After Vonnie Schaffer and her husband, Tom, lost their son Michael Ryan Schaffer, in 2013, it changed the Indian Rocks Beach couple’s lives forever. Michael, who was born with a rare form of dwarfism, was only supposed to live three weeks, but ended up living to be 23. His memory is the driving force behind Vonnie’s campaign to bring an Angel of Hope to Largo.
INDIAN ROCKS BEACH – When Michael Ryan Schaffer was born, the doctors at All Children’s Hospital told Vonnie Schaffer her son would only live about three days.
So, Vonnie and her husband, Tom, had the family come to say hello and goodbye for the last time to Michael, who was born with a rare form of dwarfism called campomelic dysplasia that causes bowing of the bones and skeletal abnormalities.
When Michael made it to the three-day mark, the doctors told Vonnie that he would probably only last a week.
So, again, Vonnie and Tom brought the family back to say goodbye.
But Michael wasn’t going anywhere just yet.
“He was supposed to live three days,” said Vonnie Schaffer of Indian Rocks Beach. “And then he was supposed to live three weeks. Then he was supposed to live three months. And he lived to be 23. So, we were very blessed.”
April 13 was the fourth anniversary of Michael’s death and while he may no longer be physically present, the pain that his absence creates remains for Vonnie.
She knows other parents feel the same pain, which is why she and friend Melanie Kuklis of Indian Rocks Beach have started a GoFundMe campaign to raise $16,000 to bring an Angel of Hope to Serenity Gardens Memorial Park in Largo. The 4-foot statue, which would be the first in Pinellas County, would serve as a sanctuary for grieving parents and give them an opportunity to connect with one another as they visit the memorial.
“I don’t think that my children are like floating around as angels up there,” she said. “But I just think it’s a wonderful memorial to have people be able to go to and just sit or just go once a year and all gather together and just meet people and know that they are not the only ones. Because it hurts. And it gets a little easier every year, but it still hurts. Even if you’ve lost a child 20 years ago, it’s still your baby. It’s still part of you, whether you birthed them or not.”
The statues, which are inspired by the best-selling book and television movie “The Christmas Box” by Richard Paul Evans, have been placed around the world and are the sites of vigils that are held each year on Dec. 6.
Schaffer hopes the statue will be in place by that time, but it takes three months to cast once ordered, which is why she hopes they can raise the money by June or July.
W. Jay Hering, general manager of Serenity Gardens, which is at 13401 Indian Rocks Road, does as well.
“We are really privileged and honored that they came to us,” he said. “We feel that it is very important to give back to the community. I was personally drawn to this and thought it would be a good way to reach out to families who have lost a child in our community that are sometimes a little forgotten.”
Besides contributing the land, Hering said Serenity Gardens also will be spending about $6,000 for the statue’s granite base and inscription.
Driven by love
When the statue does arrive, Schaffer said it will be Michael’s face and smile she sees.
“Michael was a blessing,” she said. “He was beautiful. He didn’t speak, but he lit up a room. He just had that glowing beautiful thing about him. He was pretty amazing.”
Despite him only growing to be 46 inches long and 40 pounds, she said he made a big impression on those around him.
“For a child that never talked or walked, he’s changed a lot of lives,” she said with a tear in her eye. “He was just a beautiful person. You just wanted to be around him.”
But Michael won’t be the only one on her mind.
Shortly after getting married, Vonnie’s first pregnancy ended in tragedy at 20 weeks when her baby was stillborn.
Nine years after Michael was born, the Schaffers felt they had more love to give, so they looked to adopt another child with dwarfism.
That’s when they got the call about Jonathan from the Little People of America.
“They said, ‘He’s like your son. He’s campomelic.’ Which is just like unheard of,” Schaffer said. “So we just kind of knew that it was a sign from God that we were supposed to do this.”
The couple drove to Sarasota Memorial Hospital and met with Jonathan’s mother, who already had four children and couldn’t properly care for him because he was on a ventilator.
“We saw him and my husband said, ‘You know we can’t leave him there,’” Schaffer said. “And I was like I know.”
Despite knowing that any day could be his last, they brought him home anyway. He died three months later and was buried at Serenity Gardens.
“We knew he wasn’t going to live, but we wanted to just love him,” she said. “We brought him home and had him home for three months and just loved on him.”
But just because they only had him for three months doesn’t mean losing him was any easier for Schaffer.
“It was very emotionally hard,” she said. “It was also just the right thing to do. It just felt right. To have this little baby in the world, who has nobody and is alone. We knew how to take care of him.”
‘We just have loved all of them’
A few months later they received another call about another baby in California who had a milder form of dwarfism.
Out of 20 families who were hoping to adopt 3-month-old Joey, the Schaffers were chosen. Joey is now 17 and, despite facing several health problems, including autism, Vonnie remains grateful for what Joey and Michael brought into her life. They also inspired her to get involved in Make A Difference Fishing, which is a nonprofit dedicated to helping children with disabilities through fishing tournaments and other programs.
“I know it sounds like we’ve had a lot of loss and a lot of trouble, but we’ve also been very blessed,” Vonnie said. “We just have loved all of them. That’s all you can do. That’s all any parent can do.”
The love she has for her children is the reason she wants to remember them, and she thinks the Angel of Hope can help other parents do the same.