By Bethany Bray
---- — SALEM — Laura Pacheco estimates that she lifts her 14-year-old, 95-pound son in and out of her minivan about six times each day.
It’s an intentional choice. Although she doesn’t have a handicapped-accessible vehicle, Pacheco makes a point to include her eldest son, Dominick, in all of the family’s activities, from trips to school to Little League and taekwondo.
Dominick suffered a brain injury at birth that left him severely disabled — he cannot speak, and he cannot sit or stand on his own. However, he’s very social and loves being near people and out of the house.
“He doesn’t like to be alone. He likes to be out and about with people,” his mother said. “... He can’t do much, but what he can do, he enjoys.”
The Pachecos have entered Dominick in an online contest to win a wheelchair-accessible van. They’re hoping he will receive enough votes from friends, family and the community to come out on top.
The prize — a van that would accommodate Dominick’s wheelchair and keep Laura from having to lift him in and out — would change their lives dramatically, she said.
“I’m just afraid one of these days he’s going to be too big for me to pick up and we’ll be housebound. I don’t want to give away his freedom,” Laura said. “We’ll both be miserable. This is a kid that’s on the go.”
Laura and Carlos Pacheco also have three other sons, CJ, 9; Ramsey, 7; and Vincent, 6. The contest prize, a full-size conversion van, would be able to transport the entire family, Laura said.
With a price tag of $50,000 or more, a wheelchair-accessible van has been financially out of reach for the Pachecos.
Laura heard from a friend about the online contest, organized by the National Mobility Equipment Dealers Association to mark National Mobility Awareness Month. The nonprofit trade association, based in Florida, has 600 members who sell, manufacture or otherwise specialize in transportation options for people with disabilities.
Dominick is one of more than 500 contest entrants from across the United States and Canada. In the first four weeks of voting, Dominick has received more than 3,700 votes.
“(Dominick) comes from a big family that really loves him,” said Maureen Carey, a registered nurse who spends 40 hours a week with Dominick. “They feel that nothing is too much to do for him. He’s included in everything; he’s a very big part of everyone’s life.”
Dominick suffered a lack of oxygen to his brain at birth from a condition called vasa previa, in which blood vessels within the placenta or umbilical cord are trapped between the fetus and the opening of the birth canal. His numerous medical conditions, from respiratory trouble to seizures, require a nurse caregiver seven days a week.
Over the course of his life, he’s had more than 30 surgeries and countless medical procedures. Laura takes him to a continual stream of medical appointments.
He makes up for having limited sight with a keen sense of hearing. Dominick loves listening to his brothers and is very perceptive as to what’s going on in the room, Laura says.
Dominick — like any teenage older brother — “cracks up laughing” when he hears his brothers getting into trouble, she said.
“He’s very nosy. He likes to know what’s going on,” Laura says, breaking into a smile. “He’s a happy guy, considering all he’s been through.”
Turning to Dominick, who was in the room during a Salem News interview, Laura said, “You have a lot to be angry about, but you’re pretty happy.”
Dominick, hearing his mother, responded with a smile.
Among the shelves of medical supplies in Dominick’s brightly colored bedroom are posters, stuffed animals and stickers that read “rock star” on his bed.
The family recently got a puppy — an eventual therapy dog for Dominick, Laura said.
Laura recently completed classes to do foster care; she says she’d like to open their home to special needs youths, like Dominick. Previously, Laura was in nursing school but had to drop out when Dominick had major back surgery.
Laura and Carlos owned Salem Taxi before selling the business four years ago. They’ve lived in Salem since 1999 and previously lived in Peabody. Laura grew up in Beverly; Carlos grew up in Peabody after coming to the U.S. from the Dominican Republic as a teenager.
Dominick attends the Kevin O’Grady School at the North Shore Educational Consortium in Beverly, while his brothers go to Witchcraft Heights Elementary in Salem.
Last year, the family was able to travel to Walt Disney World in Florida through the Make-A-Wish Foundation.
“I haven’t seen him that happy in a long time,” Laura said of the trip.
Bethany Bray can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter @SalemNewsBB.
WANT TO HELP?
Salem 14-year-old Dominick Pacheco is in an online contest to win a wheelchair-accessible van. To vote, visit www.mobilityawarenessmonth.com and click on "enter or vote now" at the top of the page. Find Dominick by typing in his name or selecting Massachusetts in the "find a local hero" search field. You can vote once per day. Voting closes May 10, and winners will be announced May 31.