Jul 29, 2014

A Heart For Special Needs

Arcadia couple Eleanor and Vince DiFronzo have raised dozens of children with moderate to severe disabilities.

A Heart For Special Needs A Heart For Special Needs

Even as a girl, Eleanor DiFronzo knew she would follow in her mother's footsteps and adopt children with special needs.

When DiFronzo met her husband Vince, the pair hit it off immediately; her adopted siblings also quickly fell in love with him. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Today, the Arcadia couple has eight adopted children and is in the process of adopting two more. They also have fostered dozens of other children over the years and have two biological children, Heather, 26, and Vince Jr., 29.

Each of the DiFronzos' adopted children, who range in age from 16 years to 21 months, have moderate to severe disabilities, most often caused by abuse, severe neglect or prenatal drug exposure.

Take their five-year-old sons, Joey and Jesse. 

Born "typical," both boys are victims of Shaken Baby Syndrome; Joey was shaken at 2 months, Jesse at 7 months. Neither boy can walk, talk, or even hold his head up unassisted. They have the cognitive abilities and motor skills of a newborn baby.

But Joey and Jesse are lucky, in a sense.

Four of the couple's other sons — Ramon, 16, Jonathan, 15, Jeremy, 12, and Joshua 7 — have disabilities so severe  they require full-time housing in a special unit at Huntington Memorial Hospital.

In the moments when she feels anger towards the adults who harmed her children, DiFronzo's mission spurs her forward.

"You have to remember that [the abuse] is done. You have to look at the child and you have to keep working for the child," she said. "The child is Number One. The child comes first and you do everything in your power to make that child have as much of a comfortable and normal life as you can."

A Day in the Life of Caring for Children With Special Needs

A typical day in the DiFonzo household centers around home visits from occupational therapists, speech therapists and physical therapists, among others. The schedule, while complicated and intensive, remains vital to the kids' quality of life.

Just off the couple's spotless family room and kitchen, Vince DiFronzo built a "therapy room," replete with bright rubber padding covering the floor and shelves neatly stacked with toys and other tools designed to stimulate the children during therapy.

"Every year brings a new medical development that we have to address," Eleanor DiFronzo said, gently moving Joey's head during a recent physical therapy session. "You hope and you pray you get a full life with the kids, but you just don't know. Every day is a new day."

A Sense of Normalcy

Vince and Eleanor fight to make their kids' upbringings as normal as possible, in the face of the kids' disabilities.

The family takes bi-annual camping trips to the Buellton, a charming town on California's Central Coast. It takes three weeks to pack their motorhome with medical and other supplies, but the family is like any other on vacation.

"The kids [at the campground] will come play with our kids and they don't know anything's different," Eleanor DiFronzo said, laughing as she recounted the time her 7-year-old, Haylie, met a "boyfriend" at the campground.

Haylie had feeding issues as an infant due to her premature birth, but her development has caught up with that of her peers. In fact, she is quite popular at her school, constantly charming classmates and teachers alike.

"She has everyone wrapped around her little finger," Eleanor DiFronzo said of Haylie.

Though life with children with disabilities has its ups and downs, DiFronzo said she wouldn't change her life or her children for the world.

"I like how the children prove the doctors wrong, prove to other people that, 'Hey I can do this. I beat the odds. I wasn't going to do this, and I'm doing it,'" DiFronzo said. "That right there is the best feeling ever. Maybe what our kids do it little baby steps, but they're huge steps for them."

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