Camille Geraldi always knew that she wanted to help special needs kids, and as a young nurse at a Miami hospital, she spent so much time with the kids there that they consistently asked for her by name.
“My dad was a philanthropist who raised money for handicapped children,” she said to Global News.
Camille met her husband, Mike, a paediatrician, at the hospital and told him that she wanted to adopt as many special needs kids as possible, and he agreed to do it with her. Little did Camille know that would come with a marriage proposal.
“Mike said, ‘I can see you and I doing this together,’ and he proposed,” Camille recalls. “But I didn’t think he meant as husband and wife! It was very romantic.”
Over the following 40 years, Camille and Mike took in 88 children with special needs including Down syndrome, severe facial deformities and autism, almost all of whom also suffered from cardiac diseases. They officially adopted 31 kids and acted as guardians to the rest, in addition to raising two biological daughters.
“When our children come to us they’re not compatible with life,” Camille says. “They have genetic disorders and cardiac problems. Today, most of them would be in hospice care, but 40 years ago they didn’t do that with kids. They wouldn’t have made it.”
Back then, people also left their babies on the Geraldis’ doorstep, and Camille often reassured them that they were doing the right thing. Now kids come to them through their The Possible Dream Foundation and through referrals from social workers.
“I even once received an envelope from Japan that was addressed to ‘The lady in the U.S. who adopted all the special needs children.’ My name wasn’t on it, but the letter got to me,” she says.
The Geraldis have suffered a number of setbacks over the years, including losing their Florida home to Hurricane Andrew in 1992, and seeing their North Carolina homestead go up in flames in 2011. But the hardest hit was Mike’s death from mesothelioma in early 2016.
“It was devastating; we had to redo our life,” Camille says. “I couldn’t cry because that would have been the destruction of my children. The only time I could cry was in the shower.”
Camille prides herself on how well her children thrive, especially since she knows they wouldn’t have had much chance elsewhere. Over the years, 32 of her kids have died, but they received the best care during their short lives.
“None of my kids go to the hospital because they get good care at home,” she says. “My son Adam just passed away, he was 23. He only had one brain stem. Other people would have asked, ‘What’s the purpose of his life,’ but that doesn’t matter to me. I just want to support them.”
Today, Camille lives in a mountainous region of Georgia with 20 kids and two full-time staff, as well as a host of volunteers who come daily. When she moved there from Florida after Mike’s death, the state wouldn’t allow her to take the kids who were under guardianship — they’ve been sent to various homes. Camille is devastated and committed to getting them all back to Georgia.
In the meantime, she’s revelling in her youngest daughter, Isabella, an eight-year-old who came to her as a cocaine-addicted baby.
“We wanted her to go through detox without any medications, and for the first two-and-a-half years we thought she was deaf and blind. But today, she’s perfectly normal. I think that’s God’s way of saying, ‘You did it right.'”
Isabella is Camille’s last adoption — she says she has a thing with the number 88.
“When our kids numbered in the 80s, I said to Mike, I’m stopping at 88. It’s always been a significant number in my life.”
And it’s been especially significant to 88 very lucky special needs kids.