Vicki Glembocki 2013-10-08 09:59:26
A remarkable family and an extraordinary school in Philadelphia lovingly embrace children with disabilities. Behind the scenes Lions are working their magic. MaryAnne Roberto said no. She had to say no. There was just no way—no way—she and her husband Matt could afford to adopt another child. They had four children of their own, three of them teenagers, the fourth just starting college. Plus, the couple already had 8-year-old Sophie, whom they adopted from China in 2005, and little 4-year-old Shane, also from China, who “came home,” as MaryAnne puts it, just the year before, in 2009. Shane was a challenge. They knew he would be, from the moment the Robertos first came across his file on the adoption agency’s website. He was totally blind. Sophie, too, was partially blind and the Robertos dug deep to pay the hefty $13,000 tuition to send her to St. Lucy’s Day School for Children with Visual Impairments in Philadelphia, a 30-minute drive from their home in Bensalem. Even so, the Robertos had planned to send Shane there when he was ready for elementary school, but quickly realized that his developmental delays were far more severe than they expected. They didn’t know yet what kind of expenses his care might incur. But they did know one thing: “We couldn’t afford to adopt again,” says MaryAnne, 52, who works as a recreational therapist, doing early intervention with visually impaired infants and toddlers, while Matt, 55, works for the government. Adopting children wasn’t even her idea in the first place—it was her daughter Megan’s. Years before, Megan had been diagnosed with a rare autoimmune disease that had the potential of permanently damaging her vision. She spent a lot of time in hospitals with other kids, many of whom did not have the support system she had. So she began to ask her parents if they would consider adopting. MaryAnne thought it was merely phase—a compassionate girl caught up in the emotion of her situation—but even after Megan recovered, she kept asking. And asking. MaryAnne decided to explore the idea a bit and, when she came upon the agency that worked with special needs children in China, she realized what she needed to do. “These were our children, waiting for us in China,” explains MaryAnne with an accent so strong it’s clear she was born and raised in Philadelphia. “We just didn’t know it.” By 2009, their family of six had grown to eight. A year later, as MaryAnne was finishing up some of Shane’s paperwork on the agency’s website, she came across the photo of a girl. The girl, Maeleigh, had a tethered spine and needed to walk with crutches but, otherwise, was perfectly healthy. In fact, she’d been on her way to being adopted but, for some reason, the adoption had fallen through. It happened at a critical time–Maeleigh was almost 14 years old, which meant that she was about to age out of the adoption process in China. If she weren’t adopted that year, she would lose her chance, likely living out the rest of her life in a Chinese nursing home. “I found a girl who needs a family,” MaryAnne told her husband that night. “Can we afford it?” Matt asked. “No,” MaryAnne answered. They looked at the photo of Maeleigh, and both of them began to cry. A few days later, a letter came in the mail. It was from Sophie’s school, St. Lucy’s. When MaryAnne opened it, she could hardly believe what she was reading: “Sophie’s tuition is paid in full for the next year.” It was a sign, she thought. From God. And God’s message was clear: “You can do this.” * * * Three years after the letter came, MaryAnne holds her son Shane’s arm as he thunders his way through the crowd in the gymnasium at St. Lucy’s Day School for Children with Visual Impairments. It’s Saturday, March 23, Irish Day, one of the school’s biggest annual fundraisers. Orange, green, and white balloons bob above the center of the 24 tables in the gym, all of them packed full. The families of students are there, of course, many wearing T-shirts imprinted with a verse from Corinthians: “For we walk by faith, not by sight.” But there are also hundreds of people from the school’s North Philly neighborhood, who stop by and donate up to $10 a pop to eat ham and cabbage and soda bread, watch Irish step dancers tap, bid on the auction baskets (there’s an iPad in one this year), and listen to the band on stage that is, right now, playing “Irish Eyes Are Smiling.” Everyone is singing along. Literally. The Robertos stop to chat at a table in the very front of the room, right by the door where there’s still a line of people waiting to come in despite the fact that the afternoon event is half over. This table is the Philadelphia Lions Club’s spot, where six members are sitting, clapping to the music, sporting their bright yellow Lions’ aprons like little pots of gold. The analogy isn’t an exaggeration. For St. Lucy’s, donations from the District 14 Lions make up a huge portion of their pot of gold, explains school principal Sister Meg Fleming, who is sitting at the table, too, listing the ways the Lions have helped her students during the 25 years the club’s been involved with the school, which opened in 1955. “We asked them to buy us a Braille computer, and they said, ‘Yes,’” says Sister Meg, whose enthusiasm is so kidlike it’s hard to believe she’s 64. “Then they said, ‘What else do you need?’ And, they kept asking, ‘What do you need? What do you need?’ If it weren’t for the Lions, we wouldn’t be as good as we are.” By far, the biggest help comes from the money the Lions donate every year to offset tuition costs. There are 41 children at St. Lucy’s, all with parents trying to scrape together the $13,000-a-year tuition. Half of those kids get aid from the Lions, including the Robertos. Both Sophie and Shane are in school here, but Matt and MaryAnne earn slightly too much money to qualify for other kinds of assistance. The Lions money is just about all they get. MaryAnne talks with South Philadelphia Lions Louise Hanson, Nick Montone, Don DiAntonio and his wife Rita, a third-generation Lion who remembers going to fundraising events just like this when she was a child, tagging along with her father and uncle and grandfather who all wore those bright yellow vests, too. The way they’re all smiling and hugging, it seems as if the Lions know the Robertos well, as if they’re aware of what, exactly, the Lion’s tuition donation enabled the Robertos to do. Certainly, they must know. They must have been told what it meant for MaryAnne and Matt when they saw that letter from St. Lucy’s three years ago, what the couple was able to do once Sophie’s tuition was paid in full. “It was the exact amount we needed,” MaryAnne explains. But as everyone stands to pose for a snapshot, and MaryAnne starts proudly introducing her kids to the Lions, it becomes clear—the Lions don’t know. Their gift to the school was like any other from the Lions, given quietly and without any expectation of thanks. They only want to help. And they did. Because there, in the photo, are Matt and MaryAnne. And daughter Sophie. And son Shane. And right there, standing between MaryAnne and South Philly Lions Club president Don DiAntonio, is the Roberto’s third adopted child, pretty and friendly and confident— Maeleigh. It took almost two years after the letter arrived for the Robertos to arrange for Maeleigh to “come home.” There was so much paperwork, plus the home study meetings with the agency, then all the planning for the trip to her orphanage in China, the airfare, the hotels. Finally, in 2012, Maeleigh set foot in her new home in Bensalem. “It’s really big what the Lions give,” MaryAnne says. “It’s more than money.” Indeed. Because there is another child in that group photo as well. His name is Vincent. He is five-years old, bouncing with spunk, dressed in a festive green shirt with his mother’s arms wrapped around his chest. Vincent goes to school here, too—he has retinal blastoma, which means he’s totally blind. The Robertos met him two years ago, when they arrived at Maeleigh’s orphanage—a trip they wouldn’t have been able to make without the help from the Lion’s Club—and saw this sweet little boy. Oh my gosh! MaryAnne thought. I can’t believe this child. He is so smart, so funny! They couldn’t adopt both kids. But MaryAnne wanted to. She and Matt both wanted to. They knew, as they did with the others, that Vincent was their child. He was just waiting for them in China. And Vincent seemed to know it, too. As MaryAnne left the orphanage, she hugged Vincent, who said something to her in Mandarin. Maeleigh translated his words: “Hurry back and get me, mama.” And, in January this year, she did.
Published by International Association of Lions Clubs . View All Articles.
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