A famous rock group once asked in song, I Want to Know What Love Is.
Step into the Wong family’s Cutler Bay household and the answer is readily clear. This is what love is.
A large corkboard is the first clue on a long wall in the cramped living room, immediately pulling attention away from the widescreen TV or the kitchen. Here, you will find photos of the large family — two biological children ages 34 and 33, three grandkids, along with seven adopted children, ages 23 to 13.
“The family wall,” says daughter Autumnjoy, 13, all smiles and one of the adopted kids who call Sandra and Hoi Wong mom and dad.
Sandra Wong names the faces in the photographs. Among them: Jonathan, 23, the first adoptee. Susana, 20, who wants to become a chef, like her dad who works at Samurai near The Falls and part-time at Yoko’s Japanese Restaurant in Miami Beach. Victor, 14, a budding drummer. Autumnjoy, too. She’s studying drama at Mays Conservatory of the Arts in Goulds. Sandra has a story for all of them and her smile never wavers.
At any one time 11 people share this modest five-bedroom house, a home the Wongs have had for 22 years, a home destroyed and rebuilt after Hurricane Andrew in 1992.
The Wongs have adopted seven children with special needs, all as babies, most born prematurely and with various ailments. Daniel, 19, is physically disabled, two are mentally disabled, three are challenged, and one went into independent living. All are loved and thrive under the Wongs’ care.
“There’s something inside of me that if I see someone where there is a desperate need…” Sandra begins, and you understand where she is going as several of her kids gaze at her in admiration.
“There is a desperate need for homes for foster kids,” she continues. “If people would be merciful and open their hearts, it’s rewarding. It’s not so much what we do for them but what they do for us. Everybody should have a home and a family, especially at holiday time. You know how terrible it is to be locked up in a group home and you have no one? You see these movies talking about families and their celebrations and you just have a general home, it’s not personal. We are a family. We are one unit.”
But the unit is feeling the strain these days, despite organizational skills that would impress military leaders.
Daniel, born with cerebral palsy and quadriplegia, was delivered premature at 26 weeks gestation and with fetal alcohol syndrome that damaged the portion of his brain that manages motor and verbal skills. He’s a handsome young man at 200 pounds and over six-feet tall. But, he’s too big for his considerably smaller parents to lift from his wheelchair into the bathtub and his chair cannot navigate through the narrow bathroom’s doorway. “He keeps hurting himself when he goes through there. He throws tantrums because he knows it will be difficult to get him through that door,” Sandra says.
Daniel needs a roll-in shower and the bathroom remodeled to accommodate him. The Wongs have saved about $12,000 toward the estimated $18,000 remodeling cost but need to make up the difference.
In addition, the family needs an accessible vehicle with a power lift for his wheelchair so that Daniel can get out into the community and to his necessary medical appointments. The current van, a 1994 Chrysler, was third-hand when the family purchased it about 18 months ago and broke down a year ago.
The Medicaid program will pick up Daniel for his appointments and therapies at Baptist Hospital in Kendall and Joe DiMaggio in Hollywood, but since there are other children on the route, if Daniel has a 10 a.m. appointment, the van arrives at the Wong home at 7 a.m. and he is not brought home until 5 p.m. which stresses the family — and Daniel.
Taxed by the long day away from home and family, “he fusses and cries,” Sandra says.
“It’s really challenging. My oldest daughter helps out, but with the economy, things are so bad she’s looking to get another job so it will be really hard for me to make the appointments and his appointments take the whole day,” Sandra says. “It has been pretty hard to take care of Daniel. He looks pretty healthy but he could go downhill very fast between life and death. He has had over 48 hospitalizations, many pneumonias. Even though he has a feeding machine, he still sometimes aspirates. Any kind of sickness can send him overboard.”
Shelley Gottsagen, development and community relations manager for the Center for Independent Living of South Florida, nominated Daniel for Wish Book.
The Wongs are “generous in both volunteering time in the community and adopting several children with and without disabilities and blending them into a loving family,” said Gottsagen, who added that the family “has a beautiful spirit of giving and supporting each other.”
Daniel’s a survivor. He was born in January 1993, about four months after Andrew, and he’s every bit a Wong.
“We were still living in a trailer and [the Department of Children and Families] needed a home for him to come to and he had nowhere to go so we took him,” Sandra says, smiling. “We don’t know how to say ‘No!’ ”
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