Villa Marie Claire

Beating the Odds for a Life of Giving


Norman "David" Atkinson's parents looked at their young son and saw only his potential and what he could accomplish, what kind of a man he would be, and the joy and love he would share with those lucky enough to know him. They knew he would lead a full meaningful life, undeterred by his disability.

David has more than proven them right. He created an independent lifestyle, developed friendships, forged unbreakable bonds with his sisters, brother, nieces and nephews, and still managed to pour so much time into volunteer work that he has amassed a menu of awards for his efforts.

All this, despite having cerebral palsy. Just as his parents defied doctors' recommendations when David was 3, 4 and then again at 6 years old to place him in an institution, David, in turn, defied the odds.

"From the perspective of seven decades later, we can see that our parents' hopes and dreams for their firstborn son came true," said Elizabeth Vivenzio, David's sister.

For more than 42 years, David worked diligently to achieve a self-supporting life. More than half of those working years began each weekday at 4:30 a.m. to commute into New York City for his job with the United States Postal Service. He often didn't return home until 10 p.m. but complaining wasn't on his schedule.

At the same time, in fact for 45 years, David carved out time to help with the religious education program at St. John the Evangelist Church in Bergenfield. His simple task of holding open the heavy door for the children and greeting them warmly as they entered and exited the building prevented a host of injuries and brought a smile to the faces of countless little ones.

"This was one of the greatest joys of his life," Elizabeth said. "The church even dedicated a hallway in his name with a plaque to commemorate his volunteer work at the school."

David has also received a number of awards from the Diocese of Newark for his self-advocacy and his financial commitment to children, especially those with disabilities. In addition, the national and regional chapters of The ARC have recognized him for his contributions to the community as well as his own initiative towards independent living. His accomplishments were so noteworthy, David went on to become the first person with disabilities to sit on The ARC's board of trustees.

Although he is grateful for the awards, his fulfillment came from the giving itself. Through helping others, David's life has depth and meaning that spans generations and creates life-long memories.

Now, as a motor neuron disease, similar to ALS, has limited his movement and brought him to his final stages of life, David has moved into Villa Marie Claire and calls on those memories, his faith and religious traditions to continue celebrating the magnificent gift of life. His family wanted David to be in a peaceful, caring place and once at the Villa, David never passes on an opportunity to sing, pray and share precious moments with his family and friends.

"The health care team at the Villa is working cohesively to make him comfortable," Elizabeth said. "They understand his challenges and have tailored a plan for his optimal care. The nurses and aides are kind and compassionate as they care for someone with limited mobility. Also, he is able to benefit from the spiritual enrichment that is available to those who desire it at the Villa."

Villa Marie Claire has a number of volunteers who spend time and share their special talents with patients. David especially enjoys when one woman plays the harp and another the guitar as they all join with his family members in singing church hymns.

"The beautiful and peaceful surroundings of the Villa give comfort to him and our family," Elizabeth said. "We are so thankful to the entire staff for their compassion and care.

"David will always be known for his true grit, courage and strength of character," she said. "He overcame his disability to attain a successful and independent life, and his quiet resolve and determination are his legacy. Thank you to Villa Marie Claire for keeping his legacy alive during his journey."