How many times have I driven by the impossibly long, brown stuccoed wall that stretches along Isleta Boulevard a couple miles south of Rio Bravo and wondered what’s on the other side?
Often enough that I felt pretty silly when I finally turned in where the sign says “Canossian Sisters” and found the great surprise waiting on the other side.
The Canossian Daughters of Charity are an international order of Catholic sisters devoted to St. Magdalene of Canossa’s mission of taking care of the needy. Tucked into lush grounds behind that long wall in the South Valley, they have for 45 years taken care of children with the most profound mental retardation at a home known as Casa Angelica.
“They are medically fragile. Almost all have seizure disorders. Two are on oxygen all the time. All are what we call ‘total care’ – they need help with bathing, feeding, changing and positioning.”
That was Executive Director Louise Turner, answering my question about what a diagnosis of profound mental retardation looks like.
The 16 children and young adults who live at Casa Angelica are, of course, much more than their diagnosis. Along the wall just inside the door of the home, 16 color portraits introduced me to the residents of Casa Angelica, ranging in age from 14 to 32. Some are middle schoolers at nearby Polk. Others attend high school at Rio Grande. Some love to swim; others like games on the iPad or Spanish music, and everyone seems to enjoy “spa night” when they get their nails done.
Anyone in New Mexico who cares for a disabled child who is not mobile understands the need for help, especially when their child gets too big to carry. Families tend to get on the Casa Angelica waiting list when their children reach their early teens and it becomes impossible to safely care for them without special lifts and round-the-clock help.
“Today I got a phone call from a mom in tears,” Turner told me. ” ‘I can’t lift him anymore.’ That’s where we can be of service.”
The concrete block building that has housed Casa Angelica since 1967 seems more like a busy home or a dormitory than a health facility, even though nursing care and medical equipment are all around.
On an afternoon after school has let out, the house is bustling. Lizzie, Jane, Constance, Ronnie and Jade wait in a day room for an art class to begin, while down the hall in another sunny room, Quin, Andre and Colleen listen to music or are read to.
All of the 16 residents use wheelchairs, most cannot talk and many are blind. Because Casa Angelica can meet extreme medical needs, it attracts residents from all over New Mexico.
“These are probably the most profoundly disabled in the state,” Turner told me.
Sister Kay Taylor is the CEO of Casa Angelica. When I asked her why the sisters decided back in the 1960s to make their mission caring for profoundly disabled children, she reminded me of St. Magdalene’s calling to serve the most in need.
“If these aren’t the neediest,” she said, “I don’t know who is.”
During the decades I was unaware of the good work going on behind that wall in the South Valley, I was also unaware of the big-league fashion show put on by the Casa Angelica auxiliary to help fund that good work.
Auxiliary President Pam Kissock, who by day is an engineer at Sandia National Laboratories, said the fashion show has been a highlight of local social calendars for 35 years. The luncheon and Dillard’s fashion show is March 31 this year. Imagine 600 women in fashion-casual Albuquerque dressed to the hilt and enjoying a glitzy fashion show.
Kissock told me the fashion show and other fundraisers provide between $50,000 and $80,000 a year to Casa Angelica.
Medicaid payments to the home’s residents make up the bulk of the home’s $2 million annual budget, but the auxiliary funds and other charitable donations make the difference between an institution and a home. Sister Kay calls the auxiliary “our right arm.”
The auxiliary has paid for new beds, bedding and dressers for the three group bedrooms, for a lift system that lowers swimmers into the therapeutic pool and raises them out, and for the array of ingenious and expensive chair and lift systems that allow residents better mobility.
Fundraising also pays for dinners and movies out and trips to the Balloon Fiesta, the State Fair and other attractions. “We want to give each person as many choices and as much normalcy as possible,” Turner told me. “We want them to have the same opportunities anyone their age has.”
This year, the fundraising will go toward a new wheelchair-equipped van to take kids to and from school and other activities.
There’s no moral to this piece, except that in a metropolitan area approaching a population of 1 million, there are more people doing nice things for one another than we probably imagine. Hitting the brakes and turning in at an interesting-looking driveway is a good way to find that out.
UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Leslie Linthicum at 823-3914 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Go to www.abqjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal