Ilda’s day starts at 5:00am; getting her son Ben up, showered, dressed and ready for his transportation to pick him up for the day to head to Kennedy-Donovan Center’s (KDC) Special Education School. Next it’s her daughter Jennifer’s turn; showered, dressed and ready for the Wareham Public School bus to arrive at the driveway. Finally, her daughter Mary and sister Maria get up and ready, and head off to KDC’s Day Habilitation Program for adults with disabilities. By 7:00am, her house is quiet… but more importantly, peaceful.
Ilda says it wasn’t always this way. She grew up in Portugal, with her seven siblings. Two of them had disabilities and when Ilda moved to the United States at the young age of 20, they came along with her, in hopes of finding better services to suit their needs. She helped her mother care for both her sister and brother, but when her mother became disabled, she became the mom of the family. In 2004, at the young age of 42, her brother Arthur passed away.
“After he died, I felt lost. I was breathing, but my soul was gone. I had no direction,” said Ilda. But that all changed when she turned her life around less than a year later. When my first foster child, Mary, came into my life… I became the ‘new’ Ilda.”
(Photo: Ilda holding photo of her late brother)
Mary came to Ilda as a foster child at the age of 14, after Mary’s mom had been diagnosed with cancer. Her mom later passed away from cancer, and Ilda legally adopted her. She has developmental disabilities, along with bipolar disorder. But her personality is a booming bright light.
“Mary is a special young lady. She is a good person, she is the best big sister to her brother Ben, and doesn’t like seeing people crying. She has a good heart. She is a people person, likes to always be a part of something” said Ilda. And this all made Mary a great fit for KDC’s Day Habilitation Program, which is a therapeutic, community-based day program for adults with developmental disabilities. She first came to know KDC through Arthur’s respite services through KDC’s New Bedford office. He received services for years; he was able to go out into the community and do everyday things, opportunities that weren’t available to him in Portugal.
Ilda remembered how instrumental KDC was in her brother’s life, and remembered the care he received; and wanted both Mary and her next foster child to receive that same care.
Ben came into Ilda’s life when he was just seven-years-old. When she first met Ben he was already in the foster care system and was currently placed at another school in New Bedford for children with disabilities. However Ilda was not satisfied with the treatment he received there, and when she legally adopted him, the first thing she did was transfer him over to KDC’s Special Education School.
“KDC is the best thing to happen to us,” she said. “Even though Ben is in confined to a wheelchair, non-verbal, legally blind and deaf, his whole team at KDC understands and appreciates how unique and wonderful he is. KDC is a cut above the rest.”
Following Ben’s footsteps, Jennifer was the most recent foster child to step into Ilda’s life, who also had developmental disabilities. What was supposed to be just foster care for a four and a half year-old child, turned into adoption; nearly 10 years later. She came to Ilda as what she describes as a ‘mess’ and a ‘poor soul’.
“I will never forget the clothes she came with; they were worn, torn and filthy,” started Ilda. “The first thing I did was bring her shopping for a nice dress for her to wear. It was a simple black and white dress, everyday-like clothes that many of us take for granted. As soon as Jennifer tried it on and I told her it was all hers, she looked at me and said ‘Are you sure this is for me?’ and when I replied yes, she gave me one of the biggest hugs and kisses I have ever received. She was so grateful.” At that exact moment, Ilda knew that this was why she did what she did. She felt the appreciation and love from such a young child, just a few days into having her in her home. Shortly after, Ilda legally adopted Jennifer.
The final puzzle piece to Ilda’s story is her sister Maria, who traveled with her from Portugal. While Maria is 13 years younger than Ilda, but according to Ilda, she is the boss of the house. Even though she is not able to read, she is very independent; can provide for herself if left home alone and is even able to cook.
But Ilda’s foster children rely heavily upon her, especially Ben; so much so that Ilda has taken on a complete remodel of her home, all to accommodate Ben’s needs. She is currently in the process of adding an elevator to her home, so Ben can access both floors of the home; especially during the holidays when people flow from one floor to the next. Ilda is hoping the new addition in her home will greatly impact his quality of life. Now, he will be able to go out on the back porch and watch his sisters swimming in the pool and playing in the yard; things that never came easy before to Ben.
And outside of the home, Ben is on a much easier path, thanks to KDC. KDC offers a continuum of care, offering services from prenatal to the end of life. When Ben ages out of KDC’s School, he can transition right down the hall and enter the Day Habilitation Program, where many former students are now placed.
“Kennedy-Donovan Center is a huge part of our lives. I trust the staff every, single day with the care of my family,” said Ilda. “My kids are safe, happy and loved and that makes me happy. They genuinely care about everyone and respect my rights as their mommy.”
When asked why she decided to become a foster mother to not one, but three children and her sister’s caregiver, she had a simple answer. “A nurse one day told me that what kept my brother Arthur alive was the love he received from me,” said Ilda. “That made me want to do good, for these kids, who may not have had a chance otherwise. I do it all in my brother’s memory, this is what he would have wanted.”
(Photo: elevator being built inside Ilda’s home)