Reva Norken still gets emotional when talking about her son, Seth, who would have turned 30 this year.
Back in 1984, Reva and her husband were excited as they counted down to their first baby’s due date.
But after a traumatic delivery, Seth suffered brain damage and developed cerebral palsy.
“By the time they did the C-section, my son was not breathing,” Norken said.
Reva and her husband were in shock. Suddenly, they were dealing not only with a new baby, but a little boy who needed special care.
To complicate matters, Reva had to go back to work after Seth was born because she carried the family’s health insurance. For the first year of Seth’s life, she relied on help from her family.
“As he got older, his needs increased,” Norken explained. “I think if I never found Cubby, it would have been a nightmare.”
Cubby — or Annalise LaHood — and her husband, Dan, run St. Joseph’s House (SaintJosephsHouse.net) in Silver Spring, Md. They have been providing before- and after-school care for children with multiple and severe disabilities in their home since 1983.
Norken brought Seth to St. Joseph’s House when he was 15 months old.
“If we hadn’t found her and this larger community, it would have been very isolating. She was like my Godsend,” recalled Norken of Annalise.
The LaHoods cared for children like Seth while raising three kids of their own. Thirty years later, the husband-and-wife team is still providing the same in-home care, even though Cubby is battling cancer.
“St. Joseph’s House started as the Special Needs Children’s Center, a highfalutin name for what we were. But it really grew out of the need we saw in families who cared for a child with a handicap 24-7, 52 weeks a year,” said Dan LaHood. Cubby became licensed to run a home daycare after the couple’s oldest son was born.
“As Cubby worked at a special-ed school, she witnessed the toll this was taking on the families she encountered on a daily basis. One child staying with us for an afternoon led to a weekend, led to asking for daily after-school care and summer care. Before we knew it, we had eight very small, very disabled kids in our house,” he continued.
At that point, Dan left his job to help Cubby run what became St. Joseph’s House.
“In retrospect, it’s clear it was God calling us to do this work,” he said.
St. Joseph’s House, a nonprofit, relies on donations, so the LaHoods only charge families a nominal fee. But they don’t turn anyone away who can’t afford services. In addition, they offer respite care two weekends a month in order to allow families to spend time with their other children or to attend events.
Mary Frances LaHood, who is 21 years old, has been helping her parents in recent years, due to her mother’s battle with cancer.
“In the beginning, it (St. Joseph’s House) was a way to help support our family. It didn’t become a ministry until after my brother died,” Mary Frances explained.
Her older brother Francis died shortly after birth. Mary Frances said her parents knew of his severe disabilities and were pressured by the medical community to abort him. They refused.
“Francis’ conception and death had everything to do with St. Joseph’s House and the entirety of my family. ... They had the realization (that) if Francis had lived, he would have been very disabled” and wanted to help others like him, Mary Frances explained.
Mary Frances added that his short life changed the lives of so many, including her parents.
“Both my parents had a conversion when my brother was born.”
Her father, a cradle Catholic, came back to the fullness of the faith, and her mother converted. They are now both third order lay Missionaries of Charity, an international lay movement co-founded by Blessed Teresa of Calcutta.
“My mom converted three or four years after Francis died. She followed my brother into the Church,” Mary Frances explained.
And Mary Frances said her parents have taught her to be a loving witness for life, not so much by what they say, but by what they do: “This really is building a culture of life. I want a parent expecting a baby with Down syndrome or spina bifida to see this isn’t just an uphill battle. They need to see their baby and that they’re going to get to know him in this incredible way.”
She emphasized the need to see these children as God sees them: “They are human beings with dignity who have a lot to contribute to this world. I have seen that firsthand.”
One of these special people is Liz Baldini’s daughter Gina, who has Down syndrome. The 17-year-old has been going to St. Joseph’s House after school and during the summer for the past three years.
“A few years ago, my husband lost his job, so I started working more,” said Liz Baldini. St. Joseph’s House “was a gift. First of all, trying to find any care, after care or camps for children with disabilities, is extremely expensive. It really was a gift from God. We needed it. Cubby was there with open arms.”
Mary Brogan’s daughter Theresa also has Down syndrome. The youngest of six children, Theresa has been going to St. Joseph’s House during the summertime.
“We knew of St. Joseph’s House before Theresa was born. We had the perspective of observing St. Joseph’s House as parish members,” said Mary Brogan, who attends St. John the Evangelist Parish in Silver Spring, Md., along with the LaHoods. “Cubby and Dan quietly go about their work. They treat these kids with great love by doing this in their home. They’re witnessing to every neighbor and every family they see [about] the dignity of those children and the love they have for them.”
While St. Joseph’s House is Catholic-based, it serves children of all different faiths. Reva Norken is Jewish. Even after her son Seth passed away at the age of 5, she chose to stay connected to St. Joseph’s House.
“It was a real family. I made a lot of lifelong friends. We will always have that bond,” said Norken. She believes that St. Joseph’s House helps people see that every child is God’s gift.
“Every child — every human being — has value in this world, even if he or she has limitations, which is not something everyone can understand or choose to understand. When someone can look at another person with disabilities and see the person — that soul — that’s powerful.”
And whether they’re bringing kids on a field trip, teaching a life skill or tending to children’s medical needs, Dan and Cubby LaHood serve them with gladness, even in the midst of their current struggles and past heartbreak.
“We have tried to help build a culture of life by trying to witness to the reality that no place is excluded from God’s presence, love and mercy,” said Dan.
“One of the most difficult places where God seems absent is when you are told that your baby is essentially being born to die. How can God be there? But unexpectedly and dramatically, he is there, because that’s where we found him, and it changed our lives forever.”
Carolee McGrath is the
pro-life television and print
reporter for the Diocese of