By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By David Villano
By Jose D. Duran
By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Luther Campbell
In the days before the doctor's appointment, Camille is concerned about the outcome for Arainia. "This is the most inhumane thing in the world," she mutters in a near-constant refrain. "What are you saving? What are you preserving? The parents don't want a feeding tube; they don't want anything done. But legally I have to go there."
"It can't be our decision," echoes Penny. "We need somebody to okay it."
Camille never questions a parent's judgment. She and her staff care for Adam with the same love and attention they give all the children. He is carefully bathed and turned to prevent bedsores or infection. But if Arainia's parents want to avoid the same fate for their daughter, Camille is determined to support them.
When she and Michael give prenatal counseling, they inform the parents of their options but never tell them what to do. Although they consider themselves spiritual people, their mission is not religious. As for abortion, they believe the decision rests with the mother. With everything they have seen, the Geraldis firmly hold that such decisions can be made only by the people whose lives they affect most profoundly.
As newlyweds, Michael and Camille lived together like any young couple. They wanted children, but Camille had only one ovary and what she calls "a little piece of a uterus." During their first two years of marriage, she suffered seven miscarriages, but on February 23, 1977, after a pregnancy fraught with complications, she gave birth to Renae. The doctor told her the infant would be her only child.
So Camille was surprised that fall when she learned she was seven months pregnant. "She bled from September 30 to December 28," Michael remembers. "She spent the whole time in bed." Three days after Christmas, Jaclyn was born via C-section.
In the years that followed, they worked as a husband-and-wife team at Michael's growing practice in Kendall. He drove a Porsche and she a Mercedes. They owned a boat and a house with a swimming pool. But Camille was unsatisfied. With her daughters in school and the family financially stable and with Michael's encouragement she decided to pursue her dream of opening a home for kids with Down syndrome.
"I was six and my sister was seven," Jaclyn remembers, "and our parents asked us what we wanted, a baby sister or a dog? Of course we said the baby sister."
Camille submitted the family's name to every adoption agency she could find. She requested children with profound neurological difficulties. In March 1986 they received a phone call from a placement agency that had a baby with Down syndrome and deafness. Her name was Darlene.
Two more babies with Down's followed in 1987: Champ, referred to the Geraldis by a Mercy Hospital nurse who did not want to see the baby institutionalized by his parents; and Tiffany, adopted from a long-term care provider in New York. Like approximately 40 percent of children with Down syndrome, Tiffany had cardiac problems, and she spent her first week with the Geraldis undergoing surgery.
Camille had found her purpose, and she was determined to help even more children. By 1988 the brood had grown to nine disabled babies, plus Renae and Jaclyn. Camille had primary responsibility of running the household, while Michael worked full-time at his practice. "When we got married, it was right there on the table," says Camille. "I have my job; you have yours. A marriage with a woman who wanted his time wouldn't have worked anyway, because he drops everything for his patients."
Because her twice-weekly housekeeper was not quite enough to handle the growing household, Camille hired Penny, then a nineteen-year-old British au pair. Saucy and smart, Penny had always wanted to work with Down syndrome kids and had been fascinated with America. Except for a two-year hiatus in 1997 ("I burnt out," she chuckles), she has worked for the Geraldis ever since.
In some ways Penny's presence was more important for the biological Geraldi daughters, who were on the brink of adolescence when she arrived. Renae, who didn't have the nursing instinct Jaclyn inherited from her mother, found the rigors of the household especially challenging.
"It was harder for Renae than it was for Jaclyn," Penny says. "Renae wanted to have more of a normal childhood. She was more influenced by her peers, while Jaclyn was happy in jeans from Wal-Mart."
Renae and her sister now work for the foundation, but Camille's oldest daughter, pretty and well coiffed, admits she was not always so inclined. "Maybe when I was a teenager, I wished things were different," she acknowledges. "It was hard sometimes. My mom and I went through some rough rides. I felt like she didn't even know me."
Yet, like her father and sister, she towed behind Camille, buoyed by Penny in the wake. The family just kept growing. The Nineties brought Angelica, Carmelo, Jackson, Meredith, Sonny, Sophie, and many other children to the Geraldis. When Renae was nineteen, Donovan a child with Down syndrome and no esophagus arrived. To this day she can't explain it, but Renae fell in love with the infant and raised him. The experience changed everything for her. "I realized I need these kids," she says.