NIAGARA — With a pink-feathered hair ornament pinned to her natural black hair, Francine Stanek, 68, recalls the days when, as a vibrant 3-year-old, she could walk, talk, run and sing.
A resident of Maryhill Manor, a rehabilitation and skilled nursing center sponsored by the Milwaukee-based School Sisters of St. Francis, Stanek contracted meningitis at age 3 and is no longer able to walk, talk or use her left arm.
Following a recent Lenten service at Maryhill, Stanek met with friends in the nursing home chapel, using an iPad to share her story.
“It was a hot August day. I was at our tiny white home near the gas station,” Stanek wrote.
A dangerously high fever prompted her parents, Josephine and Frank, to seek specialized medical treatment for their only child. With a borrowed car, they made their way to Marquette, Mich.
The meningitis was caught in time for her life to be saved, but she is physically disabled. Her parents were advised to place her in an institution and return home to continue their lives without her.
A 19-year-old man at the hospital noticed Stanek’s mom’s tears of sorrow. He listened with compassion and then said, “She is your daughter, a gift from God. Take her home and love her.” They did, for which Stanek is grateful.
The spirit within her rejoices as she reviews photos of her relatives and friends in a scrapbook prepared by her cousin Dorothy Occhetti. With the help of friends, the photo album is being added to her iPad.
Whether it was her dad taking her for rides in their 1963 white Pontiac Bonneville, an aunt teaching her math, or Jack Campbell of Niagara schools preparing her for the Homebound Instruction Certificate of Achievement, she remembers and shares special connections with each.
She also recalls family members who were instrumental in teaching her the ways of the Lord. It was her mom who taught her to pray the rosary and her parents and grandparents who took her to St. Anthony Church in Niagara.
“All laughter and smiles,” she types into her iPad, remembering how she was treated with kindness by family members with joy-filled hearts.
Stanek said it was difficult to deal with the emotional pain that comes with kids pointing, laughing and asking questions about her challenges. Moving her right hand to her eyes, Stanek outlined the path of her tears.
Placing her right hand over her heart, Stanek focused on the reassuring love of her mom. She then writes the words told to her by her mother, “You are OK. You are yourself. God watches over you.”
Stanek found an extension of her family’s love when she moved to Maryhill Manor 13 years ago.
To communicate, she had developed her own style of “home sign language.” Combined with hand symbols, facial expressions, drawings and written notes, she worked to convey her thoughts and feelings.
Among Stanek’s prayers of hope are to one day walk and talk again. Aware of her struggles, a group of St Anthony parishioners found a way to help give voice to one of her prayers.
During petitions at Mass, Joe Zychowski often announced, “For the prayer intentions written in Francine’s spiral notebook.”
Hearing this, Jan Dooley, superintendent of Wausaukee School District and member of St. Anthony, wondered what she could do to help Stanek express her own intentions during Mass and throughout the day.
As an educator, Dooley was aware of new technology that can assist people with disabilities. She thought about an iPad, “Here you have a simple device which has the potential to transform Francine’s world,” she said.
In the fall of 2013, Dooley purchased an iPad for Stanek and loaded it with apps, songs and movies of special interest. The music of John Michael Talbot, Daniel O’Donnell and other favorites were added to the tablet.
Dooley had a card affixed to the iPad case which reads: “It is our hope that this iPad will help you to write and speak your thoughts. You are a special person.”
Dooley gave Stanek the gift in memory of her mother, Genena G. Anderson, who was a resident at Maryhill and became friends with Stanek.
Now, Stanek enters her prayer requests on the iPad and uses a voice app to share the requests. During the prayer intentions, Zychowski offers a lead-in statement and Stanek pushes play, giving voice to her own intentions.
Dooley, who was lector at Mass the first time Stanek used the iPad at church said, Stanek “started to cry. It was a very, very powerful moment. I really believe that this could open a whole new world for her.”
George Bousley, mayor of Niagara and St. Anthony parishioner, noticed Stanek’s joy in expressing her own intentions. He had owned and operated a gas station near the Stanek home and said Frank Stanek was his first customer.
Having worked with the economic development committee in the county, Bousley was aware of businesses that could make handling and using the iPad more efficient.
He arranged with a donor to retrofit Stanek’s one-wheel-drive wheelchair with a bracket and movable arm to hold the iPad. Both the wheelchair and the iPad brackets were designed to allow her to operate them with only her right hand.
Writing the word “teacher,” pointing to herself and stretching her arm overhead, Stanek confirmed her intended message with a nod, “I want to be a teacher when I grow up!”
And a teacher she is. “She’s taught us a lot,” said Nancy Reese, pastoral associate at Maryhill Manor and member of St. Rose Parish in Channing, Mich. “She has no idea of the positive impact she has on people.”