By Taylor Provost
“I’ve always felt like I was just a chauffeur for a celebrity,” Bradley local Beth Kirkman said of her 18-year-old son, Michael Santella. Michael’s celebrity status has become more than apparent in the recent months, as surrounding community has come together to support him and his family in his final moments.
Due to Michael’s Down Syndrome, he was denied life insurance. This didn’t seem to be an immediate problem until this past August, when Beth and family found out that their time with Michael was more limited than they expected.
Growing up, health never came easily to Michael. He had several complications over the years that led to a buildup of scar tissue in his lungs, making breathing a challenge. But Michael had always beaten the odds.
“I fully expected him to [live] into his forties, fifties, sixties,” Beth said. In August when she was told by Michael’s doctor that he was to be put on to hospice care with an expectancy of just a few months left, she was shocked.
“He wasn’t supposed to be here now, though,” Christina Santella, Michael’s sister, pointed out.
While Michael’s family had become accustomed to his fighting spirit and beating the odds, his recent health deterioration has not diminished their pride in him.
“He hasn’t let anyone down,” Beth said.
Though the question remained, how could a memorial service fit for Michael be affordable without life insurance?
“When I found out the cost of the funeral I thought, ‘Oh, this is a problem,’” Beth said.
Since Beth’s family found out the news in August they received a lot of support from the community. Fundraisers were held in honor of Michael by various local organizations and donations were made to the family without Beth ever asking, but even with the funds raised over the last few months, an affordable funeral was still a bit out of reach. Having already received so much help and support from others, Beth had “deep reservations” about asking for anything more.
A friend of Beth’s suggested setting up a donation page for Michael on youcaring.com, a website that allows you to virtually collect donations from around the world for causes such as these. However, Beth was very reluctant to ask for donations. She didn’t really consider making a page on You-Caring until she came across an article that showed how much money was successfully able to be raised through the website for the funeral of a young boy hero recently featured in the news.
“I thought, ‘well, what the heck.’” Without any real expectations, Beth decided to make a donation page for Michael. But at the last step of making the page she saw that it had to be shared on Facebook, and she didn’t want all the people who had already helped their family to feel obligated to do anything more, so she deleted the page and went to bed. After lying in bed for an hour, though, she thought “OK, fine.” She shared the page on Facebook and in less than 48 hours $4,000 came in.
“The support has been overwhelming,” Beth said. “Former students, friends, coworkers, perfect strangers . . . and from all over the world. People we don’t even know. This one lady from England sent a dollar, and there was one [donation] that was like, $6.32. I just imagine there’s some little kid counting their pennies, or somebody that that’s all they can afford out of their budget. I just started crying; those quirky numbers really got me.”
Within a week of sharing Michael’s page the family was only $1,000 short of their $12,000 goal, which they have since reached. Beth plans to use whatever extra money she receives towards setting up a memorial scholarship at Bradley Bourbonnais Community High School for students planning on majoring in Special Education.
“Hospice said they never heard of such community,” she said. “It’s just been very humbling.”
Even people who haven’t been able to provide monetary support have gone out of their way to show kindness to Beth and her family.
“It’s not all money,” Christina said, and Beth agreed. “It’s the prayers; just the kind words.”
But all the attention Michael has been receiving lately hardly feels out of the ordinary to him, always having been a popular guy.
“Everyone knows Michael; nobody ever forgets him,” Christina said.
Beth explained that while Michael is aware of the situation to an extent, he sees all the recent attention and gestures as a big party.
One specific instance that Michael really enjoyed was getting paid a visit by the Acting Out Theater Company and watching The Wizard of Oz with them as they were dressed up as the characters – Michael adores The Wizard of Oz.
“He thinks he’s gonna jump on the trampoline with Jesus,” Beth chuckled. “Pretty much the only thing holding him here is his strong spirit.”
He understands that the days are growing shorter, though, as he explains to his family “Michael go home.”
“When he says home, he’s talking about Heaven,” Christina explained. “He knows.”
Through many tears, Michael and his family have found many reasons to smile, an extremely supportive community being one of them.
“This whole experience has just been amazing,” Beth said. “We are very lucky.”