If you believe in miracles, you'll appreciate the Guerinos' story.
in the hopes of winning a much-needed wheelchair-accessible van for 57-year-old Gary Guerino and his 16-year-old daughter Miranda of Richland Township.
They did not win.
But a 2009 Dodge Grand Caravan specially outfitted for Gary's and Miranda's power wheelchairs pulled into their driveway Tuesday afternoon as friends, educators, caregivers and media looked on.
The keys were handed over to Melissa Guerino, wife of Gary and mother of Miranda.
That online contest started a domino effect. It led to a story in Pine-Richland Patch, which led to a call from an anonymous donor, which led to Variety the Children's Charity working with Mobility Works of Monroeville to create a van that is perfect for transporting Gary and Miranda.
Melissa calls it a miracle.
The Guerinos' Story
The story starts with Gary, who needs a special wheelchair-accessible van to get around because he has secondary progressive multiple sclerosis (MS). The van he's been using to transport him and his power wheelchair for the past 16 years is way past its prime and needs to be replaced.
His daughter Miranda just received a power wheelchair on Friday to help with her mobility problems. Until now, she has walked with the help of someone (usually her mother) holding onto her so she does not fall.
Miranda suffered a stroke during her mother's pregnancy that has affected all of her motor functions—balance, walking, writing, vision and speech.
Melissa knew their daughter needed the power wheelchair to grow in independence, but she had no idea how they would transport the rather large and heavy wheelchair around.
"One thing at a time," Melissa told herself.
Gary entered an online contest in the hopes of winning a custom-made wheelchair-accessible vehicle. The contest is sponsored by a nonprofit group, National Mobility Equipment Dealers Association.
The contest coincided with National Mobility Awareness Month to raise awareness of how people with disabilities can live an active, mobile lifestyle.
Gary said he knew it was a long shot, but he posted a "Local Hero" story of why he and Miranda needed the special van and asked people to vote for them.
Although he entered the contest in its final two weeks, his story garnered about 5,000 votes.
The top 10 percent of vote-getters moved on to the next level, in which their entries were reviewed and eventually narrowed down to three winners.
Those winners were notified this week. Gary and Miranda were not among them ... or were they?
that ended on Sunday, May 13.
The morning after voting ended, I received a phone call from a woman who asked if the Guerinos had won a van. If they had not, the caller said, she and her husband wanted to buy one for them.
It was one of those did-I-hear-right moments. I knew a specially equipped van cost about $40,000. Perhaps she said they wanted to help get the Guerinos a van.
We kept chatting and I was thinking that the story did indeed mention the cost of the vans.
The caller told me they do these kinds of things ever so often and have supported the Make-A-Wish Foundation in the past.
I told her I had not checked the contest website yet, but I would do so and get back to her.
That morning the National Mobility Awareness Awareness website noted that the top 10 percent of vote-getters would be considered—those with about 5,200 votes or more.
The Guerinos fell short of that number, so I called the donor back.
Full Speed Ahead
Upon hearing the news, the donor did not hesitate.
They wanted to work through a nonprofit organization to make the donation and they wanted to be anonymous. Somewhere in one of our conversations she mentioned the $40,000 cost and I realized she and her husband were ready to pay that price.
A smile crept across my face and I knew something miraculous was happening.
She asked if I knew of a nonprofit that could work with them to make this happen. I made a suggestion and she called me back later to say someone she knew at Make-A-Wish suggested another nonprofit—Variety the Children's Charity, which helps children with disabilities to "realize the freedom of accessibility."
Variety the Children's Charity
Soon after, I received a call from Sandra Thompson, director of programs and community outreach, asking me to contact the Guerinos and instruct them to call her ... without telling them exactly why.
I don't know who was more giddy—Sandra or me.
I left a message on the Guerinos' voicemail telling them to call Sandra and that it had something to do with the van.
"I think you'll be surprised," I said.
The Guerinos called and got the good news.
"I made my caregiver pinch me to make sure I wasn't dreaming this," Gary said.
His wife Melissa was more cautious.
"At first I didn't believe it. That's a lot," she said, adding that she wanted to check it out to make sure Gary got the message right.
"(Sandra) was extremely excited," Gary said. "Talking to her ... I thought I was talking to the winner!"
The Next Steps
Variety worked with the Guerinos, the donor and Mobility Works of Monroeville to get the van custom-made to meet Gary's and Miranda's needs.
Though most of us think nothing of hopping into a vehicle to go somewhere, the reality is different for someone in a wheelchair.
Miranda's new motorized wheelchair "is a very complex piece of equipment," her mother said. It's also heavy.
The ramp on the Guerinos' old van no longer works automatically, Gary explained in his "Local Heroes" story.
"Currently when used, a caregiver and/or my wife must manually lift and lower the approximately 100-pound wheelchair ramp," he wrote.
The new van has a "kneel-down" system that lowers the van when the ramp is extended to lessen the ramp's angle, making it easier to maneuver a power wheelchair into the van.
Gary said he sometimes revved up his wheelchair to get momentum to make it up the ramp into the old van—and sometimes that meant running into the side of the van once he got inside it and could not stop quickly.
The new van is much safer.
"We had experts from Mobility Works ... bring out a couple of different vans," Gary said, as the family figured out what they needed to be able to transport two wheelchairs.
"It's a whole different car-buying experience," said Charles LaVallee, chief executive officer for Variety, as he described the family maneuvering the wheelchairs in and out, making it through the van doors with just a few inches to spare.
Melissa said working with LaVallee and Thompson has "been a pleasure, a real pleasure."
Although the donors were not at Tuesday's presentation of the van, Thompson said she had been texting and sending photos to them throughout the afternoon.
"I think they have nothing but good in their hearts," Gary said of the donors.
"They will be in our prayers from here on out," Melissa said. "It renews your faith in the human spirit."
The donors provided this message via Variety:
Dear Guerino Family,
We were touched by the story in the Pine-Richland Patch about your family and your need for a handicapped-accessible van. Your story and the way you are dealing with the challenges in your lives is an example to all of us. We feel blessed to be able to help you. We hope you enjoy many years of happiness and improved mobility as a family with this new vehicle.
A Friend and Neighbor
The new van will take Gary and Miranda to doctor appointments and school, but it will do far more than that.
The increased mobility enables Gary, Melissa and Miranda to go to family outings together. In fact, this weekend they'll travel to Hermitage for Gary's nephew's graduation.
With a motorized wheelchair and a van to transport it, Miranda will have more independence, Melissa said.
"This opens the world up for Miranda," her mother said.
"It's going to be a big change in our quality of life," Melissa added. "Our quality of life will greatly increase."