Loreto is a woman I hardly know and yet I feel I have read her autobiography ten times over. Having been introduced to her through a mutual friend, I soon fell in love with this woman and how she came to start a school for the disabled called Casa Loreto.
Loreto’s story begins over 40 years ago with the birth of not one but two children with severe physical and mental disabilities. As she shares the story she inserts details of joyous days seeing her children learn to do basic movements like walking, learning how to get on a bus, how to eat, how to hold a pen to write. She shares difficult times, where there was no money to send them to schools that would accept children with severe learning disabilities, where there was not enough money for food, where days were difficult due to the hard work required to teach, feed, bath, clean and look after her children with her beloved husband.
A generous woman entered her life over 25 years ago, offering to cover the cost to send her to a special training program in Philadelphia which she gladly accepted. She returned not only with a strong desire to implement what she had learned for her own children, but to open a free school for other families who needed this type of help but could not afford it. Her father’s death presented not just loss, but opportunity, for she saw that his house could be converted to a small school, and that she could move closer to her dream to see that no child of autism, down’s syndrome, cerebral palsy or other disability would be told that they were not worth anything, a mistake, meant to be discarded or worse. Her idea was to inspire the world to see that each little child, no matter his or her abilities or disabilities, is made in the image of God Himself.
This is a woman of faith of radical proportion.
Twenty-five years later, her small school includes a tiny room nestled in the heart, where she and her husband live with the most minimal creature comforts. Their home is surrounded by room upon room of sensory treasures for the nominally-paid therapists who come daily to help the students advance their learning programs. One room looks like a jungle gym replete with monkey bars, another looks like a pilates studio with excercise balls and soft floor mats for physical therapy. Upstairs we see miniature arts and crafts studios, smattered in books and colors and feathers and fanciful things to touch and experience. Her dedicated therapists follow her teaching methods using sights, sounds, touch, and taste-based therapy. Even the lunch hour is a special time, learning how to cook and clean a simple lunch together, washing hands, preparing the table, eating a sandwich or a bowl of rice and beans. Loerto´s husband provides daily driving and meal preparation for the students so that their mothers can make a living cleaning homes, selling tortillas, repairing hamacas. His role in the school has been integral from day one, not only as Loreto´s rock, but also as a crucial cog in the wheel of daily work. She admits that by the world´s standards they are poor, but scoffs as she says this is hardly true.
The director of the school where my children attend asked a group of parents last fall to kick-off a school-wide social outreach initiative. After much work and sweat by a small group of border-line maniacal moms wanting to make ¨Be the Change¨ more than a t-shirt slogan, we have had the great fortune to open doors between students and the needy in our community. Yesterday, we brought three groups of students to Casa Loreto for an interactive field trip and introduction to the project. These fortunate chosen, seated on the floor of Loreto´s humble patio, felt her words jump through their veins … words of passion, commitment, love, work ethic, drive and humility. They heard first-hand from a woman who has given every ounce of her life to serve not only her own family of special needs, but to others in similar circumstances. To call Loreto courageous would be an understatement.
Seated in the back row, I listened intently for an undertone to her message of grand inspiration and perspiration. Those of us on the organizing team were aware of something else going on in the background, a great sadness, a large stone on the road as she would put it, in Loreto’s life. On Wednesday her husband was admitted to the hospital with an advanced form of stomach cancer. His treatment was scheduled to begin imminently. I listened carefully to her remarks, combing her words for any signs of strain and stress, despair, guilt or fear for what lay ahead. I expected to hear a story punctuated by a message of coping through storms, dealing with grief, handling fear of loss. Instead what I heard over and over was the simple message of hope and joy. Joy through the suffering, joy through the struggle, joy through the journey, joy through the giving. I could detect hardly a flicker of sadness in her wildly enthusiastic and inspirational message to dozens of teenagers looking for answers in a broken world.
It is with heavy heart that I draw this post to a close by sharing that Loreto’s husband died this morning, in her arms.
When I received the news my heart was broken for a woman who, less than twenty-four hours prior, had once again laid down her life for the life of another, in this case, not for the students in her so-called ¨impoverished¨school, but for the dozens of students from a school of ¨great resources¨ by the world´s standards. She placed importance and intention on these young people, lovingly calling them little semillitas, or little seeds, and challenging them to the call for a life lived out in faith and love for others. She spent her day with them because she sees them the same as she sees her own students, little reflections of God Himself.
Loreto gave to our students this gift while at the same time giving her husband her undying love until the end. May the remainder of her life be a living testimony of a life worth living, and may these sixty little seeds fall on tender ground and plant deep roots of change in this world.