It’s unusual for Angela, 14, to go two weeks without visiting the Dream Center at St. Vincent de Paul. But the COVID-19 (novel coronavirus) outbreak has changed services, including how the center provides supplemental education.
Now Angela picks up her Dream Center take-home activity kits along with her families’ to-go meals offered out of the Next Phase Family Dining Room. This is the new routine for the time being until the center and dining room can return to normal service.
But it wasn’t that long ago that Angela would disappear inside the Dream Center. Her mother knew she’d find her reading next to a box full of books in the little library area.
“The first few times I would get so scared, but then I learned exactly where to look for her,” said Marcela, who knows that if her daughter Angela wasn’t playing with other kids or eating dinner, she would be somewhere near reading a book alone.
Reading became a new favorite activity for Angela while visiting the Dream Center, located inside the Family Dining Room. But the center and food have helped Angela far beyond feeding her appetite for good books and healthy meals. She’s grown in ways her mother didn’t think possible.
At two years old, Angela was diagnosed with a mild intellectual disability. She wasn’t walking or talking like other toddlers her age. Marcela suspected it to be caused by Angela’s birth.
“She looked purple with bloodshot eyes,” Marcella recalled. “The doctor told me that in a few weeks she would look fine, but three months passed and nothing changed.”
At the time, Marcela was alone and didn’t speak any English, so it was difficult to advocate for herself and her newborn daughter. When Angela turned six, she was diagnosed with a developmental disorder. Unsure of the new medical diagnosis, Marcela continued to seek answers and wanted a second opinion. Several doctors’ visits later, it was determined that Angela not only had a mild intellectual disability but also had moderate autism.
Despite the language barrier and the challenges faced, Marcela’s persistence and determination found new opportunities and resources for Angela’s well-being. That’s one of the reasons she first sought out the Dream Center.
“I’ll do anything for my kids,” Marcela said. “Angela has her therapy on Saturdays at 8 a.m. and sometimes she is mad because I wake her up early, but I try to explain to her that one day, this is going to be worth it. One day she will say ‘I am glad I woke up early to go to therapy because now I am an independent woman.’ And it goes the same for school; I want to see her and her younger brother, Diego, graduate from college.”
It’s been nine years since Marcela first heard about SVdP’s Family Dining Room and Dream Center from one of her neighbors.
“They serve dinner, help your kids with their homework, kids can play, and you also get to chat with other parents,” Marcela remembered the neighbor saying.
On a typical day, families who visit share a healthy meal around a table while kids have a safe place to play and learn. Volunteers offer a restaurant-style dining experience, where they take orders and serve dinner at the table. Families also enjoy a fresh salad bar with produce harvested from SVdP’s urban farms.
“I am not a very social person, but I feel comfortable when I come to SVdP for dinner,” Marcela said. “I like to think that we are coming to a restaurant or to a party. It’s a place where all the families get together and we can meet other parents, make friends and talk about life. It’s like therapy for us. We have built a strong community among the families who come here.”
And for Angela, the Dream Center is where she gets to explore, socialize and stretch her mind. Her mother can tell the difference. Beyond her love of reading, Angela’s also developed socially and isn’t afraid to try new things. She even decided to volunteer in the Dream Center earlier this year, helping register kids for activities. People that meet Angela now might not even guess that she has any disability or autism at all.
“Even though she likes to disappear to read alone sometimes, she’s been showing more interest in playing with other kids and participating in activities like science or art projects,” Marcela said. “Angela smiles more and that makes my heart so happy.”
Some of Angela’s favorite new friends include Pedro the Donkey and Music the Mini Horse. The animals are just a couple of the many special guests who visit the center to offer educational activities and help expose the students to all kinds of fun stuff. Since Pedro’s and Music’s visits, Angela has a new dream.
“I want to be an animal doctor when I grow up,” she said, as she hugged her small donkey stuffed animal.
There are still difficult days for Angela and Marcela, especially during these uncertain times, but the dining room and Dream Center continue to be places where they receive the support they need today and always. It may look and feel different offering services to-go, but there’s still an immense amount of love and compassion.
“I am very grateful to SVdP for all the help they bring to us and other families,” said Marcela. “I hope they continue giving us that support that has made us stronger throughout the years.”
Want to help more kids like Angela discover their talents and unlock their potential? Donate today to SVdP's Dream Big Campaign and help children achieve their dreams!