By Linda Militello
It was still dark outside when voices awakened me from the last full night’s sleep I would have for many years. My mother left work in the middle of her night shift at the Trico factory. I walked into the living room to find a man I had never even heard about and four children sitting on the couch.
My mother announced, “This is your new family and in December there will be a new baby.” I walked past them to the bathroom, then back to bed, thinking this must be a nightmare.
My mother, at 35, had fallen in love with a married man whose wife committed suicide when he asked for a divorce. So my younger brother, sister and I, who were abandoned by my father when my mother was 21, would share this dilapidated two-story, three-bedroom, one-bathroom rental on the West Side of Buffalo with six interlopers.
Days later, I was waiting for the bus in the dark on Richmond Avenue and North Street after my shift as a nurse’s aide. Dr. Rose Lenahan, a patient’s daughter, stopped her car and offered me a ride. She asked where I lived and wanted to know why a teenager was allowed to wait in the dark for a bus.
Not pausing, she assuredly stated, “Next month, you will move up to the beach with my son and his family to care for their 3-month-old baby during the summer. You will live with them on weekends while you attend college in the fall so you will not need to return home.”
The next day, my guidance counselor at Mount St. Joseph Academy called me into her office. Upon Dr. Rose’s insistence, I was enrolled in Trocaire College’s registered nursing program. For 10 years prior, good sisters of various religious orders gave their lives educating me and modeling moral and altruistic values. Dr. Rose didn’t spend money to change the course of my life. Like the sisters, her philanthropy was exhibited in compassion, empathy, altruism and self-intent to effect change.
I worked at Nazareth Nursing Home full time to pay tuition for my junior and senior years of high school. I expected to work there forever because I loved my patients and the sisters who trained me. My grades and SAT scores were college acceptable, but no one in my family had finished high school. I didn’t question anything. Anything had to be better than living at home.
I earned scholarships by maintaining a 3.5 grade point average and paid for the first year’s tuition with money saved from work study during the week and child care on weekends.
I was short the down payment for my second year at Trocaire. On awards day, at the end of my first year, the Philanthropic Foundation gave me a scholarship with the caveat that I, “Espouse the same virtues of altruism, generosity and social conscience as my benefactors.” Tearfully shaking Mr. Palisano’s hand, I promised I would.
My hard-earned nursing degree was a springboard out of poverty and ignorance. The trust and acceptance of benevolent individuals taught me to recognize where my time and effort would do the most good.
Raising a family and working without a pension for 21 years did not amass a fortune to give away. However, for 48 years I have kept my promise to Mr. Palisano, to be a person of compassion and generosity with my time and abilities. Giving brightens my life and even reduces chronic depression.
Anyone of us can bring safety, hope and light to those who are scared and standing in the dark.