Mario’s Story: Finding Love,
Acceptance, and Belonging
Mom couldn’t say “no” when the social worker asked if she would go and visit a small institution in the city near the end of 1975. This is where Mom met Mario and told the social worker that she was willing to have him become part of our family. So, on February 1, 1976 Mario became the sixth foster child in seven years to join the Wustefeld family.
Born with Down Syndrome, Mario was left at the hospital as his biological parents felt that they could not take care of him. He became a crown ward of the Toronto Catholic Children’s Aid Society. Thus, Mario spent the first six years of his life in an institution, abandoned.
When Mario came to his “forever” family he was a tiny child, who was afraid of loud noises, unable to speak and just learning to walk. In many ways, he resembled a 10 - 12 month old infant rather than a six year old boy.
Mario’s journey towards independence began with an optometrist appointment. We were all shocked to hear that he should have had glasses five years earlier because he is very nearsighted. After he was fitted with his new glasses, his first few walks took a lot longer than usual. It was as if he was seeing the world for the first time, and in many ways he was. Every so often he would stop and look intently discovering something else he’d never seen before. However, seeing in new ways could bring new challenges too. As the family legend has it, after going out for one of his first rides in the car after having glasses, on the return journey as the car made its way into the driveway Mario yelled out, terrified! Looking around, everyone was confused and couldn’t figure out what was wrong. Then Mom and Dad realized that Mario had never seen the garage before, it had always been a big blur, and now seeing it clearly he was afraid that the car would not stop in time.
Mom’s program for Mario included everything to help bring out his potential: glasses, weekly speech therapy, swimming, and horseback riding at C.A.R.D. (Community Association for Riders with Disabilities). Mom loved and accepted Mario for who he was, yet could see who he could be. Of course, there are no free rides in the Wustefeld home. Family members have chores, which included learning how to keep your room tidy. No exceptions! There were family meals at the table, outings, summer vacations at Cape in the sun and the water, kayaking with Dad, and everything you would expect from family life.
To our surprise and quiet delight, Mario gradually made progress. He even made up ground in his new environment and thrived in ways experts did not expect. By the age of eight, after being with us for just over two years, Mario was now functioning at approximately the level of a 3-4 year old making up ground from his previous testing, where at the age 32 months he was considered to be functioning at approximately at 7 month old.
A special highlight of Mario’s life took place on November 16, 1979 when Mario and his brother Adrian (also a member of Dreams until his passing in 2020) had the honor of participating in the opening ceremonies for the new C.A.R.D. facility. All the other riders entered the ring seriously and carefully paraded their horses in front of the very special guest, Her Royal Highness Princess Anne. Mario and Adrian were the last riders to enter the ring. Riding together on the same horse, they came in with style, making their horse not just walk, but trot. The audience loved it, and the moment did not go unnoticed by Princess Anne either, as according to newspaper reports, it brought a rare smile to her face.
Mario’s outgoing personality and bright smile makes it easy for people to love him. In fact, one of the challenges he faces is the tendency for others to want to assist him with everything, rather than giving him the time to do it himself. Yet, with Mom’s help and his own determination (aka. stubbornness) he was able to realize his dream of independence in daily living activities (with the exception of cooking). In fact, Mario takes a keen interest in grocery shopping and often lets us know what he would like to eat.
While early on Mario was not afraid to sleep in the upper bunkbed, later in life he developed a crippling fear of heights. As a result, he and Adrian had developed a system for putting away the dishes. Mario would take the clean dry dishes out off of the drying rack and hand them to his big brother (not only in age, but in size). Then Adrian would place the plates up in the upper cupboard. After Adrian went to heaven, Mario took over this chore all by himself, but he couldn’t quite reach the upper cupboard. So instead of putting the dishes away fully, he’d just leave them on the counter for someone. However, one day to our surprise, Mario offered to use a chair to complete the task. It was absolutely amazing to watch him pull out his chair, step up, hold on for dear life with one hand, and take the plate from the counter to their rightful spot in the cupboard. Overcoming his fear would not have taken place without the work of those at Dreams.
Mario’s ability to thrive is due to my Mom’s belief that everyone is important and has potential, they just need someone to see into their lives and give them a little help along the way. Mom always had a heart for children. When she moved to Canada with Dad, they decided to take in foster children when I was seven years old. As soon as the Catholic Children’s Aid Society heard about Mom’s experience and training with special needs children in Germany, they asked if she would be willing to take a special needs child. Thus, began an adventure in providing a place of acceptance and belonging for more not just one child but in total nine. In fact, Mom and Dad adopted three children (Marguerite, Adrian & Kathy) and two others (Susan at age 18 and Mario at age 21) who were discharged into their permanent care.
While it is sad that Mario was left alone at the beginning of his life, his parents’ rejection became our blessing. After spending six years in an institutional setting, Mario found love, acceptance and belonging in the Wustefeld family as a child, and again as an adult at the Centre for Dreams. It amazes me that we found like-minded people at Dreams, where they too feel it is important to create a positive atmosphere that focuses on seeing the possibilities of each person and not having to be stuck with a label. They work to make possibilities a reality and provide a sense of community along the way. What they provided for Adrian (and for me after Adrian’s passing) has been an indescribable level of care and support. What they do for Mario today, is inspirational.
Thank you Centre for Dreams.