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Sean Kirst: On Father's Day, resilient dad, fragile child, faith in Buffalo

The decision to travel to Buffalo was really made six years ago, when Jorge Suarez Ronda held his newborn son for the first time. The doctors in Cuba had already told Jorge and his wife Vanaisy there could be no guarantees. They could not promise that little Diego would survive.

The infant weighed only 3 pounds at birth. He was born with severe developmental disabilities, the result of a condition known as birth asphyxia. Diego arrived on Jan. 6, 2011. It is a date associated with the arrival of the wise men, a date many people celebrate as a major part of Christmas.

"The day of the kings," as Jorge calls it.

He feels it is a fitting birthday for his son.

For weeks, access to the baby was tightly restricted at the hospital, because he was so vulnerable to infection. It would be two full months before Jorge could lift the infant to his shoulder, before he felt the warmth of Diego's tiny cheek against his own.

"Small but beautiful," Jorge said. The moment only reinforced the sense of connection, of responsibility, that bound the father to the son.

He and Vanaisy were already weary of day-to-day struggles in Cuba. They had a hard time, he said, finding jobs that paid a decent wage. They were tired of being careful, politically, of what they could or couldn't say.

And now they had a child whose needs rose far beyond any of their own.

"Everything was difficult," Jorge said. "For normal kids, it was difficult. For special kids, it was impossible."

Jorge, 38, has a brother, Miguel, who settled three years ago in Buffalo. In the years after Diego was born, Jorge and Vanaisy learned the full extent of the physical and cognitive challenges caused by the trauma during birth. They decided following Miguel would be the wisest decision they could make.

The couple said they traveled to Mexico as tourists as a way of leaving Cuba. They arrived in Buffalo a year ago, as refugees.

They made it just in time for Father's Day.

Amid debate about American policy toward Cuba, Jorge declined to speak of politics.

He just wants Western New York to know:

His family is grateful to be here.

"We like Buffalo," Jorge said. "We like the people here. They say hello. They see you. They talk to you. They ask how they can help."

He and Vanaisy found an apartment in a quiet South Buffalo neighborhood, close to several Cuban families. Diego is in kindergarten at School 84. He is a pupil of Meghan Barrett, his teacher in a special needs classroom. He receives specialized therapy. His parents say they've watched him make substantial progress.

"It's amazing," Jorge said. "He understands more. He cooperates more. He wants to communicate."

Diego still speaks only a few words. But his father said the child has learned to make requests using sign language - such as when he wants cereal in the morning. He loves to watch animals, Jorge said, particularly squirrels. The couple often take the boy to the Buffalo Museum of Science or the Buffalo Zoo, where Diego is particularly fascinated by the birds.

"When I come home from work, he's always running, jumping, looking for me," Jorge said. "He loves it when I say, 'Diego, come and play.'"

Jorge has a job at an Olive Garden Italian Restaurant. He said the most important decision he made, once he arrived in Buffalo, was enrolling for classes at the University at Buffalo's Educational Opportunity Center (EOC) on Ellicott Street.

A friend in the refugee community recommended it to him. Jorge had arrived in Buffalo with almost no English. The rapid-fire, hard-consonant drumbeat of speech in Western New York could be especially hard to understand.

For his son's sake, Jorge knew he had to build a career. To get there demanded being fluent in English. Jorge completed the English as a Second Language program at the EOC so quickly, and with such success, that he began studying for his high school equivalency degree.

This spring, he achieved it. His progress was so swift, so dramatic, that he was selected as "most improved student" by school administrators. The honor also brought him a new laptop, which he has put to good use.

"Jorge was dedicated, focused and he knew what he wanted and he went for it," said Heidy Galan-Honrado, the EOC supervisor of counseling and advisement, who recalls how Jorge often talked about his son. Jorge was asked to serve as student speaker at last month's graduation ceremony at UB, where over 100 non-traditional students were honored for completing academic and vocational programs.

Kristie Kaminski, an EOC counselor, said it was extraordinary for someone who'd learned English in such a brief time to stand before his classmates and offer a speech. Jorge admits he grew nervous when Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown arrived for the ceremony in crowded Slee Hall.

Still, he delivered his message with gentle authority. In quiet and precise English, a language he barely understood a year ago, Jorge offered his appreciation to a community that he said embraced his family. He spoke of his plans to go on to Erie Community College, part of a journey toward a career in respiratory therapy.

"My main idea was to thank this institution, my teachers and the city of Buffalo," he said.

The audience responded with passionate applause. It was filled with men and women who'd made similar choices. Mary Daniels, for instance, was there to watch her great-granddaughter, Katrina Anderson, earn a certificate as a dental assistant. Daniels, 80, helped to raise Anderson. She encouraged her ongoing dreams of someday being a dentist.

At the University at Buffalo's Educational Opportunity Center graduation, Slee Hall, (l to r): Mary Daniels; her granddaughter, Delon Moss; and Katrina Anderson, who earned a certificate for dental assisting. (Sean Kirst/The Buffalo News)

It was part of a tale that began in the 1940s, when Daniels' father, Clinton McCaw, came to Lackawanna from Alabama to work in the steel plant. His wife, Ida Mae, died of cancer in 1950. "After that, there were people who wanted to take us, to split us up," Daniels said.

Her father wouldn't have it. He said he would keep his three girls together, as a family. It was a choice that resulted in years of sacrifice.

Yet the bond McCaw cemented 70 years ago still held together after five generations, on Katrina's graduation day.

Jorge hopes he is building the same groundwork for his family. His mother, now retired, was a professor.  "I miss her," Jorge said, "but she's happy for us."

His dad, an economist who worked at a factory, was a heavy smoker of cigars. He died young of cancer, but Jorge said he offered his children a lasting example.

"My father gave us everything he could," he said.

Jorge and Valaisy, while they were still in Cuba, studied the options available in Buffalo for people with developmental disabilities. They learned of the growing American emphasis on inclusion, of the continuing civil rights movement that has brought people with disabilities into mainstream life.

"In Buffalo," Jorge said, "I see special people working everywhere."

Today, on Father's Day, Jorge is scheduled to work a shift at the Olive Garden. His gift will be coming home to his wife and son. As always, he will play with Diego until the child falls exhausted, into bed. His goal for the little boy is a fundamental one, the same quest that caused Jorge to bring his dreams to Buffalo.

"All I want," he said, "is for him to be an independent man."

Sean Kirst is a columnist with The Buffalo News. Email him at or read more of his work in this archive.

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