Ollie Cantos and his sons, Steven, Nick and Leo, are no strangers to attention from the media.
In 2017, Steven, Nick and Leo Cantos made headlines as the first blind triplets to become Eagle Scouts. Ollie Cantos, a Washington D.C. attorney who is also blind, was featured in People magazine for adopting the three teens. Steven, Nick and Leo talked with NPR’s StoryCorps about the experience of meeting Ollie. And ABC News and other outlets reported on the triplets’ battle with COVID-19 in April 2020.
At the end of June, Ollie and his sons spoke to the Church News while traveling to their Arlington, Virginia home via the Metro after a lunch celebration for Steven, Nick and Leo’s 22nd birthday.
Despite the hustle and bustle of the Metro and the fact it was the boys’ birthday, the Cantos family eagerly spent a few minutes sharing what they have been up to this summer, what they have learned from the pandemic and what the gospel of Jesus Christ means to them — a topic they don’t often get to talk about with the media.
“We know from our own lives the power of happiness,” said Ollie Cantos, a convert to the Church who is currently serving as the first counselor in the bishopric of the Potomac Yard YSA Ward, Washington DC YSA Stake. “People sometimes think that when it comes to being happy, being happy means ‘Someday I will be happy when …’.
“But the gospel that we know teaches that we can be happy right now. The plan of happiness is in our hands, at our disposal this very second, and that happiness comes from loving our Father in Heaven and Savior Jesus Christ and having the joy of being of service to others.”
Thriving in their own way
A Filipino-American who grew up attending Catholic schools, Olegario “Ollie” Cantos VII first met Latter-day Saint missionaries in 1995 and was baptized in December 1996.
In 2010, he was introduced to 10-year-old triplet boys who were born prematurely in Colombia and lived with their mother in South Arlington. They were often bullied by other kids and didn’t leave the house much. Starting off as their mentor recruited by a local social services agency, Ollie Cantos soon felt a desire to adopt them and show them a world of opportunity.
As the adoption was in process, he introduced Steven, Nick and Leo to the Church. There they felt loved and accepted. They were baptized in December 2012.
“For me, joining the Church was the biggest and the greatest decision of my life thus far,” Leo Cantos said. “Being able to have that in my life has changed me in a lot of ways. And because of church, I have become a better person and have definitely made, I believe, a good life for myself.”
Steven, Nick and Leo soon joined Scouting and loved it. They earned Second Class in 2014, and less than three years later, they qualified for the rank of Eagle, becoming the first blind triplets in the history of the Boy Scouts of America to do so.
Brandon Carlton, the Cantos’ family friend and former bishop, still remembers talking to the boys after Scouting activities and asking them what they enjoyed most.
“One of them would say archery was their favorite part. Another, driving the four wheelers around was their favorite part. … Not only did they do it, they enjoyed it,” Carlton said.
“They have had so many experiences that they would not have gotten, had it not been for Ollie. They’ve grown socially. They’ve certainly grown physically from their 11-year-old selves to the adults that they are today. They’ve grown spiritually in the gospel … and they all have their career aspirations and their educational aspirations that they’re working on.”
Nick Cantos is working on getting his real estate license and preparing for his third year at Southern Virginia University as a business management major. Leo Cantos is studying liberal arts at SVU with a concentration in pre-law. For the past almost five years, he’s been processing receipt of supplies to aircraft carriers.
Steven Cantos is transferring from George Mason University to SVU this fall to be with his brothers. Anxiously looking forward to band camp in August, he will play baritone for the SVU marching band. He is studying English with a concentration in rhetoric and working on getting software certifications.
“They continue to thrive, and they do so in their own ways,” Ollie Cantos said. “Even in spite of adversity along the way, they still give it their very best.”
He often tells his sons, “You need to be the best you, whatever that is.”
“Whenever there are any moments of struggle, just in wondering, ‘Well, Hey, Dad, what’s my place in the bigger world?’ which we all go through … but because of the transparency we have in this family, we talk about it together,” Ollie Cantos said. “Sometimes I’ll talk about it with them individually, sometimes they talk to each other about it. And because of the amazing unit of the family, we get to help strengthen one another.”
Ollie Cantos has a deep resume in government work. Today he serves as special assistant to the assistant secretary for civil rights at the U.S. Department of Education, where his work has expanded beyond disability issues alone.
“I’m so grateful I get to serve in government. It’s just a blast because of getting to help make a difference every day and promoting equality of opportunity. … I get to live my life every day doing a job I love, advancing causes I care about, all perfectly in line with what our gospel espouses,” he said.
In April 2020, each of the three boys contracted COVID-19. Leo and Nick Cantos were hospitalized. Steven had mild symptoms and quarantined at home.
Though Ollie Cantos couldn’t be with them in the hospital, he kept his sons on a joint phone call. “I was with them [on the phone], day and night,” he recalled.
At one point, Leo’s oxygen levels were dropping, and Ollie Cantos was afraid he was going to lose him. “There were times when I literally was crying, but I was on mute so I didn’t worry them,” he said. He pleaded with the Lord for help.
“The whole time, I just felt the love of our Savior. I just knew that whatever was to happen, was to happen. But I was willing to do anything, anything necessary that they might live,” Ollie Cantos said.
When asked what he learned from his battle against COVID-19, Nick Cantos said, “I learned to fight.”
He, too, faced dire circumstances while in the hospital. “When they’re talking about ventilators, when they’re talking about things like DNR (do not resuscitate), or things like that, you just have to just do everything in your power to move forward. …
“I’m fully healed, which is great, but it couldn’t have happened without the Spirit. The Lord saved my life.”
Leo Cantos also credited gospel principles and his faith in God for getting him through. “I was able to read the scriptures and get an idea of how to be a stronger person, so that when I did go through this awful COVID, I was able to be a lot stronger and still stick with God,” he said.
Steven Cantos added: “The Lord has been there for us … even during the roughest times.”
Now that pandemic restrictions are lifting in their town, Steven Cantos said he is thrilled to be “living life” again. “Going out and experiencing the world again after having been cooped up for a year is certainly something else,” he said.
As a family, Ollie Cantos and his sons pray daily they can be of service to others in any way they can.
“We’re willing to help people without disabilities. We’re willing to help people with disabilities. Whatever it takes, because we’re all here for each other,” Ollie Cantos said.
“And no matter where we go in the world, we always feel that sense of love from others, and we’re eager to extend that to others. So if anybody needs us, instead of just asking for any kind of support, we just ask for the chance to serve them.”
Steven, Nick and Leo Cantos have also enjoyed the variety of Church callings they’ve had. Each had an opportunity to serve in an Aaronic Priesthood quorum presidency as a youth, helping them to develop leadership skills and confidence.
One of Steven’s favorite callings has been serving as a Primary instructor. “I wasn’t in Primary at all (growing up). I didn’t have the experience. Teaching Primary gives you sort of the same experience, you get to learn more, you get to refresh your mind on more simple stuff. …
“It was probably one of the most powerful experiences for me teaching 6- and 7-year-olds about what we might consider the basics, but in reality, are fundamental ideas of our doctrine.”
As Carlton reflects on the Cantos’ family journey over the years, he said, “I think their story is an example to all of us of not letting the challenges in your life define you, but instead letting your spirit and your positive choices and your aspirations define who you are.”