Pay it forward, then wait for the miracle
By Jay Turner
(Taken from the Canton Citizen)
As longtime Computershare employee Maureen Palermo stood in a conference room at the company’s Canton offices on a recent Friday afternoon, surrounded by hundreds of stuffed animals, coloring books and other small children’s toys, she was reminded of the boxes that sat for months, almost frozen in time, in her late daughter’s room.
This photo of Daniel, Lisa and Mark Palermo was taken a few years ago. Daniel passed away in August 2007 and Lisa died 14 months later. Mark is currently in desperate need of a double lung transplant
Those boxes, filled with old Beanie Babies and other stuffed animals and marked “Project Smile,” had been all Lisa’s idea, recalls her mother. Even in her last year of life, when she was in and out of the hospital and sick more often than she was well, she never stopped thinking of others or giving of herself — not even when she was the one most in need of a gift.
In Lisa’s case, that gift was a new set of healthy lungs, the same gift that her older brother Daniel could have used and one that her eldest brother Mark now desperately needs. For all three had been born with cystic fibrosis — an inherited disease that primarily affects the lungs and digestive tract — and yet they all lived “pretty normal lives” until reaching their teens, when the disease took hold and refused to let go.
The Palermos lost Daniel in August 2007, just two months after he graduated from Medfield High School, where he had thrived as a member of the school’s drama club. Fourteen months later, they said goodbye to their only daughter, an Irish step dancer with a heart of gold, who fell victim to a blood infection just one day after being told that lungs had become available.
Now Mark, a former high school athlete who should be a senior at UMass Amherst, is at home in Medfield instead, struggling to breathe and completely deaf from the medications he now takes, and waiting for a double lung transplant from the Cleveland Clinic after being added to the list this past August.
“Basically, when it takes a hold of them they deteriorate very quickly,” explained Maureen, who has since learned as much as humanly possible about CF and remains active in the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, including leading a team of walkers every May for the past 20 years.
Maureen said Lisa also enjoyed walking before she grew too sick to do so, and she even formed her own team, Lisa’s Sunshine Squad, and designed her own “bright yellow and pink t-shirts” for all her teammates to wear.
Maureen admits that she had no idea what Project Smile was when Lisa first began pillaging her room for stuff to share with children in need. Then again, Lisa had always been a self-starter when it came to helping others — twice she had donated her hair to Locks of Love, and she even got Daniel and some of their cousins to join in the effort as well.
Project Smile, it turns out, is a Hopedale-based nonprofit organization that “donates various children’s items to police and fire departments for police officers, firefighters and paramedics to give to children involved in traumatic situations.”
So when Maureen began brainstorming different causes that her department at Computershare could contribute to this holiday season, she immediately thought of those boxes that Lisa had left behind in her room.
A year ago, just a month after Lisa’s passing, Maureen said she and her coworkers had somehow managed to organize a major fundraising effort — complete with multiple bake sales and raffles — and ended up collecting more than $2,400 to donate to various causes, including the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation.
But that turned out to be more work than anyone had expected, and with the economy still sputtering this year, Maureen figured she could “still do something charity-wise,” but in a way that did not require people to open up their wallets or checkbooks.
She eventually settled on two groups: Project Smile and a Nashville-based shoe charity called Soles4Souls, which collects and distributes shoes all over the world to people in need. Meanwhile, around the same time, a nearby department decided to take up a collection for the Canton Food Pantry, and before long employees from all over the building began chipping in to all three causes.
“I actually ended up with a whole lot more than I ever expected,” said Maureen, who recently stopped taking collections after filling several boxes with both toys and shoes.
And it didn’t require all that much effort on her part, other than sending a few emails and putting in a couple of extra hours to sort through the donation piles. She said she planned on taking what couldn’t be used by either Project Smile or Soles4Soles to a local Goodwill, and this past week her staff oversaw a bake sale hoping to raise enough money to ship the donated shoes to Tennessee.
“A lot of times people are willing to participate [in charity efforts], but they don’t necessarily want to be the ones in charge,” said Maureen, who described her staff of 13 as leaders when it comes to giving and “very, very good for anything.”
She said there was even one occasion, shortly after Lisa passed away, that her coworkers surprised her with an “envelope full of cash” for her to give to the CF Foundation.
“They’re a good group,” she said of her coworkers, “and they’re all pretty in touch with the fact that there’s a lot of need out there.”
If Maureen ever decided to take a year off from charity work, no one would question her, not even for a second.
But just like Lisa when she was sick, Maureen isn’t looking for any excuses; she’s looking to do what she can to help others. So there she was on a Friday afternoon, sifting through piles of stuffed animals and thinking of her own kids when they were young and healthy and strong.
She said there are still times, even now, when she wonders how she and her husband, Charles, could have had “three out of three,” despite the fact that each child had just a 25 percent chance of being born with the disease.
But even after Daniel’s diagnosis, then Mark’s, then Lisa’s, she remembers the doctors telling her not to worry too much, as the gene that causes CF had recently been identified. “People thought a cure was coming,” she said, as if making sure to phrase it in the past tense.
Yet she certainly hasn’t abandoned all hope — not yet — and neither has Mark, who she said has “every intention of returning to UMass” one day to resume his mechanical engineering studies and his life as he once knew it.
She also continues to believe in the power of giving, which is why she chooses to give now and ask questions later.
“What was that movie?” she asked. “Pay it Forward? It’s kind of that same mentality.”
She has seen it work, too, like when Boston Globe columnist and Canton resident Beverly Beckham featured the Palermos in a recent column, and days later a local pilot reached out offering to fly Mark and his parents, free of charge, to the Cleveland Clinic as soon as a transplant became available. He told them to call as soon as they heard anything, and he would be at the airport within an hour, ready to go.
It has now been three months and the family is still waiting for a miracle. But as Maureen was quick to point out, there are plenty of reasons to remain hopeful, including the fact that an anonymous pilot — a man who has absolutely nothing to gain — made an incredibly generous offer back in September to a family he’d never met.
And three months later, that offer still stands.