CHILDERSBURG – A big accomplishment deserves a big celebration, and for 19-year-old Jay Morgan, both of those happened this spring.

Morgan graduated from Childersburg High School on May 27 and left the next day for the trip of a lifetime – a weeklong safari in Kenya, Africa.

“This is all Jay has ever wanted, since he could talk, was to go on a safari,” said Morgan’s grandmother, Alice Skutack. “I always told him when he graduated from high school, I would take him.”

Morgan’s mother, Melissa Acker, said her son fell in love with the movie “The Lion King” as a young boy and has been asking to go on an African safari since. 

Morgan has Asperger syndrome, an autism spectrum disorder characterized by difficulties in social interaction and nonverbal communication, which sometimes made school challenging for him. During hard times, however, the promise of a safari was motivation for Morgan to push through, Acker said.

“With him being autistic, we always hoped and prayed he would get through high school, graduate and be able to go further, but there were times when that was questionable,” she said. “I would get frustrated. He would get frustrated. His grandmother would just tell him, ‘If you graduate, I’ll take you to Africa.’ And he did graduate with a diploma, and she said ‘OK’ and took the ball and ran with it.”

Morgan, Skutack and Morgan’s aunt June Burrell flew out of Atlanta to London on May 28. They spent two days in London to see Morgan’s “bucket list” landmarks including Buckingham Palace, Big Ben and St. Paul’s Cathedral, and also to break up the long flight. 

From there, the group went to Nairobi, Kenya, where they were led by Gate 1 Travel on an escorted, 7-day safari. They spent the first night in Nairobi, then traveled to the Kigio Wildlife Conservancy, and spent the last two nights at the Masai Mara Reserve. 

The trip mostly consisted of game drives, where tour buses would set out for hours at a time to explore the land and search for wildlife. Skutack said they saw at least 20 species of animals during their tour.

“I have done a lot of traveling, and I was not prepared to be as impressed as I was with this trip,” Skutack said. “It was very impressive, and Jay was very pleased, I think.”

Ask Morgan about his trip, and he is happy to pull out his iPad and flip through the hundreds of pictures he took of African animals – zebras, cheetahs, elephants, rhinos, spider monkeys, hyenas and many more. 

Some highlights during their safari included watching a group of lions rip apart an animal carcass, seeing a monkey climb into their tour bus and stopping the bus for a lion who was drinking water from a puddle in the middle of the road. 

To top it off, the week they visited was the beginning of the Great Migration, where thousands of zebras and wildebeests travel together across East Africa in search of food. The group saw large herds of the animals in every direction, Skutack said.

“When we first got there, we wanted to take pictures of every animal we saw, but after a couple days we stopped, because there were hundreds of giraffes and zebras and all,” she said. 

Morgan said his favorite animal to see was the zebra, though animal babies of any kind were a close second.

Since returning home June 6, the grand adventure has been all Morgan can talk about, his mother said.

“It was exciting, but nerve-wracking, to see him go on this trip,” Acker said. “I knew his Nana, as he calls her, has traveled all over the world, and that she would take care of him. Yes, he loved seeing the animals, but I don’t think he would’ve gone if his Nana hadn’t gone with him.” 

The safari, Acker said, was a great way to recognize Morgan’s school accomplishments and prepare him for the next chapter.

“I cannot say enough positive things about Talladega County School System,” Acker said. “They mainstreamed him, and that was the best thing that could have happened. He did very well. Next, he is hoping to go to Central Alabama Community College and later transfer to Auburn University to study paleontology. But we’re in no hurry right now.”

Morgan is in no rush to return to Africa, either. When asked if he is ready to go back, he simply says, “No.”