With graduation, freedom returns

When his specially equipped van died, friends and classmates raised money to buy a new one.

Posted: June 18, 2007

They called his name, and Joey Grady moved across the field to accept his Cherokee High School diploma.

The cheers were deafening.

"Way to go, Joe!" screamed Tim Pereira, Grady's stepfather. His mother, Michele, beamed, clapping hard, whooping and snapping photos.

These are heady days for Joey, 17 – the graduation, a big party this weekend in his honor, college in the fall.

But the most exciting thing is the prospect of freedom, something he hasn't had in 10 months.

Joey has spinal muscular atrophy, an often-fatal neuromuscular disorder that destroys the nerves controlling muscle movement. He uses an electric wheelchair to get around, and for 12 years, his family relied on a lumbering Ford Econoline van outfitted with a lift to drive him to the movies, or out to dinner, or to visit friends.

Last August, the van died. Leaking gas and dripping oil, its radiator and engine were shot. The cost of a new vehicle - $50,000 or more - was beyond his family's reach. So aside from rides to school provided by the Lenape Regional District, Joey has been stuck at home.

But when friends, classmates and strangers found out about Joey's predicament, a remarkable thing happened. Organizing benefit concerts and auctions and private donations, they banded together to raise the money the Gradys needed for a new van.

Michele Grady has done the preliminaries - gone car shopping, sent paperwork to Joey's doctor. By the fall, when Joey heads to Camden County College to study Web and graphic design, he should be able to drive himself, using special hand controls.

Michele is overwhelmed by the support her family has received.

"It's heartwarming," she said. "It's way more than I would have expected."

For Joey, a quiet, smart teenager with a penchant for movies and online video games, it's also been a revelation.

"It's good to see that people care and will do that kind of stuff," he said.

Especially good, Joey said, because the past months have been something of a trial.

"I'm home a lot," he said. Other than school, he's confined to places within wheelchair riding distance. A few local shops are within range, but the lack of transportation has definitely cramped the family's style.

"We spent Thanksgiving at home. We spent Christmas at home. Joey hasn't really seen anybody in a long time," said his mother, a jewelry designer.

Joey's adapted by having friends over, working on his Web design, including creating and maintaining "Wheels for Joey," the fund-raising site. He's also been renting a ton of movies – he's a big film fan, and is dying to see Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End.

Is he going stir crazy? Joey lets a smile slip.

"A little," he said.

That Joey has inspired so much generosity in her students does not surprise Cherokee principal Linda Rohrer. Joey would never ask for help himself, she said, but once word got out to the students that one of their own was going through a rough patch, they sprang into action.

"The kids did everything themselves," Rohrer said. "It was fabulous. This is the most charitable group of kids - any time you try to do something good, they're all in. They haven't taken for granted that they have more than others."

And Joey himself?

"It's a pleasure having him at Cherokee," Rohrer said. "Teachers think the world of him."

Steve Shaklee was the faculty liaison for the "Marlton Music Fest" concert, the brainchild of students Mike Medved and Shane Coleman. The youths approached Shaklee, saying they wanted to pitch in for their friend.

"They just wanted to help," Shaklee said. "They put up ads all over the place. They lined up the musical acts. And they were very good about talking to Joey – he's not one who likes the spotlight. They worked with him."

And the help keeps coming. Recently, a Marlton farm offered to host a "Wheels for Joey" day, donating all of its proceeds for one day to the van fund. To date, more than $51,000 has been raised. Money raised beyond the cost of the van will help defray Joey's college and future medical or adaptive expenses.

But Joey much prefers to talk about regular-guy stuff - his friends, college, his interests.

And this weekend, on the clear, calm night of his graduation, he was abuzz. He had hoped to have the van in time to drive himself, but was philosophical about another few months' wait.

"It seems like this day would never come," he said.

Just physically arriving at Cherokee's stadium was no small feat. Getting Joey and his 300-pound chair into a borrowed minivan takes about a half-hour, a considerable amount of muscle, and 70-pound ramps. Because the van's floor wasn't as low as he needed, Joey had to lie down to get in and for the entire 10-minute ride. Getting out was even more precarious.

All that seemed to fade as Joey rode onto the field, assisted by his aide, Mike Sweeney. He sat on the field, soaking up the ceremony.

"Take this time and savor it," class president Michael Giuliano said. "You will never have another moment like it."

Contact reporter Kristen A. Graham at 215-854-5146 or kgraham@phillynews.com. To comment or to ask a question, go to http://go.philly.com/schooltalk.

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