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Thursday24 April 2014

Tom and Diane Palmeri: A Legacy of Service and Hope

“The caring for the children is the central thing in our lives.”
 - Tom Palmeri, Reasons (1979)

As a young Jesuit missionary, Tom Palmeri spent six years studying and teaching in the Philippines. He left the seminary upon returning to the US, but remained haunted by the tremendous poverty he had seen. Helping destitute children and families in poor countries would soon become his life’s work.

As a teenager, Diane Gronstal was a candy-striper who wanted nothing more than to rescue orphans. She was inspired to work overseas by a missionary priest from her parish.

The couple first met in 1968 at a remote field hospital in South Vietnam, where Tom was the hospital administrator and Diane worked as a public health nurse for Project Concern, a relief organization. They married the following year and settled near Philadelphia, where they became foster parents for the first time. The Palmeris would go on to become foster parents to dozens of children in the coming years.

Palmeri Diane-morning-roundsAnswering the Call in Vietnam

When Don and Marilyn Scott founded My Friend’s House, they needed someone to run a feeding program in Vietnam for severely malnourished and abandoned children. The Palmeris, colleagues of the Scotts at Project Concern, answered the call, leaving for Saigon in September 1973 with their two-year-old son, Paul. Paul would be the first of eight children, six of them adopted.

The nutrition center began with a few infants on the brink of starvation housed in the Palmeris’ own apartment. Within one year they had moved to a larger home, where they were able to care for 50 children, many of whom had been abandoned or needed specialized care. The Palmeris also established a four-story facility in Saigon that allowed them to serve another 50 children.

Palmeri Tom-checking-on-6-month-oldIn addition, Tom and Diane worked tirelessly to improve deplorable living conditions and medical care in Vietnamese orphanages. In one facility, Tom witnessed teenagers who were mentally ill chained and padlocked to their beds to protect themselves and others. “More commonly,” according to Tom, “it was little children that we saw, babies and toddlers, enormous numbers of them, left in their own excrement, rhythmically rocking, sometimes even pounding their own heads against steel poles as workers for whom it had finally become too much stood there with mops in hand, staring off into space like zombies.” In addition, the Palmeris were deeply committed to finding adoptive families in the US for children who were especially hard to place. Most of the adoptions they facilitated at that time were for children with special needs.

Palmeri 1yearolds-weighing15lbsIn fact, Tom and Diane would fall in love with and adopt two special needs children over the next 18 months. The first, Chris, was a desperately ill newborn boy whom they managed to nurse back to health. The second, a premature baby girl with a partial right arm and no left arm, had been abandoned at birth. The Palmeris named her Marie, after an infant with missing arms and legs who had died from bronchitis before the couple could adopt her. Three and one-half pounds at birth, “Marie II,” as she was affectionately known, also came close to death when she was stricken with pneumonia.

Changing Lives in the Philippines

The Palmeris and their three children left Vietnam in 1975 on one of the last commercial flights out before the fall of Saigon. They traveled to Cagayan de Oro City, the Philippines, where the couple founded a relief organization called Family to Family, which offers food, medical care, educational opportunities and foster care to destitute and neglected children. Their family grew to eight children, including four adopted Filipino children. The Palmeris settled on Camiguin Island to carry out their work. Although Tom passed away in 2012, Diane remains there, continuing the couple's proud legacy of service.

1Tom Palmeri, The Boy Who Could Not Wait (1989).