MONTREAL - Ann Paraskevopoulos had a special surprise for her son Philip when she picked him up from school Tuesday afternoon. The 13-year-old boy, who has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair, grinned from ear to ear when he saw what was in the parking lot at the Mackay Centre.
It was his family’s 1999 Dodge Caravan, which had been stolen on March 10 from a Walmart parking lot in LaSalle. The theft of the van had been devastating for the Verdun family because they need it to transport Philip to medical appointments and family outings.
“Philip, you are mobile again – you have your van back,” his mother said after kissing her son’s face.
After his mother and sister Jennifer placed the wheelchair into the van, Philip said there was only one place that he wanted to go: “Future Shop,” he blurted out.
The family’s stolen van had been discovered by Allan Zinman, an honest scrapyard dealer who had inadvertently purchased it for $400. After reading about the family’s plight in The Gazette, Zinman called the paper to say he had the van in Iberville. Philip’s mother and sister picked up the van Tuesday morning and drove it back to Montreal. Zinman and the owner of a towing company paid for a new ignition, which had been damaged in the theft. Zinman also gave the family two summer tires and said he would try to find them two others.
For many years, the family used public transit or adapted transport to take Philip to medical appointments or to visit friends. But their luck changed last September when another family with a disabled child gave them a used minivan that had been adapted for passengers in wheelchairs. It meant that instead of an hour's ride on the school bus each way - the bus makes detours to pick up other children - Philip got a 15-minute ride to school from his older sister, Jennifer.
Paraskevopoulos said the van had given her family a freedom they had never had before.
After a story about the theft appeared in The Gazette, the newspaper and the Sun Youth Organization received at least 30 emails from generous Montrealers offering to help.
“Two senior citizens came in and gave us $10 or $15 from their savings – they insisted we take it,” said Sid Stevens, Sun Youth’s executive director.
Several other people offered to pay for repairs to the van following the theft, along with a $364 charge for towing and storage.
“This family is already dealing with a handicapped child,” Stevens said. “The van was the only way they had to get around. Montrealers felt that the family was devastated by this and they wanted to help.”
Money donated to Sun Youth will cover any repairs or upgrades the van may need. The remaining donations will be given to the family in the form of gas certificates, Stevens said.
A spokesperson for the police in St. Jean sur Richelieu said officers are still trying to locate the thief. “An investigation in ongoing,” she said.
Philip’s mother said she has been overwhelmed by all the kind offers of help for her family.
“Thank you, from the bottom of my heart,” she said. “There are no words to say how thankful we are all. You saw Philip’s face. He is so excited.”
Having the van back means Philip will be able to get out of the house more often, his mother said. “He knows now that he can get out,” she said. “Philip is a real character. He deserves to have his van back.”.....Well at least that somewhat of a happy ending to a weird ordeal,