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An ordinary family with special gifts

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Dialog reporter

Holy Angels parishioners, both blind, face challenges of family life with their children’s help

NEWARK – It’s a fairly typical weekday afternoon for Gary Pizzolo and his wife, Kris Heist. Christmas decorations adorn their home near Newark, their 10-year-old twins, Sean and Kelly, do homework, and the family’s pet, a 3-year-old black lab named Holly, alternates between playing and napping.

Pizzolo often works from home for his job managing food service at the New Castle County courthouse in Wilmington. Heist is a massage therapist whose practice, Therapeutic Massage of Delaware, is across the street from their home.

It’s a mix of chaos and order, something any family would understand. But when you consider that both Pizzolo and Heist are completely blind, their story takes on a new layer. In a year the pope and the world’s bishops discussed family life, the Pizzolo family discussed the unique challenges facing theirs.

Gary Pizzolo, left, with his wife, Kris Heist, and their twins, Sean and Kelly, are members of Holy Angels Parish in Newark. (Photo by Bud Keegan Images for The Dialog )
Gary Pizzolo, left, with his wife, Kris Heist, and their twins, Sean and Kelly, are members of Holy Angels Parish in Newark. (Photo by Bud Keegan Images for The Dialog)

They have not faced all of the hurdles alone. Anthea Piscarik, a fellow parishioner at Holy Angels in Newark, comes by every Wednesday with her husband to take the children to religious education classes. She said what Pizzolo and Heist accomplish, with their children’s assistance, is amazing.

“But it’s their devotion to family life, rich with love, discipline and joy, that inspires me the most,” Piscarik said. “I see the deep admiration and respect Sean and Kelly have for their parents.”

Pizzolo said nearby St. Mark’s High School has been helpful as well. Girls from the school’s Z Club and from the Future Educators of America have been coming to the house for a few years to help Kelly and Sean with homework.

“We couldn’t even read their assignments,” Pizzolo said.

The parents help however they can. The children ask for assistance as any child would.

“I tell them you’ve got to work as a team,” Heist said. “You see them picking my brain about their homework. Kids are kids. They need help from their parents.”

And the parents get help from Sean and Kelly. For example, Pizzolo said, Kelly makes breakfasts and dinners, working with her father to ensure they are done correctly.

“The idea is they’re on their own, they’ll get the stuff done, but they have to make sure everything is safe. And they’re good about it,” Pizzolo said.

When the family goes grocery shopping, Kelly said, she or Sean pushes the cart and makes sure they have the correct items.

They are still kids, however, and aren’t above pulling a fast one on their parents. When Heist asks if they’ve cleaned their bedrooms, they invite her to come in and feel how clean the floor is. What Mom finds out, though, is that sometimes they’ve shoved all of the stuff that was on the floor under their beds.

‘A lot in common’

Pizzolo, 59, grew up in the Bronx, N.Y., attending a Catholic school when, at 14 years old, he noticed a speck in one of his eyes. A doctor told him the condition could be treated with medicine, and he would be fine.

Instead, Pizzolo said, the medicine nearly destroyed him. He lost his hair and some of his teeth, gained weight and was temporarily paralyzed. At 19, he was blind.

“When I was on this medicine, it paralyzed me from the waist down,” he said. “It interfered with my nerves, gave me arthritis. In a way, when I did lose my eyesight, I was trying to get my health back.”

Heist has never been able to see. She was born with Leber’s congenital amaurosis (LCA), a rare inherited eye disease that affects about one of every 80,000 people. While growing up in Cherry Hill, N.J., she did not know what caused her blindness.

“I think my mother was afraid for me to find out. There was a neurologist who told her it might have been something she exposed me to during her pregnancy. She didn’t want to find out because she thought it might be her fault,” she said.

Before she and Pizzolo had children, they discussed LCA with a genetic counselor, who told them it was very unlikely that Pizzolo also had the recessive gene. Kelly and Sean have normal eyesight and are healthy.

The couple met in guide-dog school in New Jersey in the mid-1990s. Heist, who has a degree in computer science and a minor in math from the University of Delaware, was working in Wilmington for Dupont, while Pizzolo was still at home in the Bronx. They spent more than three weeks at the school, where they got to know each other.

“The fact that we were both on our second dog, we had a lot in common,” the 47-year-old Heist said. “We would call each other up when we got home.

“We would compare stories of all the bad things the dogs did. We would visit each other one weekend a month. We kind of took turns.”

As the relationship grew more serious, the couple had a decision to make. Heist had a good job at Dupont and said she’s not really a city person. Pizzolo said that was fine with him; he needed to get out of New York City. They married on Sept. 13, 1997.

Twin surprise

Pizzolo and Heist spent a long time deciding to start a family. Like any couple, they were busy with work, and they had the added challenge of not being able to see.

“It was hard because neither of us had a lot of experiences with kids,” Heist said.

When Pizzolo handled food service at the old county courthouse in Wilmington, he and Heist, who had left her job with Dupont, would stock the vending machines and do much of the other work themselves. When the new courthouse opened, there were too many machines for them to do, so he subcontracted the work. Although he liked being around the courthouse, there was a benefit to the new arrangement.

“With that opportunity of subcontracting, Kris and I decided to try and build a family. It gave me the opportunity to work at home,” he said.

Heist said they had a plan. “We figured there were two of us and only one child. We could take turns taking care of the baby.”

But God surprised them with twins, who were born premature and were hooked up to monitors when they came home. This added one more hurdle for the new parents and for anyone who tried to help them, as changing diapers required care not to dislodge wires. And, because there were two babies, the family went through twice as many bottles and diapers.

“The first year was a dream, or a nightmare, because all we did was feed, change, bed. Feed change, bed,” said Pizzolo, a man with a quick wit and a still-strong Bronx accent.

On top of that, they had two retired guide dogs by then, who would get worked up when they heard any commotion. They had to be let out, so the parents would take turns with the dogs and the children.

“It wasn’t dull around here, that’s for sure,” Pizzolo said.

Parishioners at Holy Angels helped with transportation to church, and they also helped with care at the house. One woman, a retired nurse, visited several times, and others made meals.

Today, they get to Mass on Sundays when they can get a ride. Friends take them shopping or to appointments. The family recently returned from a Disney vacation.

Kelly and Sean attend Wilson Elementary School because Pizzolo and Heist need reliable transportation for them. Heist said they are thinking about possibly enrolling them at St. Mark’s for high school; the school is less than two miles from their home.

“It’s the little things that you need. And people don’t realize that they have the little things,” Pizzolo said.

But as much as they would like to be able to hop in a car and drive themselves wherever they need to go, or to be able to see, they are satisfied with their lives. They are, as Pizzolo says, normal people “with special gifts.”

Their friend Piscarik said she wishes everyone could spend a day with the couple and Sean and Kelly to see how a family works together to overcome whatever life throws at them.

“I’m so happy to be a witness to what God had intended for Gary and Kris,” she said.