Connor Montoya, 9, background left, and Xander Montoya, 6, background right, do schoolwork with the rest of the family at their home in Gilroy, Calif., on Friday, Oct. 23, 2015. (LiPo Ching/Bay Area News Group)
By BRUCE NEWMAN | Mercury News, Bay Area News Group
PUBLISHED: December 2, 2015 at 3:32 am | UPDATED: October 11, 2016 at 5:19 pm
GILROY — Asking for help has never come easily to Leah and Vincent Montoya, whose lives largely have been dedicated to serving their country — and the needs of their four children. The couple met in the military while training to be in the Navy hospital corps, and it was during their boot-camp courtship that Leah began to experience a tingling in her toes that she was pretty sure wasn’t caused by romantic feelings for Vincent.
When she went to the Navy base hospital, she saw a large sign advising that numbness of the feet was common during boot camp. “So I never brought it up,” Leah says.
It would be another four years before Leah, now 36, was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, and nearly a decade until a fall in the shower left her wheelchair bound, in 2013. It was also about that time when Vincent’s migraine headaches began. That marked the beginning of health problems so devastating that she and Vincent — who quit his job and dropped out of college to become his wife’s primary caregiver — now are both disabled.
The couple’s health problems have taken a toll on their four children — Ce’Leah, 15, Tyson, 14, Connor, 9, and Xander, 6 — all of whom have special needs. The family’s home is not properly equipped to meet their physical requirements and lacks a ramp for Leah’s wheelchair.
The parents also would like to turn a currently unusable room into a study. Now, it can only be entered through an outdoor courtyard, the door has come off its hinges, the window is broken, and the room is inaccessible to Leah because there’s no wheelchair ramp. The kids are envisioning something more like a game room with computers. No matter who wins that titanic struggle, refurbishing the room and making the house wheelchair-accessible is where Wish Book readers can help.
“This is such a humble family,” wrote Helen Liggins, the family’s care coordinator at Unity Care, a nonprofit that offers a wide range of services for at-risk families. Liggins nominated the Montoyas for Wish Book to help make the much needed improvements to their house.
“When I see the conditions of their home and the love the family has for one another, I cannot think of another family more deserving of help,” she wrote.
Leah’s disability has forced the rest of the tight-knit family to pitch in, especially at dinnertime, when one of the children might do some food prep, another gets the dishes out and prepares the table, and Vincent is often the one to pull the whole thing together. “I can’t cook,” he concedes. “It’s not for lack of trying. But with her down, I have to cook a lot more. So it’s become a whole family thing.”
“Even the little ones help,” said Tyson, who has been diagnosed with autism. “When she gets tired and has to lie down, we come in and take over.”
Vincent suffers from chronic migraine headaches and struggles with car sickness, which is exacerbated by the hours he spends every day driving the couple’s children to events and doctor’s appointments.
“Since she became a paraplegic,” he says of Leah, “I pretty much had to call a halt to everything to help the family. I told her early in our marriage that her job was to just get better. Then I found out that maybe she couldn’t do that so much.”
In spite of all the obstacles they face daily, both parents have gone back to school part time. Leah drives a specially equipped van to take classes in human communications at Cal State Monterey Bay, and she hopes to write a book one day.
“There are definitely overwhelming moments,” Leah said.
“But we make it work,” Vincent added.
The kids are being home-schooled, despite Ce’Leah’s proficiency in a STEM program she was enrolled in before the family moved to Gilroy. The family currently has no computers, and they would welcome a couple of laptops for Ce’Leah and Tyson to work on — and occasionally tinker with. “We can take it apart, look at the motherboard, switch stuff around and put it back together,” she says.
Their parents don’t want the kids to fall behind just because they lack the proper tools. “I try to encourage them because there are so many stereotypes about African-American children,” Leah says. “I want them to see me going to school and realize anything is doable.”
But first they need a proper study — and occasional playroom — that the kids can colonize as their own.
“With the mom’s health issues coming on them so quickly, the kids are very isolated,” Liggins said. “They’ve seen mom go from being healthy to a wheelchair, and right now the confidence is not there. If we can give them tangible things the kids can see — a better couch to sit on or a new computer — it could make a huge difference.”
The rest of the house needs repairs, too. The bathroom needs to be renovated to allow wheelchair access; the washer, dryer and refrigerator need replacing; and the den with the family’s only television has sustained water damage. The kids’ bedrooms are in desperate need of new carpets and a coat of paint.
“My chair is big and bulky, and the hallways are narrow,” Leah said. “Sometimes I end up taking a chunk out of the wall. It looks really bad, so we need to get the walls repainted.”
For most families, these are basic necessities, which is why the Montoyas are reluctant to ask for help to fix up the empty room. But Wish Book readers could make a real difference in the lives of these military veterans. Donations — in increments large and small — would help give them what author Ernest Hemingway called “a clean, well-lighted place” to read and write.
“We are bookworms through and through,” Leah says. “We would love to be able to turn it into a nice little library.”
WISH NO. 6
Donations will go toward repairing Leah and Vincent Montoya’s house, including installing a ramp at the front entrance, renovating the bathroom for wheelchair access, and repairing an unusable den. Donate at wishbook.mercurynews.com/2015/montoya.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
To learn more about Unity Care, go to www.unitycare.org.