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It's a mother's promise she made, and it's one she just can't abandon

Friday, September 08, 2000

By Monica L. Haynes, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Have you ever gazed at your child when he was sleeping?

Deanna Lesneski maintains her flagpole vigil at Blaine-Buffalo Elementary School. (Robert J. Pavuchak, Post-Gazette) 

Deanna Lesneski has, too.

You study his face, the shape of his nose, his lips and hair. You see the way generations past and present have come together in this one being. You look at that child and think to yourself -- I would lay down my life for this child. I could take a life, if necessary, for this child.

These are private moments. We keep the pledge to ourselves. Lesneski is demonstrating hers.

Seated in a lawn chair and tied to a flagpole by a green speckled jump rope outside Blaine-Buffalo Elementary School, this 47-year-old farmer's daughter is the mother lion protecting her cub. Her action may seem extreme to many, but it's far less extreme than those silent life-and-death silent pledges parents make to their children.

This medium-framed woman sitting amid the boxes, lawn chaise, a green sleeping bag and several supporters in wheelchairs, doesn't look ferocious at all.

Under the bright sun of an almost-gone summer, she warmly greets strangers as they approach her post, seeming never to tire of explaining the reason for her vigil, her angel in sneakers -- Ryan "Max."

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Simply put, he has Down syndrome, asthma and a hearing disability.

McGuffy School District officials believe the district is meeting Max's special needs. Lesneski says the district is not. She has vowed to stay tied to the flagpole until she's satisfied Max is getting what he needs or until she is carried away by police, whichever comes first.

During a brief mother-and-child reunion at the flagpole Wednesday afternoon before Max heads to speech therapy, he hugs and kisses his mother. They talk in the warm, comfortable way family members do. She signs her part of the conversation and he tries his best to sign his part as he talks.

"Are you coming home to eat?" Max asks. His mother winces, jabbed by the daggers of parental guilt. "No," she tells him. "I'm staying here."

The pain sits on her face like a mask. But she has a mission from which she cannot retreat.

Lesneski said she will not break the promise she and her husband, John, made seven years ago when they brought Max home from the hospital.

Diagnosed with a congenital heart problem at eight weeks, he underwent surgery to correct it. It was during that time that the Lesneskis learned that their son had Down syndrome.

"We were looking at a little baby. He only weighed eight pounds. He tried so hard to suck his thumb because he was so hungry. He had little fingers and toes. He didn't look any different than any of our other children. We thought how could this be," Deanna Lesneski said.

The doctors tried to help, telling the couple about people who were willing to adopt children with Down syndrome. These parents were younger than Deanna, who was 40 at the time, and her husband, who is four years her junior. The younger parents might be able to hold up better than the Lesneskis coping with the stress of caring for such a child, the doctors reasoned.

But there was no logic to that at all for Deanna and John.

"This was our baby. I carried this child for nine months. We planned this baby," Deanna Lesneski said. So they vowed to do everything they could to help Max be a successful person. That meant occupational therapy, physical therapy and daily medication.

"We did no less than we did for any of our other children and we did no more for him than we did for our other children," she said.

Those other children include Michael, 29, Aaron, 25, Melissa, 22 and John "Bubby," 10.

Even with the stress of rearing a large family, caring for a young child with special needs and sleeping outdoors, Deanna Lesneski doesn't look old enough to have a child who's nearly 30. Perhaps, that was because she was barely out of childhood herself when she left her parents' Buffalo Township farm to follow her boyfriend, John Blake, into the Navy. They both entered right after high school. It was 1971. He was drafted; she enlisted.

They married while in the Navy and were stationed on Grand Turk Island in the West Indies. When she became pregnant with their first child, Michael, she returned home. Next came Aaron, who like Max had special needs. But the marriage didn't last. They were too young, Lesneski said. They couldn't overcome the strain of his being in Greece while she was back home. The couple divorced.

She was a working, single parent, when she went on a blind date with John Lesneski, a city guy from Canonsburg. He kissed her right off, explaining that he wanted to get his first kiss jitters out of the way in case he wanted to do it again later. That was in August 1977. They were married the following May.

John Lesneski, a self-employed building contractor, is a man with piercing blue eyes and few words when it comes to talking about their courtship and what attracted him to his wife. She, however, has no problem expressing how she feels about her husband and what has kept them going for 23 years.

"My husband is the extra vertebra I need to have a backbone to stand up for this," Deanna Lesneski explains. "It comes back to the love we have for each other and the respect we have for each other."

It's the kind of relationship demonstrated by her Dutch/Cherokee father, Earl Reese and her Italian mother, Mary. The Reeses raised three boys and three girls on 200 acres of land. "We weren't well off. We were a farming family," Lesneski recalls.

As the middle daughter, her chores included caring for her younger sister, Kathy, and nestling the calves. She was popular and did well in school, but being part of a farming family, there was no time to pursue extracurricular school activities. Family and the farm came first.

"You didn't just have kids, you raised your kids," Kathy Huff, Lesneski's youngest sister said of that time.

Family and farm are still the credo of Lesneski and her siblings. Her brothers work the land. The sisters work and take care of their families. She and her brothers and sisters each live on a parcel of farmland bequeathed to them by their parents.

Huff lives 100 feet away from Lesneski and cares for Max while she maintains her vigil. Oldest sister Leora Armstrong cares for Max's brother Bubby, a student at Claysville Intermediate School.

Huff is not only Max's aunt but his fairy godmother, Lesneski said. "Max and I have this very strong bond and relationship," Huff said. "He always wants to spend time with Aunt Kathy and Uncle Bud. It's his second home."

If people got to know Max, Huff said, they would see a little boy who wants to communicate and play with the other children.

Children with Down syndrome are children "that need love and attention and an education and if they can be taught, why shouldn't they have an education?"

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