A life lesson in acceptance; Woman born with dwarfism
speaks to students about importance of understanding diversity
By Swapna Venugopal Ramaswamy
THE JOURNAL NEWS
May 22, 2012
ARMONK — Geri Mariano's secret ambition is to be a "behind-the-scenes" political power broker and mover and shaker in Washington.
For the 3-foot-tall Mariano, who suffers from diastrophic dysplasia, a rare form of dwarfism, the prospect is no tall order.
The 44-year-old history buff, who has a degree in American studies from Smith College, has been scuba diving in Antigua and horseback riding on a dude ranch in Wyoming. She traveled to Italy on her own to celebrate the completion of her master's degree.
"It was my master's achievement, 40th birthday, honeymoon for one 'cause-I-can't-wait-forever trip," said Mariano, whose congenital condition prevents her from being able to stand up without her prosthetic legs.
She's also a motivational speaker.
On Monday, Mariano spoke to fifth-graders at Wampus Elementary School in the Byram Hills Central School District about her childhood and the importance of understanding diversity. Now as her full-time vocation, she speaks at schools around the country and advocates for accessible housing for the disabled through such organizations as the nonprofit Westchester Independent Living Center. She's returning to Wampus on Wednesday to speak with additional sections of fifth-graders.
"Parts of my story may seem like a sad story, but look at me — do I seem like a sad person?" asked Mariano, who uses two canes to help her balance. "I think I turned out OK, and I am a pretty happy person."
Since age 2, Mariano, a Byram Hills High School graduate, has used prosthetic legs.
"With these legs, I'm, 4-6," said Mariano, sitting in her condominium in Armonk, which she bought in 2003. "It's like walking on stilts."
Geralyn Mariano was the third child born to a couple from Harrison in 1967. The pair's first child, a son, was born healthy. Their second daughter was born with health defects and died within days. When Geralyn was born with physical deformities of the arms, hands, legs and feet, her parents left her at White Plains Hospital.
At 3 months, she was transferred to Blythedale Children's Hospital. By the time she was 18 months old, her social service worker and the hospital decided to reach out to the community — enlisting help from the Reporter Dispatch, a predecessor of The Journal News — looking for potential foster parents.
A couple from Bronxville, Bill and Doris Mariano, parents of three daughters, brought Geralyn home in 1969.
"I came home on March 26. My oldest sister, who was born March 27, always told me I was her birthday present," Mariano said.
The family moved to Armonk in 1972, as Byram Hills was one of the only schools willing at the time to accommodate a child with special needs, said Mariano, who attended Coman Hills Elementary School.
While Mariano grew up in a loving home, where she was treated as an equal member of the family, the feelings of abandonment by her biological parents plagued her for years.
"But as I grew older, and in talking to my social worker and my parents, I have come to realize that my biological mother had suffered an emotional breakdown and would not have been able to care for me," Mariano said.
While she has never wanted to contact her biological parents — while at college she once hired a private detective to find them but has since lost track of them — she said she has often thought about contacting her brother, who lives locally.
"I haven't sought him out because I don't know what his reaction would be," Mariano said. "I don't know if he knows about me."
At Wampus on Monday, one of the fifth-graders wanted to know if she was ever bullied.
"I was very lucky that I had really good friends, but there was this one girl who bullied me when I was in eighth grade for about a month," Mariano said. "But she would do it only when I was alone."
She said it stopped when another classmate showed up while this was happening.
"And it stopped," Mariano said to the children. "You have to show up for your friends."
One thing that has always helped her has been her willingness to be "part of the action."
"I wasn't able to jump rope, but I'd be part of the action by being the person who turned the handles," Mariano said. "My life is like a puzzle. It's always figuring things out."
Mariano, who drives a Ford Taurus specially outfitted with hand controls, said she occasionally runs "mom's taxi" service for her friends' kids.
Gina Sinon, a high school friend, said she uses the service often.
"She's a remarkable person. Once you get to know her, the differences disappear," Sinon said.
As for one day having her own family, Mariano said she would be open to sharing her life with someone "willing to take a chance on me."
"I'd love to adopt children with a partner and give someone else a chance the way I was given a chance," she said.
Rina Bellamy, the executive director of My Second Home, an adult day-care center in Mount Kisco, where Mariano has conducted a few programs, described her as "understanding of people's needs."
"She engages and motivates seniors, many of whom have memory impairments, to participate in programs," said Bellamy, citing Mariano's own creation: The Golden Idol, showcasing the talents of the center's seniors. "When you meet her, it's not her disability but her strength that comes through."
Toward the end of her presentation at Wampus, Mariano asked the children if they thought she could dance. Before they could answer, Mariano was dancing to Katy Perry's "Firework." The kids soon joined her.
"I think it'll stay with me for a long time," said Julia Weiler, 10. "Even if you are different from others, your life can still be really good."
If Mariano had her way, her next stop would be Washington.
"I'd love to be a congressional aide," she said. "I love politics, and I would effect policy changes that make things easier for people with special needs."