Everyone has heard the saying, “’Tis better to give than receive.” Recently a group of Smith Mountain Lake (SML) residents and representatives of local churches had the opportunity to test the “giving” theory; it proved to be true! Call it luck, or better yet, divine intervention, but we recently learned about a special woman’s simple request: to feel the sunshine on her face.

The lady I speak of is Michele Tarantino. She has been described by friends as a natural athlete, intelligent, with great style and a radiant personality. Many area residents know Michele and her husband of 26 years, Jim; they just cannot remember how. The Tarantinos have been active in the SML community. Their involvement in productions by The Smith Mountain Arts Council (SMAC) Lake Players could be the connection.

“It was with the Lake Players and church productions that I really got to know Michele and Jim,” Nancy King, a SMAC pal, noted. “Michele helped so much with costumes, make-up, wigs, stage props and giving good feedback on what she saw. She’s a hard worker, has great ideas and is always willing to help wherever she could.”

Another friend, Connie Canova, wrote, “What I recall most about Michele is when she comes in a room, she is like a bright shining light. Always sweet, positive, happy and helpful, especially with our Lake Players. You have to love a person like that!”

“She had a hat for any occasion,” Sandy Sampson added. “I never saw her without a smile.”

There were so many wonderful comments from friends, but I must conclude with one last quote from Joyce Dittrich, writing, “I realized when we met that Michele had a great sense of style and creativity as well as being very bright, organized and dedicated in her work at Carilion.”

Michele’s aptitude for numbers directed her to a master’s degree and career in accounting. She excelled in numerous top management positions, national and international, with firms such as CPI, Carilion Clinic and Renown Health. In 2007 Michele was featured in a national publication, The Journal of Healthcare Contracting, listing her as one of the top 10 businesswomen to watch. Ten years later, the same magazine wrote a follow-up expose on Michelle. Jim’s education and following career in areas of computer science led to positions as a tech support specialist. They earned and enjoyed the rewards of business success. 

Michele’s talents include singing, playing piano and guitar. Among her many passions are football, cheering for the Giants, and a love for making pottery by hand. A studio was planned for her retirement. In the “blink of an eye,” so to speak, all that changed. Michele, now bound to a wheelchair, depends greatly on her ability to see. She communicates through eye expressions. A blink says “yes” and she uses the universal code for “no” with a slight head motion.

She and Jim have another way to talk, and they are quite good at it. Their speaking tool is a large, clear plastic card imprinted with the alphabet and symbols. Jim holds up the card while Michele looks at certain letters to spell out words. Unable to swallow, she receives nutrition through a feeding tube. Michele’s very personal daily routines such as bathing, dressing, grooming and moving positions, which most take for granted, are now impossible without dedicated caregivers, like her husband Jim.

Michele has amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). It is a progressive nervous system disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord, causing loss of muscle control. ALS often starts in the hands, feet or limbs, and then spreads to other parts of the body. As the disease advances and nerve cells are destroyed, voluntary muscles get weaker. This eventually affects chewing, swallowing, speaking and breathing. ALS is progressive, meaning the symptoms get worse over time.

In 1996 the Tarantinos bought a lake home with 19 acres of land at Smith Mountain Lake. Their purchase was intended to be an investment and home base for retirement. They used it to move from their busy, crowded neighborhood in New York City to a relaxed, rural and social life at SML. There they would stay until 2015 when work took them to Reno, Nevada. In 2019, Michele became ill, terribly ill. Her doctors ran a multitude of tests before Michele was diagnosed with ALS. After research and guidance on what lies ahead, the couple moved back to their lake home. The home’s age and years left vacant had taken a toll on the structure. Jim resolved all the home issues he was able before Michele’s condition deteriorated to the point where she required care 24/7.

Isolated to her electronic wheelchair, couch or bed, Michele longed for one simple wish. She just wanted to sit outside and feel the sun on her face. Her wish was all but impossible. Her only access outside was a weathered and decayed deck, which could not support her 450 lb. wheelchair and 100 lb. Michele. The physical work and expense were beyond their means. For “emergency” sake, Jim set a plywood route to an outdoor elevator across the failing deck. 

Divine intervention is real although sometimes it must be seen from a “rear-view” mirror. Their case was no different from millions of others. At a time when family and friends are forced to isolate due to the global pandemic, social media, phone and personal letters have become 2020 communication channels. A written letter was my choice of reaching out to friend, Charlene Maresca, for a favor. We had not seen each other in quite a while, but my letter prompted her to call me with a question. During our “catch-up” conversation, she told me about a sensitive issue her dear friends Michele and Jim were dealing with. She asked if my husband, Tim, and I would help.

My response was “Of course we will!” I inquired, “What do you need?”

She responded fast and to the point, “I need a project manager to replace a large, dilapidated deck for a very good reason.”

It was understood what the volunteer management position required; draft a rendering of the deck and materials needed, order the lumber and building supplies, arrange for a dumpster, obtain a building permit, and lead a team of volunteers.

She concluded with, “So many in our lake community have financially donated to the project; I believe we have enough money to buy all the materials.”

It is amazing how the dots connected. Tim was ready, willing and able to get started. My task was to create a work-in-progress spreadsheet keeping track of the project, volunteer information, purchases, communicate as needed and pen an article on this SML community, “Labor of Love.”

Within one week “The Tarantino Project” became a priority with a swift goal of completion. Volunteers of all ages, building knowledge and strength were easy to find; you just had to ask. This outdoor project was COVID-19 compliant with masks and respect for space. Many of the experienced volunteers brought or donated “deck building” tools. Their collaboration resulted in a sturdy, code-compliant structure upon which many new friendships were formed.

“This is the most rewarding and fulfilling volunteer effort I’ve ever served on,” stated Project Manager Tim Gardner.

Tim’s comment was repeated in similar fashion by all the workers involved. Jumping into action were John Maresca, retired chemical engineer; Charlene Maresca, retired elementary school teacher; Gareth Kerlin, home inspector; Sandy Sampson, schoolteacher, retired; Doug Sampson, nuclear safety engineer; Donnie Leipert, home improvement contractor; Glenn Clairborne, retired engineer; Chuck Neufdorfer, Bedford County supervisor, retired; Peter Ohlerich, Josh Bouknight and Luke Faber, high school students representing their church, Trinity Ecumenical Parish; Tony Struzziery, home improvement contractor; Rebekah Boatright, vocal instructor; Chuck Besser; Bob McMican; Becki Fuzi, registered nurse and Michele’s co-worker at Carilion; and Al Fuzi, door and window manufacturing, retired.

Within the first two days the scaffolding was up, rotten boards were in the dumpster and new decking was well underway. The crew worked together like a well-oiled machine for days on end. 

Charlene and I helped by “staying out of the workers way.” We spent some quality time in the house with Michele. I was somewhat of an acquaintance with Michele, recognizing her, but unable to recall any previous conversations. My first visit to the Tarantino home was inspiring. Michele’s remarkable brown eyes expressed what she was unable to say. When we first arrived, she was breathing through a loud respirator, which concealed most of her face. Jim stepped in the room and with the gentlest voice asked Michele if it was OK to turn off the air equipment. Her positive response was clear and easy for all of us to understand even though she is unable to enunciate words. While watching Downtown Abby on TV, we both made lots of comments, mine were vocal while Michele’s were expressive. Through it all, Bella, their loyal, aged, golden retriever, stayed by Michele’s side. 

“Michele and I lived most of our lives in communities near bodies of water,” Jim said. “We fell in love with this area because of the lake, but we stayed because we fell in love with the people. We have never lived in one place as long as we have here at SML. We have family and so many friends that have become extended family. We love them all. When Michele’s career took us to Nevada, it was painful to leave, but we knew we would return. That return was planned for our retirement. Michele’s sickness hastened that decision.”

“Coming back to SML made so much sense in our world which had become senseless due to Michele’s illness. We had to leave great jobs and a few good friends, but the choice was clear. The one question was, could we make the house we built in Moneta work for a person with a disability? We built this house when we were both young and healthy, never imagining the worst-case scenario,” Jim stated.

Speaking for himself and Michele, Jim expressed, “The outpouring of love and caring we experienced since we have been back has been heartwarming and truly a Godsend. So many people have been praying for our well-being, and we have felt the positive effects nearly every day. The deck project with so many volunteers has been the most visual representation of God’s love. We would like to thank everyone who has been a part of this project. The finished project has given us a much safer and more beautiful living space than what was replaced. I want them to know that every time we look at or go out on the deck, we are reminded of the many people who came out here to help us. Many are good friends, and many were people we had never met before but are now considered friends. This is truly a lasting gift of immeasurable quantity.”

He concluded, “We pray that everyone involved can feel our love and gratitude for the good they have done to improve our safety and everyday lives. Michele and I thank you from the bottom of our hearts, and may God bless every one of you.”

How does a couple get through the life altering issues of ALS? Unshakable devotion. The Tarantinos are believers. They place their trust in God. Jim and Michele work through daily challenges yet are genuinely thankful for each answered prayer. Enthusiasm comes naturally to this couple. I learned that the root word for “enthusiastic” is Greek. It comes from two words, Theos, “meaning God,” and En-tae says, “meeting within.” The early use of this word literally means, “God within you.” While Michele has lost muscle movement control, she holds fast to a positive attitude through this dark and difficult time. She is enthusiastic in letting her personality shine through. She is immobile, yet people are drawn to her. Why? By placing their burden in the hands of the Lord, they have the strength to share enthusiasm. 

The Tarantino deck project came to light just before Thanksgiving and was completed two weeks before Christmas. It was a logical Christmas wish and dream come true for a deserving family. Once again, the SML community confirmed what they already knew, “It is truly better to give than receive.”

Read more stories in the upcoming issue of the Smith Mountain Eagle newspaper. Pick up a copy or subscribe at www.smithmountaineagle.com/subscriber_services to view articles in the print and/or e-edition version.

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