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Death of Newborn Son Turns a Job Into a Ministry
Nancy Frazier O'Brien
Source: Catholic News Service
Published: Friday, November 19, 2010
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Dan LaHood feeds Jay Santos at St. Joseph's House in Silver Spring, Md., Nov. 1.
SILVER SPRING, Md. (CNS)—It started out as just a job.

But in the 27 years since Dan and Cubby LaHood started St. Joseph's House to provide day care and respite care for children with disabilities, it has become their life's work, a ministry that pays tribute to their son Francis, who was born with multiple birth defects and lived only a few minutes.

Back in 1983, Cubby LaHood, a special education teacher, was looking for a job she could do at home when she was pregnant with her first child. A friend with a disabled child called to ask if she could look after her son for a weekend.

Before she knew it, Cubby was taking care of seven babies with severe disabilities, in addition to her own son Joe.

"When somebody heard there was someone out there willing to care for disabled children in a respite setting, the phone rang and it rang and rang and rang and rang," said Dan LaHood. "And the more we got to know the people, the more we saw the need."

Today, the LaHoods care for as many as eight children every weekday in their modest home in a Maryland suburb of Washington. Once or twice a month, they also provide respite care on the weekends.

The work involves the entire LaHood family, although Joe, a graduate of Providence College, recently moved to New York, where he teaches at a Catholic school in Harlem. Daughter Mary Frances attends the Academy of the Holy Cross in Kensington, while youngest son John is at St. John the Evangelist School near the house.

But Francis, who died in 1988, has a presence at the home too. He is the reason that what was once merely "social work" became an apostolate, leading the LaHoods to take vows as members of Blessed Teresa of Calcutta's Lay Missionaries of Charity.

"It became real to us through the short life and death of our son, who had he lived would be handicapped much like ...," said Dan LaHood, gesturing to the children in wheelchairs around him.

"We lived their experience, we lived their sorrow, and we came to know ourselves and them better as a result," he added.

After Francis died, Dan left his job in the health care industry and joined Cubby in her work.
With the help of volunteers and sometimes a parent or two, they have taken the children to the pool, to plays, to the mall and to sock hops, and have thrown pizza parties and led bingo games at home.

On one particularly chaotic November morning, the children were getting ready to go to St. John the Evangelist for its annual walkathon to benefit St. Joseph's House. The St. Joseph's and St. John's children walk together around the school—or run or skip or are pushed in a wheelchair—chattering to one another as they go.

The major advantage isn't in the money raised, however; it's in the bonds that have formed over the years between the children at St. John's and those who come to St. Joseph's House.

Alessandra Barone, now a sophomore at Academy of the Holy Cross, first started volunteering at St. Joseph's House when she was in seventh grade at St. John's.

"At first I was nervous; I didn't know what to expect," she said. But now "I love the kids who come. They're so upbeat, so funny," she added. "They always make my day no matter what."

St. Joseph's House gets no money from the government or the Archdiocese of Washington and doesn't charge the families of the children they care for. It relies instead on donations and grants generated by the board of directors that guides the nonprofit organization.

Almost all of the children come from single-parent families or families that have more than one disabled child.

"I feel so lucky to have found Cubby and Dan," said Rosemarie Mahmood, who had been "looking for months and months" for a suitable place for her daughter Amanda, who has Down syndrome.

At St. Joseph's House, Amanda is "cared for the way I would care for her at home," Mahmood said. "She's treated with respect and dignity, just like anyone else."

The second of three daughters, Amanda is "used to doing things" and likes the variety of activities at St. Joseph's, her mother said. "She's made new friends, and it's broadened her horizons."

Amanda will graduate from the program next year when she turns 21 and her mother hopes she will be able to find work through a local community agency that employs people with developmental disabilities.

St. Joseph's House has openings very infrequently, when a child graduates or dies. A garden outside the home memorializes those who have died, and even those who have graduated return from time to time, like 37-year-old Andrew Flaherty, who has Down syndrome and is now working but came back for the walkathon and for lunch afterward.

Asked how his life at St. Joseph's House has changed him, Dan LaHood talks about improving his faith life and becoming more kind and patient.

"I've learned when you love someone you see them with new eyes—not secular eyes but the eyes of service," he said.

"And it really does make you happy," LaHood added. "Maybe that's the biggest change. I'm happy now in a way I never could have imagined."

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