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Family support, involvement encourages young go-getter
When people meet 10-year-old Dominic Ruperto, there’s no doubt that he’s a very confident and well-rounded, young man. He exudes joy and embraces life.
For example, the Pittsburgh native and fifth grader can do 33 push-ups in 60 seconds. He can maneuver a sled around a hockey rink with agility. And, he admits that he enjoys watching the sport of hockey because he likes to see the players get crushed against the glass.
It’s all typical boy stuff, but what people come to realize about Dominic is that he’s not typical at all. He’s extraordinary.
Dominic was born with spastic diplegia Cerebral Palsy that affects his lower extremities; he uses a wheelchair most of the time and crutches some of the time. It’s a situation that could cause some children to be self-conscious – but no one told Dominic that.
“There is no such thing as a disability. Within every disability, there is ability. Dominic knows that he will do everything that other people do. He’ll just accomplish those goals differently.”
– Michele Ruperto, Dominic’s mother
And that, said his mother, Michele Ruperto, was by design.
“Once we knew Dom had Cerebral Palsy, we knew that we didn’t want him to think that he couldn’t do things that other people do,” she said. “We wanted to do everything we could to make sure he had all the experiences other people have. We didn’t see any reason for him to be limited.”
That parenting approach was a goal that – day by day and experience by experience – was reinforced. At only a decade old, Dominic plays wheelchair basketball, sled hockey and quad rugby. He plays the violin and the trombone. He’s into scouting, bungee jumping and, well, just about anything he puts his mind to, quite frankly.
He’s hobnobbed with the Harlem Globetrotters, and he’s also played a unique role in the lives of some of America’s wounded veterans. As one of about 20 children that took part in the National Veterans Wheelchair Games Kid’s Day, Dominic has stayed in touch with many of the veterans that showed him how to play adaptive sports and answered his most pressing questions, like “Show me your best game face.”
For Dominic, these experiences are driving home a sense of accomplishment, philanthropy, and can-do zeal.
“There is no such thing as a disability,” said Michele. “Within every disability, there is ability. Dominic knows that he will do everything that other people do. He’ll just accomplish those goals differently.”
A difficult diagnosis
Dominic Ruperto was born 10 years ago in Pittsburgh to Michele and Jeffrey Ruperto. Like so many other children with Cerebral Palsy, Dominic was born eight weeks premature. Gradually, he gained strength and went home with his parents, but soon Michele began to notice that her son was not meeting developmental milestones.
When the couple took Dominic to a physician, they were told to wait a year to see if he gained ground. But there was no change, and Michele knew that her child was struggling.
“You know when something is wrong with your child,” she said.
“I knew that we would do everything we could to give Dom as many opportunities as we could. I realized that I’m not okay with settling for this diagnosis.”
– Michele Ruperto, Dominic’s mother
It was a physical therapist that told Michele that Dominic has Cerebral Palsy, and to this day, she still gets choked up about the day her son’s condition was confirmed.
“I remember when I called Jeff to tell him,” she said. “We spoke face-to-face at home, and the conversation was very, very difficult.”
After the shock of the diagnosis wore off, Michele realized that Dominic’s parents were his strongest advocates.
“I knew that we would do everything we could to give Dom as many opportunities as we could,” she said. “I realized that I’m not okay with settling for this diagnosis.”
From there, Michele and Jeffrey focused on getting Dominic all of the interventions he needed, such as occupational and physical therapy. Because Dominic has no developmental delays or speech issues, his therapy was focused exclusively on his physical development.
As Dominic grew and developed interests, Michele and Jeffrey actively searched for ways Dominic could express himself.
They looked for ways that would maximize his potential – to learn, to socialize, to experience, and to prepare him for a life of independence and self-sufficiency. A life of opportunities, accomplishment and joy.
“You have to get out there and really look for opportunities because they’re not always apparent,” said Michele.
One resource Michele located was the Pittsburgh-based Hope Network, which operates sports clinics for children with disabilities. She also enrolled Dominic in a sled hockey team called the Pittsburgh Mighty Penguins, with whom he has had the opportunity to travel with for athletic events.
Although Dominic copes with his therapies like a champ, there have been challenges along the road, his mother said. In 2010, Dominic entered Shriners Hospital for Children® in Erie, Penn., where he had surgery to lengthen his adductors and his hamstrings, release his heel cords, and reposition his feet.
It was a surgery that could have taken months of rehabilitation, but Dominic was off his pain medications within five days, and at the seven-week mark he was using crutches to get around for the first time in his young life.
Today, Dominic is adjusting to his new life as a student at Linton Middle School where he spends 98 percent of his time in a mainstream classroom. He still uses his wheelchair to get from classroom to classroom because the facility is larger than his elementary school and too difficult to travel with crutches within the timespan allotted between classes.
Because of his upper body strength, he’s able to transfer himself into his conventional desk and back into his wheelchair when it’s time to leave the classroom. But to move throughout a class, Dominic typically uses his crutches, Michele said.
Michele said that while school and a full slate of activities keeps Dominic busy, it’s her job to identify opportunities to help him progress physically.
“We get to do all these activities, and everything we do helps him progress a little bit more,” she said. “It’s a work in progress and there’s always room for improvement.”
One step Michele took after Dominic started attending second grade was to ask for an opportunity to speak to Dominic’s classmates, which was granted.
“I answered all of the kids’ questions about Dominic’s condition, and some of them have really good questions,” she said. “It helped break the ice between him and the other students.”
The most fascinating boy
Dominic Ruperto doesn’t mince words when given an opportunity to tell the world something about himself that people may not know: He’s a man of character, and charming at that.
“I have intelligence,” said the determined 10-year-old. “I have quite an awesome personality. And, I can do anything.”
He also will tell you that his favorite band is KISS, while the prettiest princess at Walt Disney World Resort is Belle – because she kissed him. He’s going to be a surgeon when he grows up, because people pay surgeons a lot of money. And, with Dominic-endearing quality, he discloses that his mother is the person he looks up to the most. Why? “I look up to my mom because she feeds me,” he said.
Dominic said he enjoys the relationship he’s cultivated with the NWVG athletes because he likes learning about the military, which is a force he concedes he will likely never be able to join. He also enjoys the warmth of his relationships with the soldiers, who have given him advice on how to play sports and shared with him a matter of immediate and intense interest – how many girlfriends they have, and other “secrets.”
Michele said Dominic gets a lot of emotional support from the veterans; they serve as powerful role models for achievement for her son.
He’s also a regular face around the Pittsburgh Bureau of Fire where he pals around with the local firefighters. He has his own firefighter’s hat and coat, which his mother called “extremely generous” on the part of the fire department.
Recently, Dominic won a bronze medal at the 2013 Giant Eagle Kids of STEEL competition, an exercise and nutrition program developed to promote healthy lifestyle habits in kids, where he completed 33 push-ups in a minute. As a player with the Mighty Penguins, Dominic had an opportunity to take part in media interviews for Radio Disney; he even had an official media badge.
Not long ago, Dominic was gifted a trip to Walt Disney World Resort by the Make-A-Wish Foundation and participated in “Perception,” a dance concert to raise money for the foundation. While there, he recorded a promotional video, “Make-A-Wish interview with Dominic Ruperto.”
At school, Dominic can count himself as one of the popular kids. So desirable is his company considered in the lunch room that several girls will vie for the opportunity to help him put his straw in a drink box (he is capable to doing this himself, by the way). He has many friends, both at school and on his hockey team; they are continually making themselves known at the Ruperto home, Michele said.
Dominic said his best subject at school is math because, as he says, he’s “really good at it.”
At home, Dominic enjoys spending time with his family, which includes his parents and a younger sister, Gionna, who is 6 years old. The big brother role suits Dominic well because he likes being an example for his sister. He does acknowledge, however, that when they’re together he’s in charge.
Dominic is also an avowed fan of the 1970s glam rock band KISS, and of course he loves playing video games on his Xbox. He also enjoys the company of Zara, the family’s bulldog and loyal companion.
Michele said Dominic were able to cultivate his self-confidence because he knows he’s supported at home, and he’s keenly aware that he has abilities that are on par with his peers.
“I need him to know I’m not always going to be there to help him,” she said. “I’m his advocate, but he has to be his own advocate.
“When Dom went to preschool, I began to picture for myself the craziest situation he’s going to be in (when grown),” Michele said. “That’s being in downtown Pittsburgh for work, or for other reasons, and he’s going to have to be confident in that situation.”
As Michele contemplates her experiences as Dominic’s mother, she realizes that it’s important to try not to plan every single aspect of her child’s life.
“Of course we were blindsided by his diagnosis, but our plan was to just move full-steam ahead,” she said. “I think if I have any advice for parents, it would be to not stick to a child’s IEP (Individual Education Plan) in such a way that you can’t do other things.
“And if there’s something in an IEP that you don’t like, you don’t have to sign it,” she said. “It’s important to remember that you know more about your child than other people.”
Although Dominic has undergone one painful surgery, he may have to have the procedure again as he grows. Michele believes it’s possible that he may be able to use braces or crutches full-time, but if Dominic still wants to use his wheelchair in some cases, it’s okay.
“He has the willpower to get through surgery again, if it happens,” she said. “And I’ll always be his biggest advocate.”
As for Dominic, his advice to other kids with Cerebral Palsy is – true to Dom – pretty straight-forward, “Get on your crutches if you have them and do well for your life.”
A child’s smile is enough to brighten anyone’s day. For parents of a child with Cerebral Palsy – even when non-verbal – all of those firsts – whether reading, writing, or hearing a child say “I love you” are not only possible, they’re probable. More so than ever children are re-conceiving how they can participate and interact with others.