In the face of tragic events, it is tempting to believe that the road to recovery should be paved with acceptance. Learning to forgive and internalize that anything can happen to anybody, at any moment, is how most people move on with their lives.
But the story of the Longo family is a good example of a situation when sometimes the Universe is trying to tell you something more.
When divine intervention permeates your life to the extent that it has with the Longo family, you have to start believing that maybe you were meant to do something more than healing.
When Sandra Longo, her twin brother Mark and her slightly older sister Laura were infants, their father Ferruccio Longo was in a terrible car accident that crushed the lower half of his body. His recovery took many years, major surgery and arduous rehabilitation. He recovered but continues to suffer from chronic pain and has a permanent limp.
Immediately following Ferruccio’s accident, his wife Mary was left on her own to raise three babies and trying to make ends meet. All of her children were under the age of two and, her husband’s business had just come to an abrupt halt.
Two years later, when Mark was four, he accidentally opened the car door as his mother was reversing out of their driveway. Suddenly his head was trapped under the wheel of her car. Thankfully, neighbors and construction workers were nearby. They lifted the car off his face but the next few years were consumed with Mark’s recovery. Luckily, modern medicine prevailed.
Just as life started returning to normal, Ferruccio and Mary announced that they were going to have another baby. “This was good news for a change,” says Sandra.
After an uneventful pregnancy Mary delivered the beautifully healthy Liana. But soon after the delivery it became obvious that something was very wrong.
A medical accident related to the epidural left Mary a complete paraplegic (with no movement or feeling below her rib cage) for the rest of her life. The family got a sense of just how difficult their lives were about to become when they tried to navigate the eight steps leading to their own front door, and those inside, as well. “Not only did this happen to my mother when she was young, she also had a very young family to raise,” says Sandra.
From the age of nine Sandra became a primary caregiver for her mother. “As the years went by I did everything I could to help, I had no choice.” When they couldn’t gain access to somewhere it wasn’t just a problem for Mary, “it became my issue to resolve,” remembers Sandra.
Even as a child, Sandra knew that helping people with disabilities would be part of her future. She became passionate about the plight of people living with disabilities. Her firsthand experience in dealing with the related challenges fueled her passion to help. But she had yet to discover how that would manifest itself.
In the mean time, Sandra grew up, got a job and started a family of her own. Her dream of helping people never went away but it took a seat in the back of her mind as she attempted to live a normal life.
On January 31, 2013, Sandra got her final wakeup call.
While driving to work her car hit black ice and rolled over into a deep culvert of water. Sandra Longo was submerged, trapped and unable to call for help. “In that moment I thought I was going to die. I gained tremendous perspective as my life flashed before me.”
As she sat drowning in her car, Sandra wondered: “What was the purpose of it all? Was I born to watch all of these accidents unfold?” She realized that there had to be a better ending. “With the grace of the entity that I call God, I am alive today. I decided if I made it out of that car, I would do something to help others,” she recalls.
Luckily, a veteran paramedic was in the right place at the right time, noticed Sandra’s headlights sinking in the ditch and called for help. Sandra’s recovery took almost three years. She used that time of deep reflection to realize, “I never felt safe in my life, and all I wanted was to feel safe in my own skin. I knew what I wanted was to love and to be loved.”
“To live my life from a place of love and keep the fear at bay I needed to start taking steps toward being productive, proactive and focused on the things I love.” Sandra’s realization was similar to the moment that Michelangelo realized what he should do with the large block of marble before him. “I saw the angel in the marble, and I carved it until I could set it free,” he said of his Pietà. She decided to unveil something beautiful.
According to Statistics Canada, 1.45 million Ontarians rely on some form of mobility assistance devices, such as wheelchairs. But it is not a medical condition which turns mobility issues into disabilities. Physical barriers such as steps and curbs often prevent people who live their lives in a wheelchair from participation within their own homes and within their own communities.
As a child, Sandra remembers having to bow out of play dates because her mother was unable to navigate the steps into her friends’ homes. We have come a long way, as a society. Our public spaces are becoming increasingly more accessible and inclusive. But those living with disabilities everyday know it’s not enough.
This is where Sandra Longo found her calling. With encouragement and support from her family, friends and neighbours, in 2016 Sandra started Navy Street Charity for Persons with Disabilities to donate lightweight, portable wheelchair ramps to individuals living in need, within Ontario. The charity’s aim is to make sure that anybody, regardless of means can enjoy a greater level of accessibility and improved inclusion within their community.
Lightweight, portable wheelchair ramps eliminate obstacles related to stairs, curbs, entrances and pathways. They create an enormous difference in the quality of life for people affected by the need to navigate a world that wasn’t built for wheels.
For more information, to donate or apply for a ramp visit navystreet.org.