Stevens Family

Stephanie, Ava, Vaughn and Brad Stevens are selling T-shirts to raise funds and awareness for the International Rhino Foundation. (West Valley View photos by Pablo Robles)

When Vaughn Stevens saw rhinos at the Brookfield Zoo in Illinois, he was disturbed to hear they’re on the verge of extinction.

Now age 9 and living in Buckeye, he is bringing together his two loves – rhinos and American Ninja Warrior – to raise funds for the International Rhino Foundation.

The Verrado Heritage student and his family are selling T-shirts, designed by his sister Ava, to raise awareness of IRF while promoting his upcoming appearance on American Ninja Warrior Junior. The show begins airing October 13 on Universal Kids network.

“The first time I saw them at the zoo, I liked how they looked,” said Vaughn, who turns 10 on September 13. “I found out they were going extinct, and I really didn’t want that to happen.

“When I got older, I studied them and told my friends about them.”

The fundraiser works like this: The more shirts they sell, the higher percentage of profits the rhinos will receive. They have sold 39 T-shirts as of September 5. The fundraiser ends Sunday, September 16. Visit customink.com/fundraising/save-the-rhinos-with-the-rhino-ninja.

“He wants to save the rhinos,” said his mother, Stephanie. “Poaching is really upsetting to him.”

He’s taking his rhino mission a step further. On American Ninja Warrior Junior, he’s nicknamed Rhino Ninja.

“It’s a great opportunity to do something positive, besides being on the show,” she said.

Not that the show was a letdown by any means.

“It’s the funnest thing I’ve ever done,” he said. “It’s always been my dream to be on that show. I thought I had to be 19 to do it. Here I am doing it at the age of 9.”

The family spent five days in Los Angeles so Vaughn could compete. Vaughn was chosen for the show, thanks to a video he made showing off his rock climbing skills. His family built a rock climbing wall in their garage.

“I can’t say enough about the Ninja community,” Stephanie said. “We were so blown away with how amazing, supportive and professional they have been.

“His two favorite ninjas, Drew Drechsel and Barclay Stockett, trained him. Everyone was just amazing and wonderful. Some professional athletes are not the best role models all the time. The Ninjas are different. Some of the Ninjas have purchased shirts. It’s been a great experience.”

That’s all the family could reveal, per the producers. The storyline and outcome are surprises. Stephanie said she had very little to do with Vaughn’s motivation.

“We do try to instill the general virtues that any good parent wants their children to have: honesty and goodness,” she said. “As far as animal love, Vaughn and Ava were born with that. Both are very kind children. They really wanted to do something. Short of going to Africa and hunting the poachers themselves, this is the next best thing.”