Everyone loves a visit from Santa Clause. The only bad part about Santa is that he's only on duty once a year. However, a man named Michael Shanahan dresses up like Santa multiple times during the holiday season and supplies gifts to children in his home time. In suburban Oak Park, a few days before Christmas Shanahan propels down from a helicopter, and screams an authentic "Ho, Ho, Ho," and greets hundreds of children from the area. Shanahan, a taller more muscular Santa but with equally rosy cheeks, arrives at various family events and holiday functions. Even though his own children are now grown, he continues to bring his cheery self to the PACTT (Parents Allied with Children and Teachers for Tomorrow) group home.
The Oak Park group home is home to six special young men, one being Shanahan’s own son. When Marty was two years old, he was diagnosed with autism. He has been living in the home since he was 17 years old. And even though he is soon to be 21 years old, he is just as excited to see his father in the white snow-frosted beard. This blonde haired, well groomed young man lights up the room with his enormous ear to ear smile as his dad approaches the PACTT home. Marty appears to be a clone to his father, built like a football player with broad shoulders and a muscular physique.
This physique was the central reason that Marty starting living at the group home. His large stature of 250 lbs is double the weight of his mother. This significant difference made his mother’s job physically demanding and became a vital concern.
While the group home is located only a few blocks from their home, the decision to move Marty weighed heavily on the whole family. Shanahan’s eldest daughter, Claire, was in shock as she and her younger sister could not imagine being able to adjust to not seeing Marty every day. Claire said she was “entirely unfamiliar with what group homes were about” but warmed up to the idea once their parents educated them on the benefits of Marty living in a group home. She said, “To cope we saw Marty on a regular basis as a family” and felt comforted by the fact that Marty now had someone his age to hang out with at the group home.
Marty’s move greatly affected his father. The two have an undeniable bond that the neighborhood witnesses from their windows, while watching the dynamic duo bike tandem all around town. Their connection has touched the hearts of many. Friends make generous donations to Shanahan’s yearly 500-mile bike ride which raises revenue for PACTT.
Support not only comes from Shanahan’s neighbors, but from PACTT where most of the staff has a relative with autism. Terry Herbstritt, the development director at the PACTT Learning Center, and Laurie Bushman, the Executive Director had only complimentary things to say about Shanahan and agreed that there are no words to describe how thankful they are to have him as a friend and supporter of PACTT.
Herbstritt says, “He is tireless in the volunteer work that he does for PACTT” and that he is constantly repairing something. Carmen Billings, a supervisor at the group home where Shanahan has contributed the most, wishes that she could “duplicate him and pass him out to everybody.” She concluded that “everybody needs a Mr. Shanahan in their lives.”
Laurie Bushman, who founded PACTT 18 years ago, has seen him do everything from building porches, fixing televisions, installing washing machines to putting together a six-seated swing set for the children. Her first impression of Shanahan was that he was a “compassionate, big-hearted guy who loves his kids and family and would do anything to make life better for Marty,” along with the other residents in the group homes.
Bushman founded the PACTT program in 1993. The program consists of one main school and one transitional program for the older students, who are 18 to 22 years old. PACTT is comprised of 40 or more members with various degrees of autism. The majority are males age 10 to late 20s. They live in two group homes that accommodate six tenants who are less than 22. The third group home is the adult CILA, (Community Integrated Living Arrangement) which houses eight adults.
PACTT’s philosophy allows each student to be treated as an individual and be provided the specialized educational services needed to assist their unique needs so that they can live their lives to their fullest potential. The aim is to help the tenants become participating members of family and society. Shanahan praises the PACTT foundation now as he states, “It is a wonderful organization that provides a loving, caring environment that really stresses each individual’s dignity, which is something that you have to constantly defend for your child. I am constantly fighting for Marty’s dignity on a day in and day out basis just by having him out in public.” But he realizes also, that PACTT may be the ideal place for parents who have an autistic child, it falls short in providing the same care when these autistic children become adults. Since there is limited space but unlimited tenure at CILA, families have a difficult time finding housing for their adult autistic children.
The Shanahan’s are in their mid 50’s and worried that if Marty is unable to reside in the adult CILA that they will not be physically capable to provide for him as they age. If Marty is not accepted into the adult CILA, “We don’t know where that’s going to leave him. So our biggest concern is what the future will bring.” Hey says, “The State of Illinois right now from a tax-based standpoint is the tenth wealthiest state in the country, and yet when it comes to per capita spending for special needs, the state of Illinois is dead last.”
However, the Shanahan’s are not willing to throw in the towel just yet. From the moment Marty was diagnosed with autism, Shanahan vividly remembers the way his wife declared, “We need to rescue Marty.” Even though the Shanahans knew there was no saving Marty from autism, they never stopped to indulge in self pity while Marty regressed rapidly. They instead turned their grief into energy and productive projects to make Marty’s life better.
Shanahan said, “There was nothing we could do to make him less autistic. However, the programs helped him become a more capable person in the world.” He has big plans for Marty and knows that a program like PACTT that fights for his child’s dignity has to be part of Marty’s life even if that means trying to have Marty added to the extensive waiting list at Misericordia for autistic adults. In the alternative, his next project may be the formation of a new group home for autistic adults.
Shanahan stresses the additional hardships he has had to face in public situations with Marty and discusses how ignorant society is about autism. Shanahan says that through all the troubling times some people have come through for him in times of need. “For me it has been, for the most part, an enlightening experience to see how truly kind people are. For every one person that is rude to either Marty or me, there are a hundred that are wonderful, understanding, kind, and decent.”
Society is generally unaware of the symptoms of autism and therefore, insensitive to those afflicted. More educational public service programs would ease the burden of those families affected. This fast-growing developmental disorder has now been considered an epidemic. Autism is a lifelong incurable disease.
Shanahan worried about his son’s future and knows that no matter what he will not end up in a rundown State facility. “I don't care if I have to flip burgers at midnight at Burger King, I assure you of that that will not be for my boy.” Lifelong childcare would worry most parents financially, but Shanahan is determined to deal with the finances on his own and refuses to have this obligation left to either one of his two daughters. He wants both of them to have a life of their own. He hopes that they will remain close in Marty’s life, but he does not believe that it is fair for Marty’s welfare costs to be hoisted on their shoulders.
Even though having a child like Marty makes life more complicated, Shanahan wouldn’t change his life even if he could. “You have golden moments with these kids and unless you have an autistic child, you can’t fully understand it.” He says he lives for “simple pleasures” that become elevated into treasured moments and memories.