and that’s what I hope that Ryan’s advocacy can also promote and which it has.
“(The awareness the award brings) is tremendous because what the organization does is not only advocacy it helps these kids and adults get the surgery, (but they also) need to make their lives more meaningful and healthier, and they can work, go to school, eat. That’s what it boils down to sometimes.”
Ultimately, the biggest winners of Vargas receiving the Community Champion of the Year award are the kids that suffer from craniofacial differences. The award, and the recognition that comes with it gives them and their families hope. It offers an educational moment for those that have never heard of what a craniofacial condition is.
“(Ryan and FACES receiving this award) means that there is hope,” M.E. Sanders, a craniofacial patient that now works at FACES explained. “I talked about it in the video that I felt like having a kind of facial condition there’s no hope because a lot of people have surgeries that last you a lifetime. You think there’s a short term, but it’s not always short term, there’s a long term for having surgery.
“And a lot of people don’t know what a craniofacial condition is. So, when we won, that was shocking to me because I want there to be more awareness, hope, and helping a family and good camp people really do have fun at camp.”
“I’m so happy about that because I think of having a kind of facial condition myself that it’s a weird thing to explain to people because I feel like we live a normal life, but people don’t look at us normally because we do look different,” Sanders continued. “I think there’s always that struggle to find who you really are in this world. I always try to put it to people that I know I’m a person. So, I think that’s (where) FACES comes in to help everybody be as normal as possible to strive and do the best they can in this world.”
The winner of the 2023 Comcast Community Champion Award was chosen by a panel of executives at Comcast, NASCAR, and the 2022 Community Champion, Jes Ferreira. Dirt racer Jessica Friesen and NASCAR team owner Max Siegel were the other two finalists. Both of their charities Crossroads Center for Children and the Max Siegel Youth Foundation will receive $30,000 each.