The gift of life

Matt Conallen practices a shot before the competition starts at Holy Family University. MARIA POUCHNIKOVA / TIMES PHOTO

Bennett Pellegrino has spent the first six-plus months of his life confined to a hospital. Thanks to the generosity and selflessness of a few Holy Family University students, he will have more friends than most when he comes home soon for the first time.

Bennett was born on June 12 at Abington Memorial Hospital, 15 weeks before he was due to arrive. His mother, Mary, a teacher in the Central Bucks School District, said her firstborn was the size of a jar of jam, weighing just one pound, two ounces. As a result of being born so prematurely, Bennett dealt with an intestinal perforation and a liver hematoma, and was transferred to Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia when he was 11 days old to go through a litany of operations to help save his life.

Mary’s husband, Greg, is a sports information director at Holy Family, which essentially means he deals in the public relations arena of the university’s athletic teams. Most of his job involves helping student-athletes behind the scenes, including traveling with teams to road games and writing press releases based on all pertinent athletic news.

So Greg Pellegrino was a bit surprised when, around the start of the fall semester, some students approached him about the possibility of involving Bennett for a semester long class project. The class, called Facilities and Event Management (within the sports marketing management program), involved nine senior undergraduates who were tasked with planning and executing an event with some sort of charity background.

“We found out about Bennett over the summer, and Greg was the first person who came to mind,” said Maggie Serratelli, a member of the class and the Holy Family women’s basketball team. “I can honestly say that Greg is one of the sweetest people I have ever met, and we made every effort to be there for him and his family.”

Because of Greg’s position in the athletic department, Serratelli and her classmates soon settled on the perfect event: a 3-on-3 basketball tournament. After almost four months of planning, the event came to fruition on Dec. 11 at the university’s Campus Center. Whatever the expectations were at the outset were blown through the roof.

“I just think it’s amazing how this community has supported us and Bennett,” Greg said. “It’s truly amazing. I was speechless and taken a bit off guard at first, because I’m not used to being on the other side of things. Usually, I’m the one behind the scenes, and now I’m on the receiving end. They are a great group of kids.”

“When Greg told me about it, I cried,” Mary Pellegrino said. “To know you have this school community approaching your family about adopting your son, you can’t describe what that feels like. This class took a serious situation and turned it into a massive celebration. I don’t know if anyone is as blessed as we are to have those kids and these people stand behind our little guy. It’s a life-altering event.”

Most of the teams in the “Buckets 4 Bennett” tournament were past and present students and athletes at the school. University coaches were also involved, and perhaps the biggest smiles from the family, standing along the baseline under one of the baskets, came when three of Bennett’s uncles — Greg’s brother, Stephen; Mary’s brother, David Buchanan; and Greg’s oldest friend, John Eames, formed their own team and lost to a trio of all-conference Holy Family women’s basketball players.

“That was the most fun I’ve had in years of athletic competition,” Buchanan said, despite his team’s loss. “People were there for all the right reasons, and it was the first time Greg and Mary could relax and enjoy themselves, because someone else was handling it.”

“They aren’t a family that deserves this difficulty,” Eames added. “But they’re surviving, and handling it with the utmost respect.”

As far as Bennett goes, the little guy must feel all of the support, because his condition has improved since his premature birth. He recently turned 6 months old, and despite multiple surgeries to his liver, intestines, heart and eyes, he’s on the road to recovery. Bennett now weighs eight pounds and is able to breathe on his own; he loves to be held and sleep on his belly, and, “His pacifier is the key to everything good in life,” Mary said. “Now, we’ve got more ‘normal’ baby stuff going on, despite the fact that we’re watching a fetus develop outside of my womb.”

Once Bennett is able to “nail the food thing,” as his mom put it, he should be able to come home. Doctors at CHOP, whom both parents praised extensively (Mary urged anyone reading this story to make a donation to the hospital if compelled), have been careful not to rush Bennett’s recovery, but the family was told recently by hospital staff to “make sure the nursery is ready,” which is medical code saying that Bennett is close to coming home for the first time.

When he does, he will have a lifetime of getting to know his new friends and supporters to look forward to. Because he was born so prematurely, Bennett will likely be affected by his condition going forward in his life, to which degree the family is still unsure. And while the last six months or so have put Greg and Mary — and their extended families — through the emotional wringer, there’s finally some light at the end of the tunnel, in large part due to so many in the Holy Family community extending a helping hand.

“It will be a great memento for Bennett when he’s older, knowing these people cheered him on,” Mary said. “This is what community is … this is what it looks like.”

Despite living hours away, both sets of Bennett’s grandparents attended the event, and admitted to being blown away by the outcome.

“The neat thing is that this support, it’s not from either of their extended families,” said Dave Buchanan, Mary’s father. “This is Greg’s network, his community, and what’s so beautiful is that our children have built the kinds of relationships and friendships that are now coming back their way. I can admire and appreciate that.”

“As parents and grandparents, we give them all of the love and support we can,” added Tom Pellegrino, Greg’s father. “We want to help make it all better, but we can’t. There’s nothing we can do but keep giving our support. So what they’ve done here … it’s simply amazing.”

The event raised $1,500 for the Bennett Strong Foundation, which eclipsed the class’ original goal of $1,000. Local businesses such as Santucci’s Pizza and the Soft Pretzel Factory donated food for the event, which included a deejay and raffle prizes from the Phillies, 76ers and Flyers, as well as other items such as movie passes and rounds of golf. Aside from an activities grant given by the university, the class itself had no budget to work with and had to solicit everything through donations.

“I was definitely blown away by such a special night,” said Sal DeAngelis, the course’s adjunct professor who is currently the director of Operations/Security for the Phillies. “I liken it to a natural disaster. When Hurricane Sandy hit, yeah, it was awful, but then you see people coming from all over to help. That’s when it becomes more than a tragedy … it becomes people working together toward one goal. That’s what happened here with Bennett.”

“It’s absolutely great to see,” said Stephen Rocco, the class’ project manager. “To put in all that work and to have the day finally come … it’s almost like Christmas in a way.”

In the end, the event itself won’t be enough to suddenly and miraculously make Bennett’s health issues disappear. But if you talk to the family, they’ll tell you that all of the positive vibes and well-wishes meant more than anyone can imagine in aiding Bennett’s recovery. Whether it was family cooking for them so they could spend more time with Bennett at the hospital, friends taking them out of the house to get the couple’s mind off things for a few hours or simply a stranger offering encouragement in-person or through the blog that Mary and Greg have kept to update folks on Bennett’s progress (link below).

When stacked against such unfathomable elements, it often takes a village to get those suffering through the darkest periods.

“I was in the hospital for a week, and when I came home, we had so much food that there was nowhere to put it,” Mary said. “It’s a great symbol of where we’ve been and all the love and care and support that has come our way. It does take a huge weight off our shoulders.

“It’s just a lot of thanks and awe. You know you don’t always have to be OK in front of everybody, and it is fine to have a bad day. But we see the wristbands people wear, we see them in their ‘Bennett Strong’ T-shirts, we see them following our blog … those things say everything without actually having to.”

“It’s a comforting feeling, knowing there’s people out there watching out for them,” said Pat Pellegrino, Greg’s mother. “We have our arms around them. We can say thank you, but it will never be enough.”

The Pellegrinos are hoping Bennett makes it home in time for Christmas. It could be then or it could be sometime in January, but they know that after everything they’ve been through, their firstborn son is that much closer to coming home with mom and dad.

They may never be able to thank Holy Family for everything the school did for their son, but that’s OK, too, because those involved aren’t searching for gratitude or thanks; rather, they know it was just the right thing to do, and in a small, close-knit community like Holy Family, doing the right thing for the person next to you just becomes second nature.

“We don’t know how it will be for Bennett when he’s older. We just know that he’s our son, and God’s got a plan for him,” Mary Pellegrino said. “We haven’t figured out yet what that is, and right now it’s not our right to know. All we can do is love and support him and provide him with every opportunity we can, and this event helps do that.

“Actions speak louder than words, and those kids in this class nailed it. They nailed it. They don’t have to say anything, because they just did it.” ••

To follow Bennett Pellegrino’s progress, log on to www.caringbridge.org/visit/bennettpellegrino

Charitable competition: Brian Devlin shoots a three-pointer at the Bennett Strong fundraiser basketball competition. MARIA POUCHNIKOVA / TIMES PHOTO

The strength of family: Holy Family University sports information director Greg Pellegrino sits with his wife, Mary, and son, Bennett, at Children’s Hospital of Pennsylvania. The infant weighed just one pound, two ounces when he was born and has undergone many operations to help save his life. PHOTO COURTESY OF THE PELLEGRINO FAMILY