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Preston woman gifted with dream wheelchair

Norwich — When 24-year-old Danielle Ciccotti of Preston told her mother she had recently dreamed of riding in her “dream wheelchair," an all-terrain, $4,500 Whill model Ci, her mother didn’t think it was possible.

Just two weeks later, Danielle’s dream became a reality Sunday morning when she was surprised, in front of hundreds gathered at Norwich’s Holiday Inn, with the motorized chair of her dreams — a lightweight, maneuverable, compact chair that can ride over sand and grass, among other terrains.

Danielle, who suffers from a rare genetic disorder known as Spinocerebellar ataxia, was the first of 100 people Sunday to receive a new or refurbished motorized wheelchair as part of Phil Pavone’s annual Gift of Mobility program.

Pavone, owner of AZ Pawn Norwich and Danielson, has been organizing the wheelchair donation program for nine years and Sunday, he said, marked the giveaway of his 580th chair.

In order to make the Gift of Mobility program a reality each year, Pavone said he collects dozens of motorized chairs through donations and then restores them, with the help of a team of volunteers, with new batteries and chargers.

Among the recipients of the chairs, Pavone said, have been veterans with disabilities, people with cancer, “people who may have just had a stroke or lost a limb. Everything you can think of.” 

“I got cancer years ago, and it was the first time in my life I ever had to depend on anybody,” Pavone, who is also a Vietnam War veteran, said Sunday, explaining his motivation behind the annual program. “It is a degrading feeling and I know how these people feel. I just want to give them mobility again.”

Inspired by Danielle’s story after she contacted him in November to see if she could get a Whill model Ci, Pavone said he reached out to potential donors throughout the area to fund her request.

“I told you a few weeks ago that getting the chair you wanted was not a possibility,” Pavone said to Danielle, while standing in front of the crowd.

“Well, I lied,” he said, smiling, before walking behind the podium to unveil Danielle’s new chair.

Living with her disability since she was born, Danielle has a difficult time walking and speaking, among other coordination issues. Until recently, however, Danielle was able to mostly rely on a walker to maneuver around. But lately, Danielle’s condition has been steadily worsening.

“It's been a tough few months for us. She is falling every day now and she is in pain all the time," said Danielle's mother, Stephanie, who recently received a mastectomy after being re-diagnosed with breast cancer after a 14-year remission. "From the outside, she looks pretty normal, like she doesn't have pain. But it hurts for her to even walk, so she's had to rely on a wheelchair more now.”

But Danielle hasn’t had the right wheelchair to meet her needs as a 24-year-old — someone who still has energy to play outside with her 2-year-old nephew, for example, or who still wants to go to the movies with her boyfriend of seven years.

A year ago, Danielle was outfitted with a 450-pound motorized chair, one that was supposed to support her as her disease worsens over the next 10 years.

“It's meant to help her in the future,” Stephanie said. “But right now, she just needs something that will move with her. That one is just too big. It’s almost impossible to get around the house with it.”

“She has a 2-year-old nephew, and she just wants to be the best aunt possible,” Stephanie continued. “Having the wrong wheelchair was preventing her from doing that.”

As a result, Danielle started researching what wheelchair would work best for her now. After deciding she wanted a Whill model Ci, Danielle contacted Pavone, whom she's known for years, to see if that was a possibilty.

“I had no idea that she had called him,” Stephanie said. “But she was determined. She made her dream a reality.”

Now sitting in her sleek, 110-pound wheelchair, Danielle was all smiles. Her first course of action? Zipping around Mohegan Sun, she said.    

"She wanted this wheelchair more than anything," Stephanie said. "She just wants to go outside. She wants to enjoy the beach or the movies or the backyard without suffering. She is still young. Now that's really a possibility."  




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