The Connecticut chapter of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society (NMSS) serves more than 7,300 people with the condition. But, notes chapter president Lisa Gerrol, “Knowing MS is a disease that affects the entire family, the number of people we help is dramatically higher.” Among them is Casey Onaitis, 62, who was diagnosed with MS 28 years ago. The support he’s found through NMSS programs “keeps my illness bearable,” he says.
The Social Network
“Our mission is to help people affected by MS live their best lives,” says Gerrol. To that end, the Hartford-based organization provides essential one-on-one services like employment advocacy and health insurance counseling. But, as with any potentially isolating disease, connecting with others who “get it” is key. The society oversees 25 support groups targeted toward specific demographics, including people with MS ages 20 to 40, Spanish speakers and caregivers. “I am always on the lookout for things Casey can participate in,” says Onaitis’s younger sister, Nancy Esposito. “The MS Society has become a lifeline for Casey, for me, and for so many others in the MS community.”
Laser-focused on its mission to end MS by subsidizing pioneering medical research, the society’s fundraising efforts are ambitious. The annual MS Dinner of Champions (in November) salutes prominent athletes for their support; past honorees include Billie Jean King, Joe Namath and Mary Lou Retton. There are also nine MS Walks across the state in April and May. Family-friendly kickoff celebrations include face painting, karate demos and live music. All are accomplishable by those with MS.
In fact, some of the organization’s most inspiring activities are recreational outings where those with MS have fun—and get physical. For example, a ski trip to Hunter Mountain fosters lasting uplift. “The MS vacation week [held at a handicap-accessible CT camp] is wonderful,” says Onaitis, who has attended for eight summers. “The fellow campers are now my family.” Esposito calls such experiences “life changers” for her brother. “He was such a natural-born athlete. In recent years, I think his proudest moments came when he was able to water ski, during an MS Society weekend getaway.”
From funding a comprehensive, cutting-edge medical center (The Mandel Center for MS in Hartford), to a groundbreaking residential facility (The Lawry MS House Bridgeport), this organization provides home, community and care for patients facing uncertain futures. “Casey once told me that something positive that came from his diagnosis is experiencing the kindness of others when they see that he is struggling,” says Esposito. “Whether it is opening a door, carrying a heavy load, or getting a morale boost from his peers, people at the MS society reach out to him with assistance. It’s heartwarming.”
Contact: National MS Society, Connecticut 59 Tower Ave., first floor, 860-913-2550, nationalmssociety.org
Text by Suzanne Zuckerman