Much to her son’s dismay, Maria Nolasco pulled out the baby pictures.
“Mom! No! I’m so embarrassed!” her son, Jerald Garcia, shouted from the bathroom, where he was showering with the help of his uncle.
Nolasco opened the photo album anyway, pointing at the pictures. Jerald dressed in white just after his birth on Jan. 18, 2002. Jerald hugging a rabbit stuffed animal at 4 months old. Jerald laying down in a striped T-shirt at 5 months, surrounded by a sports-themed frame with “All Star” printed at the top.
She has studied those pictures — memorized them — looking for a bruise, a look on his face, any clue as to why her infant son developed cerebral palsy, a diagnosis she received just after the 5-month-old photo was taken.
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“I couldn’t believe it,” she said in her kitchen one night in November. “I remember thinking, ‘Why me? Why him?’”
Now, 12 years later, Nolasco, a single parent, has shaped her life around Jerald. He has two different wheelchairs to move around the house, but to get him from home to the car is a group effort. Nolasco recruited a friend to help build a plywood ramp to roll him from the porch. Then, her younger brother, Eric Hernandez, lifts 135-pound Jerald into the car.
But the ramp is rotting from rain damage — causing it to give way under the weight of Jerald and his chair — and Jerald is growing bigger, making it difficult for Nolasco and her brother to move him to and from home.
Jerald and his family are in need of an aluminum fold-up wheelchair ramp to withstand rainy weather, and they also need a van with a built-in ramp that would allow Jerald to steer himself into the car in his electric wheelchair.
For Jerald and his family, both ramps could add some stability to their uncertain futures. Nolasco knows her brother, who is finishing up his computer science degree, may not be around forever to help.
“Since the diagnosis, my life is like a roller coaster,” Nolasco said. “Hospital, therapy, hospital, therapy. We try to live life one step at a time.”
A normal day starts on a hospital bed in Jerald’s bedroom, painted his favorite color — blue. Eric then lifts Jerald into his wheelchair to get ready for classes at Beyond Expectations Academy, a school in Southwest Miami-Dade for children with special needs. After school, he does homework with his AAA Home Health Services nurse.
Ask Jerald about homework, and he scrunches his face. He’d rather be playing baseball with the Miracle League of Miami-Dade, a baseball league for children with special needs run by the Marlins. Or at watersports camp at Shake-A-Leg Miami, a program in Coconut Grove that teaches kids with physical disabilities how to sail, kayak and swim. Or in his room, watching Disney Channel or ABC Family, enjoying the privacy, a rare commodity for a kid who needs an extra hand with everything from getting out of bed to grabbing something from his backpack.
From his room, Jerald showed off his “driver’s license” awarded at the end of a class teaching him how to operate his motorized wheelchair.
“I got driving skills for this bad boy here,” he said, adding that he prefers the motorized chair to the manual wheelchair because it’s more comfortable and allows him to move around without someone having to push him.
“He feels free when he’s in it,” Nolasco said later.
She spoke with the photo albums scattered on her kitchen counter showing Jerald as he grew older — sitting in his wheelchair at Disney World surrounded by stickers of Mickey Mouse and the gang, holding his walker with “I did it!” written on the frame, graduating from preschool in a blue graduation cap.
As the years go on, there are fewer and fewer photos. Nolasco doesn’t have the time or money now for the department store photo shoots. During the week, she works part time for AAA canceling memberships to pay the bills. But the job doesn’t leave her much time to spend with Jerald and her infant son, Ryan, both of whom Nolasco’s mother helps care for.
The stress gets to her sometimes.
“I have my days. In front of him [Jerald], I try to be natural. I try to push him to succeed,” Nolasco said. “But even then, I ask at night, ‘Am I doing this right? Am I doing the right thing?’”
She tries not to think about it too much, especially on nights like these when the homework is done and Ryan is asleep in his grandmother’s arms and Jerald is laughing with Eric down the hall, calling out to his mother to join them.
How to help
Wish Book is trying to help hundreds of families in need this year.
▪ To donate, pay securely at MiamiHerald.com/wishbook
▪ To give via your mobile phone, text WISH to 41444
▪ For information, call 305-376-2906 or email wishbook@MiamiHerald.com
▪ Most requested items: laptops and tablets for school, furniture, accessible vans
Read more at Miami Herald.com/wishbook