FDNY Delivers Gifts to Disabled Students at International Academy of Hope in Harlem

NY Daily News - December 19, 2014

by Ben Kochman

Luciana Vera hadn’t smiled in weeks. But the disabled 8-year-old beamed Wednesday as New York City’s Bravest bestowed bushels of gifts upon her and classmates.

“She has her good days and her bad days,” said Luciana’s mother Alexandra Vera, as her daughter unwrapped a stuffed rabbit. “Today was definitely a good day.”

Luciana was among 24 students at the International Academy of Hope in Harlem who got a thrilling Christmas surprise when the FDNY dispatched Santa Claus to deliver stuffed animals, art supplies and even a bubble machine.

EMT Christopher Ramos disguised himself as St. Nick, while others from Emergency Medical Service Station 13 donned reindeer ears to dole out the toys.

“There isn’t a better organization in the city to come out and bring cheer, joy and love to our kids and our staff,” said the school’s founder Patrick Donohue.

Nicknamed “iHope,” the institution is the city’s only specialized school for students with brain injuries.

Donohue, 44, opened it last fall — six years after he formed the Sarah Jane Brain Foundation to combat brain injuries in children.

He was inspired by his 9-year-old daughter, Sarah Jane, who suffered brain trauma in 2005 after she was violently shaken by a nurse at only 5 days old.

The case received massive media attention, including the cover of the Daily News. The nurse was sentenced to 10 years in prison.

Donohue has since testified before Congress in his bid to identify, treat and cure youth brain injuries.

The next step in that process in doubling the amount of kids at the Harlem school by next fall, Donohue said.

He should have no shortage of applicants.

More than 3,000 students in the city school system have brain injuries, according to the school’s calculation, which it bases on hospitalization rates from the Center for Disease Control.

Such students are spread out among city public schools, where they are often not given the attention they need, school staff members said.

Grateful parents at iHope agree.

Aine Carroll said her 8-year-old daughter, Grace-Anne, is finally making a connection at school.

“She was at other schools where she would just listen to ‘Sesame Street,’ ” Carroll said.

“Because this was started by a dad who has a kid like this, he knows what they really need.”