Having a feisty 6-year-old stepdaughter with asthma involves constant worry over her health and paying medical bills, but Jeremy Fortunato treasures the experience.
"It’s my 24-hour-a-day worry, to make sure she’s all right," he said. "She’s my stepdaughter, but blood couldn’t make us any thicker. I take care of her as much as I can when the mom’s busy."
His devotion hasn’t been dampened by the strain of both parents juggling jobs and going to college. But there’s no money for extras, and with Christmas around the corner, the couple would like to get their daughter some much-needed clothing and, perhaps, a Lalaloopsy doll.
Fortunato turned to the Adopt-a-Family program under Helping Hands Hawai‘i to make Christmas special for Deja Kaleopaa-Kaopuiki.
The Star-Advertiser’s annual Good Neighbor Fund starts today to help the Adopt-a-Family program make wishes come true. Donations of toys, clothing, and household items can be dropped off at Helping Hands’ Community Clearinghouse, and monetary contributions can be made at First Hawaiian Bank branches.
Fortunato, who is studying to become a chef, has worked off and on at odd jobs the past several months but was recently hired for the night shift at Dave & Buster’s. While he wasn’t working, he was up all hours of the night caring for Deja whenever she suffered from frequent bouts of asthma.
His wife, Desiree, works at night as a nurse’s aide.
"It’s kind of scary because when she gets a fever, she might get hospitalized, so we’re trying to do everything in our power to keep her temperature down," he said during a recent episode of pneumonia. She gets seizures when her fever gets too high, he added.
"It brings me to tears because I have such a wonderful daughter that has been through so much at such a young age, and all she asks for is clothes. There is so much things she wants but she says to me, ‘Daddy, no need, I’m happy with what I got.’ I’m not trying to be dramatic, but if you meet my daughter, she will tell you that in person. My daughter may look tough and she may act like one tita — she’s very bossy — but inside she is a soft-hearted person that I and my wife are proud to call our daughter," he said.
"She loves school. That took a while. But she also loves to ride her bike. She loves to play sports. I would say the only downfall with her, is because of her medical problems, it is hard to do a lot of things with her. We try to, but we’re limited. She starts getting these fevers. Her asthma gets really bad every time it rains or gets foggy. If she gets excited or is having a lot of fun, she can start getting these asthma attacks and that’s what we’re afraid of," Fortunato said.
"I got recently hired but now I hardly get to spend time with my daughter. But at least I know my medical is going to kick in for her. My wife has medical insurance, but it only covers so much. My wife makes way too much (for them to qualify) for Med-QUEST."
His mother-in-law, Paula Kaopuiki, lives with them and takes care of Deja while the couple attends Leeward Community College during the day.
"My wife is taking courses to become a nurse — that was always her dream. My dream has always been to be a culinary chef. I’ll get my degree so one day I can run a family business, so I can pass it on to my daughter because she wants to cook, too," he said.
He and his wife are able to attend school on scholarships and financial aid, but pay for the balance out of pocket. After finishing at Leeward, Desiree Fortunato plans to get a four-year degree at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.
"I support my wife," he said. "She wants to become a nurse, so if I have to bend over backwards or work extra hours to try and pay for that college, I want her to complete her goal in life. Just to put a smile on her face, that’s all that matters to me."
They were married in January after they "instantly hit it off" almost two years ago.
"I fell in love with her and her daughter immediately," he recalled.
THE GOOD NEIGHBOR FUND
Clothing, household items and gifts can be dropped off at the Community Clearinghouse, 2100 N. Nimitz Highway, next to Puuhale Road.
Monetary gifts may be sent to the Star-Advertiser’s Good Neighbor Fund; Care of Helping Hands Hawaii; 2100 N. Nimitz Highway, Honolulu, HI 96819.
Checks made out to the Good Neighbor Fund also may be dropped off at any of First Hawaiian Bank’s branches statewide.
Call 440-3800 for more information to sign up for the Adopt-a-Family Program or to arrange for pickup of large items.
Helping Hands Hawaii’s donation warehouse hours are 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. (extended hours through December) Monday to Friday. The warehouse will also be open from 8 a.m. to noon on Saturdays through Dec. 21.