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Tony Rossi

Radio Host/Producer

A Vision of Heaven at iHope
September 13, 2015

You might expect a school for children with traumatic brain injuries (TBI) to be a somber place, but I found a different reality when I visited the International Academy of Hope (iHope) a few weeks ago. In fact, this converted nightclub offers a vision of heaven in New York City’s Central Harlem.

I’ve written previously about iHope’s founder, Patrick Donohue, who we recognized with a Christopher Award earlier this year. His own daughter, Sarah Jane, is a student there because in 2005, at five days old, her baby nurse shook her so violently that 60 percent of the rear cortex of her brain was destroyed. 

The challenges faced by Sarah Jane and the other children at iHope are not easy ones. Many have a seizure disorder; others are confined to a wheelchair and unable to talk; and some need to be fed through a special feeding tube. That’s why it was a surprise for me to discover an environment of palpable joy there, a joy that originates with the incomparable iHope staff.

For instance, there’s occupational therapist Laura Romanelli. Originally from Nebraska, she joined the iHope team two years ago, and embraces the school’s holistic approach to its students. They’re not simply defined by their disability, but treated as human beings with individual needs and potential. Romanelli adds that she doesn’t consider her job hard or depressing, though that’s how many people see it when she tells them what she does. “The children make my day brighter,” she says. “I get to improve their quality of life. It’s generally incremental. Maybe they can’t reach something or walk a step, and then, after a lot of therapy, they CAN do those things. It’s uplifting, and this job is a blessing.”

While a standard day at iHope involves five hours of therapy (occupational, physical, speech and vision) along with academics and conductive education, July 30 and 31 served as a break from the norm with the first ever iHope Summer Olympics. With the Olympic theme song playing in the background, cheering family members and staff lined the hallway as therapists wheeled each child past them in an enthusiastic opening ceremony.

Several parents were present, including Linda, who was there to support her son Marco. She told me that in his previous school, he received a few minutes of therapy every day, but spent much of his time in his wheelchair simply watching videos put on by the staff. iHope was a complete turnaround because everyone’s skills and “positive spirit” are developing Marco’s potential.

It’s not an overstatement to say that the staff genuinely loves all the kids. I could see it in the easygoing way they all interacted with each other; in the visible happiness of family members, who feel secure in the knowledge that their children are receiving great care instead of being left behind by society; and in the smiles of the students. They know instinctively who’s being real. As speech therapist Zimmad Imam told me, “If you give up on the kids, they can sense it. You have to come in here every day and be their hope.”

So how is iHope a vision of heaven? Well, heaven is the place where the lowly will be exalted, where all our brokenness will be healed, and where love will be all-encompassing. The school is providing a this-worldly taste of that divine objective, a taste that reminds us all that the plans God has for us are “plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.”



For a free copy of the Christopher News Note, OPENING YOURSELF TO GOD’S GRACE, write: The Christophers, 5 Hanover Square, New York, NY 10004; or e-mail: