The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

Local News

March 16, 2014

Andra Bryan Stefanoni: Elementary school rallies to support student

PITTSBURG, Kan. — It was while visiting Lakeside Elementary last week to present a program that I noticed every teacher and many children wearing bright-blue T-shirts with an eye-catching slogan.

“James’ Journey” stated the slogan underneath a red heart composed of puzzle pieces.

The story that unfolded when I asked about the shirts is a prime example of the power of people at the most grass-roots level.

James Merando is a kindergarten student who at birth was diagnosed with a congenital heart defect. At 2 days old, he had a heart catheterization, and at a week, he had open heart surgery.

His preschool years were clouded by the worry that exposure to germs would bring on infection that he couldn’t fight in his weakened condition, and by the diagnosis that he also has autism.

“As a parent, I’ve learned how to be thankful for every day,” his mother, Lacee Merando, told me. “We didn’t know if he was going to make it.”

She’s been appreciative of the most basic of milestones: James, who was completely nonverbal, can count to 50, and he learned to write his first name last fall.

But he still has more trips to Children’s Mercy ahead of him, including another heart catheterization on Tuesday and open heart surgery in June — not the way anyone wants to spend a spring break or a summer vacation.

The family members have again rallied, as families often do, but it was what happened at school that left them humbled.

When kindergarten teacher Kim Diaz found out that Lacee was selling T-shirts to those who wanted to show their support, Diaz organized an effort among the Lakeside staff to purchase and wear them before school let out for spring break.

Principal Courtney McCartney got on board, as did paraprofessionals, the school psychologist and many others.

“We wanted to show him how much we care,” Diaz said.

Lacee, meanwhile, received a donation from her son’s physical therapist, Brian Pinamonti, and decided to use it to buy T-shirts for all of James’ classmates.

On Thursday, the kindergarten wing was a sea of bright blue and red.

“They are very protective of James,” his mom said of her son’s classmates. “It’s nothing anyone told them — that’s just how they are.”

Staff members from the Family Resource Center, where James attended preschool and received special services before kindergarten, also ordered shirts and took a photo for James.

Today, the Merando family members will travel to Kansas City. Lacee said they’ll be taking with them the love they feel from Pittsburg.

FOLLOW ANDRA BRYAN STEFANONI on Facebook at and on Twitter @AndraStefanoni.

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