Throughout its history the Church has advocated on behalf of the vulnerable and marginalized. It’s a stance I understand well in my job as one of the Virginia Catholic Conference’s three associate directors, where one of my focal points is disability issues. But it’s also one I understand in my own personal Life. My experiences have had a profound impact on my faith, my passion for advocacy, and the path that led me to my current position. Some people that I’ve met through my work at the Conference have suggested that I share my story, so I thought this post would be a good chance to do a little of that.
I was born with Cerebral Palsy, a neurological condition resulting from lack of oxygen to the brain at birth. Back in 1986, only 2% of infants born with my condition survived—thus my parents call me their “2% baby”. Thanks be to God and the wonderful doctors at Massachusetts General Hospital, I survived against all odds. My life has not been without challenges, however. CP affects my speech, hearing, and fine motor skills. I’ve had to battle to win simple accommodations such as a laptop for completing written assignments during my school years, or for equal consideration in employment. Through perseverance and a proactive support network, I met these challenges: I learned in a mainstream classroom, graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill, and found gainful employment, first as a staffer at the North Carolina State Senate, today at the Conference.
At first my parents—like any parents who have a child with special needs—wondered, “why us, God?” But their strong Catholic faith and belief in the dignity and gift of each human life helped them to see that I was just as God intended and God had a plan for them, for their family, and for me. My parents gave my sisters and I the greatest gift of all, raising us with a strong Catholic faith, respect for life, and an ethic of helping others and promoting the common good.
My faith and the Church has been my refuge throughout my life. At times I despaired of God’s help, wondering why I had so many challenges despite my education and abilities. Some told my parents that I shouldn’t be allowed to learn in a classroom with “normal” children. Many potential employers have said that they would “keep me in mind for a position on a computer,” fearing that my speech impediment would prohibit effective communication with clients. Some even denied they were hiring despite the presence of a “help wanted” sign. Often it seemed that my family, my friends and the Church were the only ones who saw “Michael,” rather than a disability. Instead of letting my challenges defeat me, my strong faith in God, along with the support of my family and the Church, led me to turn my challenges into a positive mission to be a voice for others through advocacy for life, services for people with disabilities and others in need, family, and marriage.
Almost two years ago, Jeff Caruso and the Bishops took a chance on a young guy from North Carolina and invited me to put my faith and passion for advocacy to work for the Conference. God was at work in my getting an offer to come advocate for the common good—a few short weeks after beginning work with the Conference in November 2012, I met my fiancée, Kimberly, whom I will marry on May 31!
During the past two General Assembly sessions, I have led the Conference’s efforts to secure more waiver slots for Virginians with intellectual and developmental disabilities. I have also been part of an ongoing advocacy effort to end Virginia’s funding of Medicaid abortions for disabled babies, even testifying before a Senate committee last year. And most recently I have invested considerable time into the Conference’s efforts on marriage and family, so meaningful to me because of the tremendous blessing my own family has been to me.
We are all made in God’s image, and as the Church teaches, all of us are called to service to Him and the human family. Regardless of your background, circumstances, or even disability, all of us can work together to advance the common good!
Michael (right) with Conference Executive Director Jeff Caruso at the Stand & Pray for Marriage rally on Capitol Square in Richmond