Going the Extra Mile

Jonathan with his parents

Jonathan with his parents, Patty and Rich

By: Rich and Patty Vassi

The Center for Disability Services has been intertwined in our lives since we fell in love with a little boy's photo on our refrigerator. This is our story...

As we were making the decision whether to adopt, the adoption agency gave us a photo of a 2-year-old boy from Pasto, Columbia, along with a very short write-up about his background. The photo was intended only as an example of the kind of information we would be given if we decided to adopt a child from a third-world country, as they are not known for their good medical care or extensive records. We kept this photo on our refrigerator for a few weeks, walking past it daily while we thought about the possibilities of adoption. After we finalized our decision, we contacted the adoption agency to tell them we not only wanted to adopt but we wanted to adopt the little boy in the photo...we never looked at another child.

Our son, Jonathan, arrived at his new home on his second birthday, Dec. 20, 1989. Although excited to start on our new journey, we were heartbroken to discover that his diet consisted of only liquids, he weighed only 17 pounds and he was not able to sit up or crawl at age two. The next few weeks proved more difficult for us as medical professionals told us that little Jonathan had severe developmental delays, a failure to thrive, would need surgery on his cleft palate and lip and, as time went on, was diagnosed with autism.

Jonathan was a delightful, fun and endearing little boy; however, he also had a number of behavioral challenges. His adolescent years, like so many other children that age, were not exactly a walk in the park for us. We both worked and finding qualified and appropriate services for Jonathan proved to be very difficult. Because of this, the only people we could leave him with when we couldn't be there for Jonathan were his two grandmothers. There were many, many instances during this time period when we felt completely overwhelmed.

While searching for services and programs for Jonathan within the community, the Center for Disability Services always came out on top as they had both the willingness and flexibility to work with our son and us. From the very beginning of Jonathan's adoption, Center staff was there to help and lend support. After Jonathan arrived, the Center's medical staff diagnosed and treated him; and during his childhood he continued to receive his primary care, as well as ENT, neurology, psychiatry and dental services through the Center. Over the years, Jonathan used the Center's after school, service coordination, day habilitation, respite and residential programs.

In 2002, while training for a marathon, Rich had a heart attack and had to be hospitalized. Jonathan was 15 years old and on vacation from school and could not be left at home alone or with just any sitter. The Center was instrumental in placing Jonathan in their Menands GAP Respite program and enhanced our respite services. The Respite program required additional staffing for Jonathan, and an employee from another department stepped way outside their job description to help out, allowing Patty to go to the hospital to be with Rich. When Rich woke up after his surgery, Patty told him, "You don't have to worry...the Center is taking care of everything." The Center was our life saver, and they made sure we had what we needed to get through this very difficult time in our lives.

When Jonathan became a teenager, we started introducing him to the Center's overnight respite services. Jonathan was not comfortable being left in a new place, so the Center worked with us and allowed him to do brief hourly visits in the beginning. We had a plan where dad dropped him off and mom picked him up, because Rich was stronger with the tough, emotional drop-offs. We slowly increased the frequency over the next year, until Jonathan finally felt comfortable enough to spend an overnight away from home. We then started to use this service twice a month because at the time, Patty was also assisting her mother who had been diagnosed with Alzheimer's.

At the age of 23, Jonathan moved into one of the Center's residential homes, where he has lived for the past 7 years. The people who care for Jonathan in his home share our joy about his successes. When Jonathan comes to our house for a visit, he always wants to return to his home at the end of the day where staff greets him with smiles and genuine interest in how his day went. It's such a great feeling to know they not only physically care for Jonathan, but they genuinely like him as a person. Because of the commitment of the residential staff to our values, they have been working with us on slowly decreasing a behavioral medication that Jonathan was put on as a teenager. We believe that medications don't have to be a "life sentence" and wanted to wean Jonathan off this one. With the staff's help, we have slowly and successfully been able to accomplish this.

Jonathan is now 30 and thriving, and we can't say enough positive things about him or the Center. The Center has been intertwined in Jonathan's life since the beginning; and, over the years, they have shown us again and again they are willing to go the extra mile to ensure our needs are met. This is why we felt it was so important to leave a legacy gift. When we see how well Jonathan is doing thanks to the Center for Disability Services, it is an easy decision for us to give back.

To learn more about how you can support the programs and services that help the patients and families at the Center for Disability Services, like the Vassis, contact Kim Heunemann at heunemann@cfdsny.org or 518-832-6113.