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Orlando Sentinel

YMCA's Program Helps Mother Build Life For Disabled Boy

By Willoughby Mariano

November 29, 2002
Copyright © 2002 Orlando Sentinel. All rights reserved. 


Holding on.



For an instant, it seemed that the life Alexsandra Aquino struggled to build for her paralyzed son would come unraveled.

Knowing only a few words of English, Aquino, her husband and two sons left Puerto Rico for Orlando in 1998 so they could be near expert medical treatment for Giovannie Davila Aquino. Giovannie, 5, was born paralyzed from the chest down.

For four years, Aquino slowly learned to speak with her son's new doctors in English and found a job lifting and sorting heavy stacks of mail for the U.S. Postal Service. Her husband, Ivan Davila, worked in the tourism industry.

Then, in the span of a few months, Aquino separated from her husband, and her baby sitter moved to Miami. Far away from her family, Aquino, 26, wondered whether she would have to quit her job: She could find no one willing to care for the tiny boy who cannot walk.

But now Giovannie frolics on the jungle gym at the South Orlando YMCA, surrounded by the swinging legs and grasping arms of other children, while his mother lifts stacks of mail with peace of mind. With a scholarship to the center's after-school program, Giovannie, now in pre-kindergarten, and his brother, Alexander Davila Aquino, 6, a kindergartner, receive the care others were unwilling to give.

If these blessings continue, Aquino said, this holiday season will be a good one.

"I can breathe," she said.

The center of attention

With a twinkle in his pale brown eyes and a chipmunk grin, Giovannie uses his little arms to hoist his 30 pounds before the slope of a tube slide, then pauses as a crowd of doting older girls cheer him on.

"No," Giovannie declares in a voice that rings like a small glass bell, but the girls insist he slide. So in an instant, he dives headfirst, and two brown shoes, each small enough to fit in the palm of your hand, disappear down the plastic yellow tube.

When Giovannie re-emerges, he tumbles into the arms of Brittany Andersen, 19, a program counselor whose sole assignment is to carry and care for the boy. Before Giovannie arrived in August, the 2-year-old after-school program had never cared for a physically disabled child and did not have enough staff to handle him.

But the center, which serves struggling working-class neighborhoods in the Oak Ridge area, is used to caring for children, regardless of their needs, said Paul Stoney, district executive director. Roughly 90 percent of the program's 55 children receive financial aid, he said, and more than half come from single-parent families.

"We turn no one away," Stoney said.

Giovannie's needs are great. Parts of his head and spinal cord were underdeveloped when he was born, and he has been diagnosed with spina bifida. Although he is very bright and speaks rapid-fire English and Spanish, he lives with a shunt in his head that drains fluid from his brain. He has no sensation from his chest down.

As a result, Giovannie lives dependent on his mother and brother for even his smallest needs. Aquino carries Giovannie to and from his pint-sized wheelchair and sits by him on the couch to make sure he does not fall.

Alexander holds the door for his mother as she pushes the wheelchair, and she tosses Giovannie a basketball when he feels left out of a game. When Aquino naps, Alexander gets his younger brother a glass of water or a cookie.

The work is hard on both of them, Aquino admits. It must be difficult for Alexander when Giovannie gets so much attention, she said. She misses her family in Puerto Rico, and when her back hurts and she is tired, she wishes they were close by.

"Sometimes," she said, "I cry on the phone."

Inching forward

But there is little time for sadness. When she returns home from work, Aquino busies herself teaching Giovannie the skills he needs to fend for himself.

Giovannie likes having his picture taken, so Aquino asked him to pose before the camera to get him to pull himself up in his crib. When he was 11Ú2 years old, she lay beside him on the floor to teach him to crawl with his arms.

"I said, 'Come on, papi, we have to do this,' " Alexsandra said.

So that her son can play and move around the house as other boys do, Aquino found a wooden cutting board and, with the help of her pastor, designed and built a tiny skateboard for Giovannie.

"I'd like him to be independent," she said.

What Giovannie cannot do for himself he gets through charm and force of will. On the playground of the YMCA, which is supported by the Orlando Sentinel Family Fund Holiday Campaign, he bats his long dark lashes, soliciting hugs from older girls who stand in line to greet him. Some tend to him during snack time, while others surround the slide to encourage him.

Then playtime is done, and Andersen carries the tiny boy from the jungle gym and the attention he loves. Giovannie tells his counselor he wants to stay.

"I want to play by myself, " he shouts with his bell voice.

"You can't play by yourself," Andersen replies. "Who will catch you when you fall?"

"I will," Giovannie declares.

That is not possible. For now, a drum for Christmas will suffice, Giovannie said. So will a PlayStation 100 for his older brother. Aquino and her husband also have been working to reconcile. Maybe their home can be complete for Christmas, she said.

But what Aquino wants most of all, she said, is very simple:

"Peace and love."

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