Dan Marino Foundation: Opening Doors to Hope and Healingby Carol Nigro

It all began with the diagnosis of Dan and Claire Marino’s son. Their own families’ struggles brought to light the vision of a foundation that would help children with special needs, and a medical center that could offer families a “team-approach” to achieve the best possible outcome for those children. In 1998, that vision became a reality. The doors opened to Miami Children’s Hospital Dan Marino Center and impacted the lives of thousands of children and their families.

Seven years ago, my husband opened those same doors while I pushed Matthew’s stroller into the waiting room. We had an appointment with a neurologist to “rule out” anything that might be preventing him from reaching his developmental milestones. Albert and I realized Matthew was different from other children his age. As we watched his peers develop new skills, it became clear that there was something about our son that we did not know. He did not talk, and he showed no interest in playing with others. A toy was simply something to chew on. If there was not a toy available, he would often chew on his hand. He frustrated very easily, which was often followed by an enormous fit that included banging his head against the hardest surface he could find. Matthew’s favorite past times were spinning in circles or lining up video tapes like dominoes. He had been through a battery of diagnostic tests earlier that year. Physically, everything appeared to be fine. Matthew was receiving speech and occupational therapy at an early intervention clinic from the age of 28 months. In addition, he received in-home therapy…speech, occupational, behavioral and music. We felt like we had been doing all we could to help him. But still, progress had been too slow coming. There had to be something else. We never imagined how opening that door would change our lives and, more importantly, our son’s life.

Our son, Matthew was diagnosed with autism that day. Albert and I didn’t have a clue what autism was or what more we could do to help our child. It was a struggle to get through the day without crying. I would spend hours poring over books and websites that claimed to have the answer, the cure, the latest greatest therapy. I was filled with self-doubt and forced to become an “expert” in totally unfamiliar subject matter. My husband and I were frustrated trying to connect with Matthew in a way we felt comfortable, without realizing that he needed to connect with us in an entirely different way. We were exhausted, dealing with the anxiety caused by a lack of understanding and tolerance in the community, and spent many months in solitude. We didn’t sleep, worried that our resources were not adequate to provide for Matthew’s therapies. It was a painful time that showed us strengths and skills that we did not know we had.
It was not until we opened the door to walk into the Dan Marino Center that day that we were compelled to uncover them and put them to use.

When Matthew turned 6, another door opened, and the lesson about the value of this experience was learned. I became more involved with the Dan Marino Foundation and started working part-time at the Center. I was given the opportunity to offer resources; assistance and guidance to help other families in our community meet the challenges of raising a child with special needs. Matthew joined me at the Center 3-4 times a week for his therapies. Often, our daughter Abby would come along and volunteer.  Many of our afternoons were spent at the Dan Marino Center. The staff became extended family, and the Center, our second home. With their encouragement, we were able to realize the best in ourselves and each other.

My son was discharged from the Center in May after years of intensive therapy. Matthew’s “team” agrees his time is best spent playing with his peers than in therapy. And so, another door opened at the Center…and Matthew walked through it to a better life full of new experiences.

Each new day is a reminder to celebrate all of the people that have touched Matthew’s life, especially the Dan Marino Foundation. We have learned even the smallest breakthrough can bring about a big change. We’ve learned that our gifts outweigh our challenges. By opening the doors for our family and many, many others, the Dan Marino Foundation demonstrates the most powerful, important lesson on hope and healing…that life’s most serious challenges serve to shine a light on what is truly meaningful and valuable in all of us.
Today, the Dan Marino Foundation continues its mission by opening doors toward independence for children and young adults with special needs by supporting comprehensive integrated treatment programs, providing outreach services, advancing scientific research and fostering self reliance in adolescents and young adults by providing social, life and job skill training. Some of the programs and services being funded today by the Foundation include:

• The Miami Children’s Hospital Dan Marino Center, an all inclusive facility offering medical services, therapies, adaptive aquatics and a new urgent care center.

• Childnett.tv, a free web channel featuring films on neuro-developmental issues and personal stories.

• The Marino Autism Research Institute (MARI), a “virtual institute” designed to develop and implement cutting-edge research.

• Marino Swim Central Adaptive Aquatics, a state mandated certification for swim instructors working with special needs students.

• Life Launch and Summer STEPS, programming developed in partnership with Children’s Services Council of Broward County, providing social, life and job skill training for adolescents and adults with developmental disabilities.

• Autube.tv, an issues-driven web channel enabling an exchange of ideas for people with autism. 

• Kids@Home Future Prep Independent Living Program developed in partnership with Children’s Services Council of Broward County, providing wrap around services that assist youth aging out of the foster care system.

• Open Door Café, an innovative business model in partnership with Broward County Schools and the Summer International Group created to enable students with developmental disabilities to acquire employment and life skills while running a business.

For more information, please visit www.DanMarinoFoundation.org.

Carol Nigro is the Community Resource Coordinator at the Dan Marino, Sr. Resource Library located at the Dan Marino Center in Weston, FL. Ms. Nigro and her husband, Albert, are the proud parents of, Abby, age 11, and Matthew, age 10. Carol, Albert and their children try to teach the importance of celebrating differences by promoting self-advocacy, volunteering and community activism. They support several autism organizations in the South Florida area, including the Dan Marino Foundation, UM NSU CARD, Florida Special Arts Center, ASAN, and Insync with Autism.