Above and Beyond

updated 12/31/1990 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/31/1990 AT 01:00 AM EST

A Detroit woman won't let babies die alone

For abandoned, dying infants at Children's Hospital in Detroit, the last moments of life are often the gentlest. At least if Fanniedell Peeples is there. The "Peep," as nurses lovingly call her, is a 69-year-old volunteer whose chosen mission is to comfort babies about to succumb to drug withdrawal, AIDS or other diseases. "I stroke and I care and I rock as they're on their way out," she says. "I tell them, I love you and I'll miss you.' They've missed so many things. We owe them the dignity to leave as human beings at least."

Born with scoliosis, a disabling spinal disease, Peeples herself was orphaned at 7 and spent much of her childhood in foster homes. "I cried for years," she says. "Then I came to understand that the worst place to be is with someone who doesn't love you." She never married, and when physical woes kept her from fully using her teaching degree, she began baby-sitting. In 1983, Peeples volunteered to become an unpaid helper at Children's Hospital.

Of all her tasks—whether encouraging kids in rehab or leading hospital tours—none is more precious than the time she spends with dying infants, an emotionally charged vigil that many regular staffers find difficult "If you look at them real good the moment it's over, they never looked better," Peeples says softly. "The struggle and the pain is gone. They look like cherubs."

Romania's lost orphans find a savior in the U.S.

A Romanian expatriate, Ion Berindei knew well the horrors of the Ceausescu regime. A popular jazz saxophonist in his own country, he fled in 1969, eventually settled in Medford, Mass., and started an architectural firm. When Ceausescu fell last year, Berindei founded the nonprofit Free Romania Foundation to aid his former countrymen.

He didn't stop there. Berindei, now 43, heard stories about abused children in Romania's state-run orphanages, and last April he went to investigate. What he found defied imagination. "There was this incredible stench," he says, "children lying in their own waste. When I saw them, I gave them what they wanted—hugs."

With the help of a Romanian cinematographer, he traveled 1,800 miles in 10 days to videotape conditions in 15 orphanages and three children's hospitals, and ABC's 20/20 included a portion of his tapes in an October telecast. To date the network has gotten more than 30,000 letters about the children, the most ever received on one segment. "Most of the children in the worst shape not only are adopted," says 20/20's Tom Jarriel, "but have been adopted out of the piece."

Berindei's work is not over. While wife Connie, a part-time professor of Italian at Tufts University, supports him and their daughter, Tania, 7, Berindei (at right, in Romania) puts in 15-hour days on the orphans' behalf. Says the expatriate: "I have discovered a quality for giving inside myself that I didn't know I had."

Despite being shot, a drug fighter stands tall

With her East Palo Alto, Calif., neighborhood degenerating into a drug bazaar, 61-year-old C.W. Roddy (above) finally got police action the hard way: by catching a bullet in the stomach. Crack dealers, angered by Roddy's street-corner confrontations and pleas to city hall, came by her house early last New Year's Day and sprayed it with gunfire. The retired telephone service representative returned home from the hospital only to find that the thugs weren't done. Her parked car was rammed, firebombs were heaved into her yard, and the FBI learned of a $10,000 bounty on her head.

Roddy didn't retreat. Instead, she called a press conference to announce that she would remain in the house that she shares with her son Darnell, 38, who works in a printing shop, and continue to fight. "If I don't like something that's going on, I try to remedy it," she says. "I want the streets safe so my niece can visit and I can get some sleep. I want this community to survive."

Spurred by public outrage at Roddy's plight, San Mateo County increased police funding by $500,000, and neighbors gathered for weekly antidrug rallies. Roddy admits that dealers and addicts aren't happy but says, "I'm too angry to be frightened."

A Princeton grad creates a class act

In a decade when America's campuses seemed to germinate Gordon Gekko wannabes, Princeton's Wendy Kopp engineered a kinder, gentler deal aimed at the nation's ailing school systems. "The public thinks teaching is a downwardly mobile, unchallenging profession," says Kopp, 23, who graduated in 1989. "That has to be turned around if we are ever going to make any progress."

In her senior thesis, the Dallas native proposed an educational Peace Corps in which top college grads who had never considered teaching careers would go into public-school classrooms for two years at prevailing local salaries ($18,000 to $29,000). The paper became the basis of a funding proposal that she sent to major corporations and foundations, and by graduation day she had raised $26,000 to establish the nonprofit Teach for America. From the first wave of 2,600 applicants, 505 were chosen for a 10-week crash course in teacher's ed. In September they fanned out across the country, from rural North Carolina to Los Angeles, to help districts with chronic teacher shortages.

Kopp, who lives in Manhattan on a $25,000 salary from the foundation, is working to raise more funds and line up even more districts for next year. She says she is not surprised at how strong the response from campuses has been. "College students," she says, "want to make a commitment to something they see as really integral to society."

A son's death becomes a gift of life

Marva Odister was always proud of her son Valdies Doss, but perhaps never more than since Sept. 8, the day he died. Valdies, the oldest of Odister's four children from her first marriage, had finished work as a chefs assistant just before midnight at the Van Dyke Hotel restaurant in suburban Detroit. As he was crossing busy Van Dyke Road, he was struck by a van. About 10 hours later at Detroit Receiving Hospital, the city's major trauma center, Odister, her husband, Larry, and friends and family members who had gathered were told that Valdies, 29, had suffered critical head wounds and had been declared brain dead.

The hospital requires two determinations of brain death made six hours apart before declaring someone legally dead. During that period, clinical nurse specialist Meg Campbell asked Odister to consider allowing her son's organs, which were almost all undamaged, to be removed for transplant. "Most people react immediately," one way or the other, says Campbell. "Mrs. Odister gave us no clues."

At 4 P.M. a second diagnosis of brain death was made, and Campbell once again approached the grieving Odister. "I'll never forget what she said," recounts Campbell. "She said, 'I'd like to spread him around.' "

With his mother's courageous decision, Valdies became the first person in Michigan, and one of only about a dozen nationwide, to have all his major organs harvested. Today, the young man's heart beats in the chest of a 40-year-old St. Louis father of three, while his liver functions for a 40-year-old Richmond, Va., father of one. His kidneys were given to two Michigan women who, as a result, no longer need dialysis, and a 38-year-old Minnesota man breathes easier with Valdies's left lung (the right one had been injured in the accident). In addition, Valdies's corneas went toward restoring the sight of two elderly Detroit women, and his skin will be used for grafts in the burn unit at Receiving Hospital.

Odister has no doubt that the decision she made was the right one. "He was an ideal son," she says. "When I lost him, I lost everything. I figured this way he'd still be alive to me. I know that he's out there somewhere, helping people."

Unwanted triplets find love and a home

Some might have said that Beth and ST. Johnson Jr. had it made. The Michigan couple earned $85,000 between them—she working as an assistant vocational-school principal, he as a trucking company manager; they had an 11-year-old son, a rambling, three-bedroom rural home, went to resorts and dined out whenever they wanted. Then the couple, who could have no more children of their own, decided to adopt. Enter Jeff, Charles and Greg, the only adopted identical triplets in the U.S.

An adopted child herself, Beth, 38, and her husband, 39, chose the boys after learning that single-child adoption might take years. Born nine weeks prematurely to an alcoholic mother and a drug addict father, they were considered impossible to place unless they were split up. Despite warnings from her own pediatrician, who told her. "Don't do it...your life will be chaos," Beth was undeterred. "They were basically unwanted," she says. "I didn't want to see them end up at an adoption fair, like something in a Dickens novel."

Since the boys' arrival in 1986, the pediatrician's prediction has largely come true. Because of their prenatal exposure to alcohol, the triplets, now 4, all require speech therapy and suffer from sporadic febrile seizures during which they stop breathing (all three in a single weekend, once). Now Beth, S.T. and their son S.T. Ill take turns on "seizure patrol" each night, sleeping on the boys' bedroom floor to keep watch over them. Beth has quit her job to care for the kids, and mounting medical bills (about $20,000 so far) have forced the couple to put their home up for sale. But they have no regrets. "I'll never stop loving them," says Beth. 'They asked me once if they grew in my tummy. I told them, 'No, you grew in my heart.' "

A dog gives freedom to a disabled boy

Life promised few pleasures for 9-year-old Travis Stout. The Marathon. Fla., boy, who was born lacking some of his major muscles, walked only with difficulty, couldn't lift himself if he fell and was incapable of even opening doors. Worse yet to Travis was the full-time aide he had to have at school, an adult presence that caused classmates to steer clear.

Then four years ago his mother, Kay, 32, read an Ann Landers column touting Canine Companions for Independence, a charitable organization in Santa Rosa, Calif., that trains dogs for the physically disabled. The cost of training is about $10,000 per dog—too steep for Kay and her husband, Tom, 34, who own a small restaurant—but the recipient pays only $125. And so. "I felt a tiny flicker of hope." says Kay.

At a training camp, Travis was presented with Kosmic, a 2-year-old shorthaired retriever, and during the next two weeks they worked together mastering the 89 commands Kosmic needed to know. Now, with the dog by his side, Travis attends school and birthday parties by himself. Kosmic opens doors and drawers for him, pulls his wheelchair when needed, and even helps him stand if he falls. In October she was named service dog of the year by the Delta Society, a nonprofit humanitarian organization. But to Travis, Kosmic is something more. "She's my best friend," he says happily. "I needed this."

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