By Marissa Carney
Angela Spagnoli is a firm believer in the old saying that everything happens for a reason; the decisions she’s made, good and bad, the curve balls life has thrown at her, every place she’s been, and everyone she’s met have all been leading her to the exact place she is meant to be.
Spagnoli grew up in Altoona with a naturalist father, so she spent most of her time outdoors and in the open air. She developed a great appreciation for nature at an early age and always knew she wanted a career in environmental studies. But after she graduated high school, Spagnoli decided she needed some time to explore the world and find herself. And so she took off into the unknown, travelling across the country to Vermont, Maine, California, and Utah. She hiked the Massachusetts section of the Appalachian Trail, hiked through several national parks, and hitched along the west coast several times.
It took her twelve years, but she returned to Altoona, started working, and became pregnant with her son, Anthony, who was born at twenty-five weeks. Weighing just 1.8 pounds, he was the size of a Snickers bar. He had no fingernails or eyelashes, and his eyes were still fused shut. His lungs were so tiny that they could not function on their own. “Several times in the middle of the night doctors called to tell me to come say goodbye because they didn’t think he was going to make it,” Spagnoli recalls. “But when I would get there, touch him and speak to him, he would stabilize. It was amazing, and it really goes to show that the mother-child relationship is very real.”
Anthony remained on oxygen for the first year of his life, but as is often the case when infants are given large amounts of oxygen, the retinas in Anthony’s eyes tore. At three months old, he underwent his first eye surgery. He endured twelve more, and though doctors tried their best, they were unable to save his vision. Now 7, he is blind in one eye, while the other cannot focus itself. He has also undergone heart and lung surgeries and developed bilateral hernias. “I don’t know where he gets the strength that he has, but he’s an inspiration to me, and I just want to be the same thing for him,” says Spagnoli.
Spagnoli quickly realized that Anthony’s medical bills would be enormous and that he was going to need some special care in order to live his life as normally as possible. “I understood that I was going to have to further my education in order to pay for all the things that Anthony will need throughout his life. I also realized that I wanted my career to be something that would make a positive impact on the world.” So when Anthony turned 3, and she felt he was healthy enough, Spagnoli enrolled in the environmental studies program at Penn State Altoona.
A single mom raising a son with some special needs is stressful enough, but now Spagnoli was going to school full-time, participating in the college’s research program, and holding down a job. Anthony attends mainstream school and the pair have managed to settle into a day-to-day routine that suits them both. They are each excelling at their schooling. Anthony has plenty of friends and is a white belt in Taekwondo while Spagnoli has completed multiple research projects and even won a major University-wide research presentation award as well Penn State Altoona’s Non-Traditional Student Award. Still Spagnoli often feels stretched to her limit with all that she must balance. “Quite often I get overwhelmed, and I get tired and there are times when I know that I have this much studying to get done and only this amount of time to use. There are times I just don’t have the energy to do everything I need. But then, I look at my son when he’s sleeping, when he’s quiet and so sweet, and I know that he is why I’m doing all of this. He looks to me for all the things he needs, for what he’s learning, for who he’s going to be. I know that I need to be focused on being strong, doing what’s right, and being a good mother.”
Spagnoli believes she and her son have a very special relationship. She’s biased, of course, but she thinks Anthony is one of the coolest kids around, and even though their quantity of time together might not always be as much as she’d like, she works very hard to make it quality time. “We love doing the same things, like going into the forest to count flowers for a research project or water testing, which is another project. He gets to see what I do and be a part of it. We get to be together, and I’m teaching him to be passionate about things that matter to me like caring for the environment.”
Along with the pressures of doing well in school and being a good mother, Spagnoli also experiences constant financial worry: How to pay for her college? Food and housing? All of the extra things Anthony needs, such as his special glasses and other vision services? “There are a lot of responsibilities as a mother, and one of them is to teach your child that hard work pays off. Yes, it’s difficult to manage work, being a mother, school and extra-curricular activities as well as research, but somehow I find a way to do it. It means a great deal to me that not only am I the provider Anthony needs, but I’m also being an example for him.”
Spagnoli sometimes wonders what it would be like if things were just a little easier, if she didn’t have to worry so much about money, didn’t have to struggle to get Anthony everything he needs. And yet, she wouldn’t change anything. She believes all of her obstacles and triumphs have happened for a reason and have led her to this point in her life, right where she is supposed to be. “In my life, I have never been handed anything. Everything I have, I worked so hard for. But that’s okay, because I know I’m here for a purpose, something greater than myself, and that is what drives me. I want to provide my son with the kind of life he deserves, and I also want to have a positive impact on the world. I’m trying to build something here, something meaningful, and I want to be successful.”
Spagnoli hopes to attend graduate school at University Park after she earns her diploma in May 2017. She knows that means more studying, tests, papers, stress, and chaos, but she is determined, and remains grateful for every experience she’s had. “When life gives you adversity, you can let it overtake you or you can have it make you a stronger, better person. I know that all of this will pay off, and when it’s all said and done, it will have been worth it.”