Often, heroes do not fit into the acceptable mold of society. They walk to a different drummer. However, because of their presence in our lives, we are better people. They teach us how to relate to one another in a patient, positive way. They show us that the simple things in life are the ones that really count. Joseph Stinnett is one such hero.
Joseph is a warm, loving, caring and very sociable 24-year-old man who refuses to be defined by his diagnosis. Joseph, who has been reared by his grandparents, is living every moment of his life with excitement, joy and loads of love.
Shortly after his birth, Joseph was given the diagnosis of cerebral palsy and developmentally delayed. For most families, this diagnosis would be crushing. For the Surowski family, it gave them a reason to readjust their dreams and allow Joseph to live life to the fullest.
Adding to the difficulty was the fact that Joseph’s parents were unable to care for him. At the age of 13 months, Joseph was placed in the home of his loving grandparents, Pete and Gena Surowski. However, Pete and Gena are not alone in their desire to give their grandson the best life possible. At last count, 4.5 million children in the United States are being reared by their grandparents.
When Pete and Gena discovered that it might be necessary for them to “step up to the plate,” regarding their grandchildren, Joseph and his sister Sarah, they knew that they were changing their own lives forever. They were not yet anywhere near their “retirement years,” but knew that when they did reach that point, the easy and adventuresome lifestyle of most retired couples would be out of their reach.
Pete and Gena share, “It was a huge decision, but one that we chose to guaranty the safety and well-being of our grandchildren. We had our granddaughter for a short time, until her dad stepped up and took custody of her. Sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do.”
Joseph came into their life with a multitude of concerns. Not only did he have the physical challenges of cerebral palsy, but he also was working far below his age developmentally. Now at the age of 24, he is functioning mentally at a 5-7 year old level.
Even with his developmental and physical challenges, Joseph is learning life’s basic skills and has developed interests in several areas. Joseph is an avid fisherman, loves movies, has traveled extensively, and loves Disneyland. But perhaps Joseph’s most endearing trait is his love of rubber bands. “If Joe could write a book, it would be titled ‘101 Creative Ways to Use Rubber Bands,’” says his grandparent.
But Pete and Gena quickly point out that the progress that Joseph has accomplished is due to a supportive family, school, teachers and community. Joseph was enrolled in the Lake Elsinore School District for his entire schooling career. Outstanding teachers and aides helped him to develop into a functioning individual.
He was enrolled in the Adult Transition Program until he graduated in 2014. Joseph flourished in the LESD Special Needs Program. He was loved by the students and staff and was named the honorary homecoming king at Temescal Canyon High School in 2013.
Whenever a person has the privilege of spending time with Joseph, they can expect to be blessed beyond measure. Communicating with Joseph can be a challenge, but once you understand the various methods of his responses, you see a young man willing to engage with anyone and everyone in conversation whenever possible. He speaks mostly with vowel sounds, and has trouble with consonants. Joseph’s speech is part verbal, part mind reading, part gestures, and the rest is context oriented.
At the present time, the Surowski family is exploring possible programs in which Joseph could learn basic work skills and socialize with other young adults who have special needs.
Joseph is not the only hero in the Surowski family. Pete and Gena have sacrificed much over the past 23 years. One of the most difficult struggles with which they deal is getting others to realize that their commitment is full-time and permanent. They do not have the privilege of spontaneous events. Every happening in their lives has to be pre-planned and carefully executed.
Pete and Gena are quick to answer a very pertinent question: what have you learned from Joseph? Their answer reflects the love that they have for their grandson. “Patience, how to find joy in simple things, to appreciate him for what and who he is. Also, how to laugh and love. We’ve gained a much greater understanding and appreciation of other special needs children.”
Looking back at the past 23 years, the Surowski family was asked: Would you do it again?” Their answer is a firm “Yes! We wanted, and still want, what is best for Joe.”
Joseph Stinnett, with his faith and unending trust, is a hero who has given joy and laughter to scores of others; but to Joseph, his list of heroes contains only two entries: his grandparents, Pete and Gena Surowski.