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Warrenville man paralyzed in ski accident adapting to new world
By Elisabeth Mistretta | Daily Herald Staff
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Published: 8/20/2009 12:12 AM

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Benefits for Joe Leo


When:11 a.m. to 9 p.m.

Where: Cici's Pizza, 2014 W. Wilson, Batavia

Cost: $4.99 per person plus tax for buffet

Details: (630) 482-9160

Aug. 29

When: 6 p.m. to midnight

Where: Warrenville VFW, 3S371 Mignin Drive

Cost: $25 per person


To Donate: Donations can be made at any Harris Bank location by mail or in person. Make donations payable to: Joseph M. Leo, memo deposit #5705, Harris Bank, 503 N. Washington St., Naperville, IL 60563.

More details:

Every morning when Jan and Joe Leo wake up, they are reminded that virtually everything about their old lives has changed.

They had to sell their car and are trying to unload their home in West Chicago. Major career changes have ensued, and now they must see doctors, nurses or therapists every day.

Their lives are marked by a distinct before-and-after line, which was drawn on March 14 during a family ski trip to Wisconsin.

As Joe Leo, 52, glided down a slope, his skis sunk into a patch of slushy snow and stopped - but his body kept going. He slid on his back into a log, fracturing two cervical vertebrae and suffering severe spinal cord damage.

Today he feels nothing from his chest down, but can move his arms and thumbs.

As the couple tackles daily challenges following the accident, Jan Leo always reminds herself of a Biblical verse from Jeremiah 29:11: "For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord. Plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future."

Faith sustains them, Leo said, as her family deals with the "living grief" of her husband's disability.

"The most important thing to me is not to worry about tomorrow because God is already there," she said.

The Leos find proof of their beliefs through the outpouring of support that has come from their five daughters, 15 grandchildren and Joe's co-workers from his former job at Fermilab in Batavia, where he worked in radiation safety for 26 years until his accident.

Even total strangers and old acquaintances are lending their hands. Some bring food or run errands, as Joe needs care 24/7. Others simply share their company and support.

And today, one of two fundraisers for the Leo family will happen at Cici's Pizza in Batavia, where manager Benito Suero will donate 15 percent of proceeds earned from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. to help the family purchase items that are handicapped-accessible. The couple was unable to convert their West Chicago home to accommodate Joe, and they currently live in their daughter's living room in Warrenville.

Suero was approached by a former classmate of Jan's who hosted a prior fundraiser for another cause at Cici's. She hoped Suero would help the Leos too and, of course, he said yes.

"(We) are honored and privileged to be a part of this worthy cause," Suero said.

Family, friends and strangers will help again on Aug. 29, when Warrenville VFW Post 8081 hosts a benefit for the Leos. The event will features Live music by Pearl Road, food, a silent auction, a raffle and cash bar.

"People really want to help, and it's just amazing," said Jan Leo. "There are people I don't even know who have come out of the woodwork. God really does provide."

As the Leos try to sell their old home and find a new place that can be converted for handicapped accessibility, they must also look for supplies such as shower chairs, portable ramps, voice-activated computer software and an accessible van.

Currently, Joe Leo attends outpatient therapy at Marianjoy Rehabilitation Hospital in Wheaton, and he is adjusting to changes happening to his body, including muscle spasms, extreme cold and pain.

His wife said she knows it will take years until his body is settled, but the couple will continue to look to God to keep them strong and take life day by day.

"I don't want to borrow troubles from tomorrow," said Jan Leo. "I have been a Christian my whole life and have tremendous faith. And I don't know how people deal with things like this, especially without faith. Because there are no answers on earth for things like this."