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July 30, 2003

Heroes Among Us' honored at State House ceremony

From: Neponset Valley Daily News, MA - Jul 30, 2003

By Michael Kunzelman / News Staff Writer

BOSTON -- Tony and Virginia Brenna granted their first wish to a dying youngster in 1985 when they sent the Bellingham girl to a taping of "Wheel of Fortune" in California.

Eighteen years and more than a 160 wishes later, the Milford couple is still making dreams come true for terminally ill children in MetroWest -- everything from trips to Disney World to face-to-face meetings with celebrities like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jay Leno.

"We love it," Virginia Brenna said. "We just like making kids happy."

Yesterday, for once, it was the Brennas' turn to receive instead of give.

The Boston Celtics honored the Milford couple and dozens of other good Samaritans as "Heroes Among Us" during an awards ceremony at the State House.

"These individuals come from all walks of life," said Lt. Gov. Kerry Healey, "but one common thread running through their stories is their service to others."

The Celtics have honored more than 250 heroes since the team launched the annual awards program in 1997.

"A large part of (our) legacy is what we do in the community," said Celtics managing partner Robert Epstein. "Programs like this are of major, major importance to the organization."

The list of heroes included Lou Bianchi, a Natick resident who taught and coached basketball at the Horace Mann School for the Deaf in Brighton for 37 years before his recent retirement.

The event's master of ceremonies, WEEI-AM radio personality Greg Dickerson, said Bianchi is widely viewed as the "single biggest advocate for the deaf and hearing impaired in Boston."

Twenty years ago, for example, Bianchi played a key role in raising money for local television stations to broadcast news with closed captioning for the hearing impaired.

"Deaf people really couldn't participate in the news," he recalled. "They would have to lip read it. With captioning, they could become an active part in what was happening in the world."

Four decades ago, Bianchi was a college student when he arrived at the Horace Mann School to launch a basketball program.

"They needed organized sports," he said. "They needed a medium where they could compete favorably with their hearing counterparts. Basketball didn't make any delineation between a hearing person and a deaf person, except when they blew the whistle."

No matter what the Celtics say, Bianchi doesn't consider himself a hero.

"Quite the contrary," he said. "I feel privileged that I had a chance to work with people with disabilities, to give back a little bit. I never felt like a hero."

The Brennas also brushed aside the notion that their work is heroic.

"When you look at the people who have saved lives and done so much, I don't feel like any kind of a hero," Tony Brenna said. "Thank God we can do something. That's what keeps us going."

Many of the more than 50 heroes who were recognized yesterday have ties to MetroWest, including:

*Macy Delong of Lexington, who was homeless for nine months before she founded the Solutions at Work program, which helps homeless people find permanent housing, furniture, clothes and job counseling.

*DeLong has helped more than 65,000 people since she started the program in 1989, according to the Celtics.

*Lee Kennedy of Norwood, whose daughter, Michelle, lost her battle with leukemia in 1991. Keeping a promise she made to her daughter, Lee Kennedy founded the Norwood Circle of Hope Foundation, which helps people cope with severe illnesses.

*Ethan Zohn of Lexington, a professional soccer player who won the "Survivor: Africa" reality television show on CBS. Zohn serves as vice chairman of Grassroots Soccer, which trains pro players to educate African youths about the dangers of HIV.

*Capt. Thomas Hudner of Concord, who won the Congressional Medal of Honor for service during the Korean War. Hudner crash-landed his plane in an effort to save another pilot who had been shot down behind enemy lines.

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