STOCKTON — Aaron Morris made quite an impression nine years ago when he moved into the east-central Stockton home of Leilanie Lagua.
“When he first came to us, he broke our water dispenser, he broke our microwave, dropped it on the floor,” Lagua recalled earlier this month. “He grabbed me. I got scratches.”
Morris, now 56, arrived at Lagua’s front door after Lagua signed on with an organization, California MENTOR, which pairs developmentally disabled adults with families that agree to bring them into a caring home for the long haul.
The years passed, however, and Lagua shared her love, and Morris became not just a visitor but a full-fledged family member who no longer breaks water dispensers. Instead, he loves to dance and play games and eat ice cream and cheese and, once in awhile, an entire jar of mayonnaise when no one is looking.
But early this year, Morris fell deathly ill. Hospice care was suggested and a “do not resuscitate” order was broached.
Lagua would hear nothing of it. She fought for Morris, and he recovered, and for her efforts, Lagua will be honored Wednesday in Phoenix as one of eight winners of a “Ripple of Hope” award during a ceremony hosted by the national MENTOR Network.
“To see him walking up and down stairs, and playing games, and spinning and dancing, this is a totally different person altogether,” said Nicole Barber-Harris, program director at California MENTOR. “I’m just overwhelmed at what they’ve done.”
Said Lagua: “Maybe it’s my calling. It’s just a contribution to the community.”
Lagua, 53, who works as a phlebotomist at St. Joseph’s Medical Center, has opened her home to others for years. Before Morris, she housed 37 foster youth over a 13-year span.
Morris, who is non-verbal, is about a foot taller than Lagua, has short brown hair and a gap-toothed smile. He is one of 45 individuals placed in Stockton households by California MENTOR. Eleven more live in nearby communities. Mentors receive staff support as well as stipends ranging from $1,000 to $3,000 a month.
“You have to have a heart to do this,” Lagua said. “It’s not all about money.”
Said Barber-Harris: “We are looking for mentors every day to provide care for individuals with developmental disabilities.”
But Lagua almost lost Morris.
More than nine months ago, Morris learned that his father had died. Not long after, Lagua noticed that his stomach had become swollen. Soon he was vomiting, and one night he was unable to breathe, so Lagua took him to St. Joseph’s.
There was no immediate relief. Morris’ legs became swollen and he was barely able to move. Doctors diagnosed a blood clot in his liver, and fluids needed to be drained.
Morris spent more than a week in the intensive-care unit and started yanking out the tubes that were connected to him. Doctors did not want to operate, Lagua recalled, and talk turned to palliative care. Morris refused the food brought to him by nurses.
There was, however, one person he responded to.
“He wouldn’t eat for any of the nurses,” California MENTOR program coordinator Maria Mikki Simmons said. “But when she brought him food, he ate. He wouldn’t stand up for any of the nurses. But when she was there he stood up. He wouldn’t do anything for them. But whenever she was there, which was all the time, he did whatever she asked.”
Finally, after more than a month, St. Joseph sent Morris home with hospice care. Lagua set him up in her living room, her goal to keep him comfortable. Morris surprised everyone. He began feeling better.
“You could tell once he got home he just wanted to be here, and he wanted to go upstairs to his room,” Simmons recalled. “Hospice said he didn’t need them anymore.”
As Simmons told the story, Morris stood up, and she asked him to dance. He smiled as she spun him around, and they held each other’s hands and jumped.
It isn’t always easy, Lagua acknowledged, but the good moments make it worthwhile. When asked why she does it, Lagua answered cryptically.
“I’m saving a room upstairs,” she said. “That’s what I always say.”
What, Lagua was asked, did she mean by upstairs?
“In heaven, maybe,” she said.
California MENTOR is always looking for families open to hosting their clients. The organization is based at 1755 West Hammer Lane, #2. To reach California MENTOR by phone, call (209) 957-4310.
Contact reporter Roger Phillips at (209) 546-8299 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @rphillipsblog.