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She is in constant motion, always flanked by several of her kids, one hugging her while holding the monster-size green milkshake receptacle with its plastic straw, others toting a baby's diaper bag, a car seat, or Camille's purse. She has two cell phones, a silver one and a hot pink Motorola Razr. Both ring constantly, and whoever is closest is often handed the inactive phone after much fumbling through purses and pockets.
"Camille's on her other phone," the makeshift secretary explains patiently as Camille stage-whispers, "I'll call her back this afternoon!" while balancing a baby and bottle of formula, earrings dangling and bracelets clinking as she somehow materializes enough arm to squeeze a nuzzling child.
"You don't need coffee when you're with Camille," proffers Penny Parr, the sandy-headed assistant director of the Possible Dream Foundation (formerly known as Up with Downs; the Geraldis started the nonprofit in 1987 to fund their work). Penny is right. Camille radiates palpable energy. The kids with Down's aren't the only ones who respond and exceed expectations in her presence. She has the skill of a natural leader to make everyone want to please her, to seek her opinion and advice. Her charity extends not only to her dozens of children but also to her employees, some of them former alcoholics or drug addicts. Many of them credit Camille, and the children, with saving their lives.
"My mother is a very different woman, and people grab onto her," says her eldest daughter, Renae. "But sometimes I think they help her as much as she helps them."
There is nothing soft or pious about Camille Geraldi, not one trace of Hallmark-card sentimentality or political correctness. She assesses you not by the words you use to refer to a child's malady, but by your actions in his or her presence. Camille is loud and blunt and doesn't give a damn about offending people hers is a righteous indignation, buoyed in the knowledge that she has devoted herself to things from which most of us recoil not just the tracheal tubes and deformities and colostomy bags and adult diapers ("I never smell poop; it smells like flowers to me, thank God," she says), but also death itself.
When Camille voices dislike, it is never for the ill, malodorous, or unattractive. She reserves such sentiments for the judgmental, for the people who see her coming down the grocery store aisle orbited by disabled children and suddenly decide they need cleaning goods rather than baking supplies.
If Camille and Michael Geraldi have any inkling of a political agenda, it is to convince those who turn away that they should stay, and look, and smile, and try to understand. "Every time I see a family out with a Down syndrome child, I go over and I ask what his or her name is and I introduce myself," Camille asserts. "Usually by the time I say Camille Geraldi, they already know who I am."
Michael and Camille met for the first time July 4, 1973, in the intensive care unit of Variety Children's Hospital in Miami. At age 30, Michael was a pediatric resident fresh out of medical school. Camille, 24 years old, was head nurse in the ICU. They had heard of each other Camille's patients always asked about their "Auntie" Camille, and gossip circulated among nurses about Michael being both cute and available. (Although for Camille, who weighed 325 pounds at the time, this information barely registered.)
The afternoon they met, four nearly drowned children had been admitted to the ICU, and Michael joined other pediatric residents there to attend to them.
"She knew we were novices," Michael remembers. "And she stood up and took over. She said, 'Sit down and watch, and I'll explain everything to you.'" He and the others submitted meekly as she explained how to speak with the victims' parents. The first 72 hours following an accident were the most critical in determining the extent of brain damage, and the prognosis that afternoon was bleak. All four children eventually died.
That night was Michael's first on call. After 2:00 a.m., as he patrolled the halls of a quiet ICU, he heard singing. He peeked into a room and found Camille, her shift long over, cradling a terminally ill infant. "This baby's going to die tonight," she told him, "and I don't want her to die alone."
So Michael sat with her in Room 238. For the next five hours, they talked as Camille held the baby girl. Both were born in New York, both were Italian-Americans, and both had dedicated their lives to caring for children. Although the baby, who suffered from spina bifida and other complications, died a few days later, she pulled through that night.
For the next two years, Camille and Michael quietly dated. He joined her when she would take the hospital's long-term patients outside for lunch, dragging portable respirators and IVs behind them. She shared with him her plans to one day open a group home for children with Down syndrome and other developmental disabilities.
In 1975 he proposed marriage. She was stunned. "I never wanted to be married; I wanted to do this," she explains, gesturing to the youngsters.