The gift of life

  • Matt Conallen practices a shot before the competition starts at Holy Family University. MARIA POUCHNIKOVA / TIMES PHOTO

  • Charitable competition: Brian Devlin shoots a three-pointer at the Bennett Strong fundraiser basketball competition. MARIA POUCHNIKOVA / TIMES PHOTO

  • The strength of family: Holy Family University sports information director Greg Pellegrino sits with his wife, Mary, and son, Bennett, at Children’s Hospital of Pennsylvania. The infant weighed just one pound, two ounces when he was born and has undergone many operations to help save his life. PHOTO COURTESY OF THE PELLEGRINO FAMILY

Ben­nett Pel­legrino has spent the first six-plus months of his life con­fined to a hos­pit­al. Thanks to the gen­er­os­ity and self­less­ness of a few Holy Fam­ily Uni­versity stu­dents, he will have more friends than most when he comes home soon for the first time.

Ben­nett was born on June 12 at Abing­ton Me­mori­al Hos­pit­al, 15 weeks be­fore he was due to ar­rive. His moth­er, Mary, a teach­er in the Cent­ral Bucks School Dis­trict, said her first­born was the size of a jar of jam, weigh­ing just one pound, two ounces. As a res­ult of be­ing born so pre­ma­turely, Ben­nett dealt with an in­test­in­al per­for­a­tion and a liv­er hem­at­oma, and was trans­ferred to Chil­dren’s Hos­pit­al of Phil­adelphia when he was 11 days old to go through a lit­any of op­er­a­tions to help save his life.

Mary’s hus­band, Greg, is a sports in­form­a­tion dir­ect­or at Holy Fam­ily, which es­sen­tially means he deals in the pub­lic re­la­tions arena of the uni­versity’s ath­let­ic teams. Most of his job in­volves help­ing stu­dent-ath­letes be­hind the scenes, in­clud­ing trav­el­ing with teams to road games and writ­ing press re­leases based on all per­tin­ent ath­let­ic news.

So Greg Pel­legrino was a bit sur­prised when, around the start of the fall semester, some stu­dents ap­proached him about the pos­sib­il­ity of in­volving Ben­nett for a semester long class pro­ject. The class, called Fa­cil­it­ies and Event Man­age­ment (with­in the sports mar­ket­ing man­age­ment pro­gram), in­volved nine seni­or un­der­gradu­ates who were tasked with plan­ning and ex­ecut­ing an event with some sort of char­ity back­ground.

“We found out about Ben­nett over the sum­mer, and Greg was the first per­son who came to mind,” said Mag­gie Ser­ra­telli, a mem­ber of the class and the Holy Fam­ily wo­men’s bas­ket­ball team. “I can hon­estly say that Greg is one of the sweetest people I have ever met, and we made every ef­fort to be there for him and his fam­ily.”

Be­cause of Greg’s po­s­i­tion in the ath­let­ic de­part­ment, Ser­ra­telli and her class­mates soon settled on the per­fect event: a 3-on-3 bas­ket­ball tour­na­ment. After al­most four months of plan­ning, the event came to fruition on Dec. 11 at the uni­versity’s Cam­pus Cen­ter. Whatever the ex­pect­a­tions were at the out­set were blown through the roof. 

“I just think it’s amaz­ing how this com­munity has sup­por­ted us and Ben­nett,” Greg said. “It’s truly amaz­ing. I was speech­less and taken a bit off guard at first, be­cause I’m not used to be­ing on the oth­er side of things. Usu­ally, I’m the one be­hind the scenes, and now I’m on the re­ceiv­ing end. They are a great group of kids.”

“When Greg told me about it, I cried,” Mary Pel­legrino said. “To know you have this school com­munity ap­proach­ing your fam­ily about ad­opt­ing your son, you can’t de­scribe what that feels like. This class took a ser­i­ous situ­ation and turned it in­to a massive cel­eb­ra­tion. I don’t know if any­one is as blessed as we are to have those kids and these people stand be­hind our little guy. It’s a life-al­ter­ing event.”

Most of the teams in the “Buck­ets 4 Ben­nett” tour­na­ment were past and present stu­dents and ath­letes at the school. Uni­versity coaches were also in­volved, and per­haps the biggest smiles from the fam­ily, stand­ing along the baseline un­der one of the bas­kets, came when three of Ben­nett’s uncles — Greg’s broth­er, Steph­en; Mary’s broth­er, Dav­id Buchanan; and Greg’s old­est friend, John Eames, formed their own team and lost to a trio of all-con­fer­ence Holy Fam­ily wo­men’s bas­ket­ball play­ers. 

“That was the most fun I’ve had in years of ath­let­ic com­pet­i­tion,” Buchanan said, des­pite his team’s loss. “People were there for all the right reas­ons, and it was the first time Greg and Mary could re­lax and en­joy them­selves, be­cause someone else was hand­ling it.”

“They aren’t a fam­ily that de­serves this dif­fi­culty,” Eames ad­ded. “But they’re sur­viv­ing, and hand­ling it with the ut­most re­spect.”

As far as Ben­nett goes, the little guy must feel all of the sup­port, be­cause his con­di­tion has im­proved since his pre­ma­ture birth. He re­cently turned 6 months old, and des­pite mul­tiple sur­ger­ies to his liv­er, in­test­ines, heart and eyes, he’s on the road to re­cov­ery. Ben­nett now weighs eight pounds and is able to breathe on his own; he loves to be held and sleep on his belly, and, “His pa­ci­fier is the key to everything good in life,” Mary said. “Now, we’ve got more ‘nor­mal’ baby stuff go­ing on, des­pite the fact that we’re watch­ing a fetus de­vel­op out­side of my womb.”

Once Ben­nett is able to “nail the food thing,” as his mom put it, he should be able to come home. Doc­tors at CHOP, whom both par­ents praised ex­tens­ively (Mary urged any­one read­ing this story to make a dona­tion to the hos­pit­al if com­pelled), have been care­ful not to rush Ben­nett’s re­cov­ery, but the fam­ily was told re­cently by hos­pit­al staff to “make sure the nurs­ery is ready,” which is med­ic­al code say­ing that Ben­nett is close to com­ing home for the first time. 

When he does, he will have a life­time of get­ting to know his new friends and sup­port­ers to look for­ward to. Be­cause he was born so pre­ma­turely, Ben­nett will likely be af­fected by his con­di­tion go­ing for­ward in his life, to which de­gree the fam­ily is still un­sure. And while the last six months or so have put Greg and Mary — and their ex­ten­ded fam­il­ies — through the emo­tion­al wringer, there’s fi­nally some light at the end of the tun­nel, in large part due to so many in the Holy Fam­ily com­munity ex­tend­ing a help­ing hand. 

“It will be a great memento for Ben­nett when he’s older, know­ing these people cheered him on,” Mary said. “This is what com­munity is … this is what it looks like.”

Des­pite liv­ing hours away, both sets of Ben­nett’s grand­par­ents at­ten­ded the event, and ad­mit­ted to be­ing blown away by the out­come.

“The neat thing is that this sup­port, it’s not from either of their ex­ten­ded fam­il­ies,” said Dave Buchanan, Mary’s fath­er. “This is Greg’s net­work, his com­munity, and what’s so beau­ti­ful is that our chil­dren have built the kinds of re­la­tion­ships and friend­ships that are now com­ing back their way. I can ad­mire and ap­pre­ci­ate that.”

“As par­ents and grand­par­ents, we give them all of the love and sup­port we can,” ad­ded Tom Pel­legrino, Greg’s fath­er. “We want to help make it all bet­ter, but we can’t. There’s noth­ing we can do but keep giv­ing our sup­port. So what they’ve done here … it’s simply amaz­ing.”

The event raised $1,500 for the Ben­nett Strong Found­a­tion, which ec­lipsed the class’ ori­gin­al goal of $1,000. Loc­al busi­nesses such as San­tucci’s Pizza and the Soft Pret­zel Fact­ory donated food for the event, which in­cluded a dee­jay and raffle prizes from the Phil­lies, 76ers and Fly­ers, as well as oth­er items such as movie passes and rounds of golf. Aside from an activ­it­ies grant giv­en by the uni­versity, the class it­self had no budget to work with and had to so­li­cit everything through dona­tions.

“I was def­in­itely blown away by such a spe­cial night,” said Sal DeAn­gel­is, the course’s ad­junct pro­fess­or who is cur­rently the dir­ect­or of Op­er­a­tions/Se­cur­ity for the Phil­lies. “I liken it to a nat­ur­al dis­aster. When Hur­ricane Sandy hit, yeah, it was aw­ful, but then you see people com­ing from all over to help. That’s when it be­comes more than a tragedy … it be­comes people work­ing to­geth­er to­ward one goal. That’s what happened here with Ben­nett.”

“It’s ab­so­lutely great to see,” said Steph­en Rocco, the class’ pro­ject man­ager. “To put in all that work and to have the day fi­nally come … it’s al­most like Christ­mas in a way.”

In the end, the event it­self won’t be enough to sud­denly and mi­ra­cu­lously make Ben­nett’s health is­sues dis­ap­pear. But if you talk to the fam­ily, they’ll tell you that all of the pos­it­ive vibes and well-wishes meant more than any­one can ima­gine in aid­ing Ben­nett’s re­cov­ery. Wheth­er it was fam­ily cook­ing for them so they could spend more time with Ben­nett at the hos­pit­al, friends tak­ing them out of the house to get the couple’s mind off things for a few hours or simply a stranger of­fer­ing en­cour­age­ment in-per­son or through the blog that Mary and Greg have kept to up­date folks on Ben­nett’s pro­gress (link be­low). 

When stacked against such un­fathom­able ele­ments, it of­ten takes a vil­lage to get those suf­fer­ing through the darkest peri­ods.

“I was in the hos­pit­al for a week, and when I came home, we had so much food that there was nowhere to put it,” Mary said. “It’s a great sym­bol of where we’ve been and all the love and care and sup­port that has come our way. It does take a huge weight off our shoulders. 

“It’s just a lot of thanks and awe. You know you don’t al­ways have to be OK in front of every­body, and it is fine to have a bad day. But we see the wrist­bands people wear, we see them in their ‘Ben­nett Strong’ T-shirts, we see them fol­low­ing our blog … those things say everything without ac­tu­ally hav­ing to.”

“It’s a com­fort­ing feel­ing, know­ing there’s people out there watch­ing out for them,” said Pat Pel­legrino, Greg’s moth­er. “We have our arms around them. We can say thank you, but it will nev­er be enough.”

The Pel­legri­nos are hop­ing Ben­nett makes it home in time for Christ­mas. It could be then or it could be some­time in Janu­ary, but they know that after everything they’ve been through, their first­born son is that much closer to com­ing home with mom and dad. 

They may nev­er be able to thank Holy Fam­ily for everything the school did for their son, but that’s OK, too, be­cause those in­volved aren’t search­ing for grat­it­ude or thanks; rather, they know it was just the right thing to do, and in a small, close-knit com­munity like Holy Fam­ily, do­ing the right thing for the per­son next to you just be­comes second nature.

“We don’t know how it will be for Ben­nett when he’s older. We just know that he’s our son, and God’s got a plan for him,” Mary Pel­legrino said. “We haven’t figured out yet what that is, and right now it’s not our right to know. All we can do is love and sup­port him and provide him with every op­por­tun­ity we can, and this event helps do that. 

“Ac­tions speak louder than words, and those kids in this class nailed it. They nailed it. They don’t have to say any­thing, be­cause they just did it.”  ••

To fol­low Ben­nett Pel­legrino’s pro­gress, log on to www.caring­­it/ben­nettpel­legrino

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