Helping others is all that matters

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Leo Alonso, known as "Coach Leo," has led his teams to victory many times in the 28 years he's been involved in Special Olympics in Northern Virginia. Many gold and silver medals have been won at state championships, but the real prize is the positive impact on lives: increased self-esteem, self-confidence and personal growth. Alonso's giving heart and lifetime of service has led to a fan club that loves him as much as he does them.

Alonso has impacted the lives of thousands of children and adults with special needs throughout the area, including his 26-year-old daughter Vivian who has Down syndrome, with his commitment to help others and to share his time and talents.

His work with Porto Caravan No. 104, a local Catholic fraternal men's organization of the International Order of Alhambra, raised $79,000 last year during its Special Kids/Special Needs second collection at 45 local churches, thanks to the support of Arlington Bishop Paul S. Loverde. Money raised during this October's Disability Awareness Month, also dubbed Respect Life Month, will support local programs serving special needs individuals.

Alonso's efforts didn't stop at the field, but went into the classroom, as well. He founded the Options Program at Paul VI Catholic High School and the Learning into Future Environments (LIFE) Program at George Mason University, both in Fairfax. The programs serve people with intellectual disabilities and have become prototypes for similar programs, including Pope John Paul the Great High School's Options Program, which is directed by a Paul VI graduate.

Inside the Options classroom, it's hard to say who benefits the most, the program members or the peer mentors who learn valuable life lessons while earning service hours.

"They learn tolerance," Alonso explained, walking through the hallways of Paul VI. "There are about 60 or 70 peer mentors, mostly juniors and seniors, who give up a study hall to help kids."

Some 10 students participate in Paul VI's Options Program this year, but the entire student body benefits, the students, teachers and parents. The dignity of all human life is lived out and a sense of community is developed.

"The captain of the football team sits with the kids in the cafeteria," said Alonso. "Of the peer mentors over the years, at least seven or eight went into special education because of the program."

The idea for Paul VI's Options Program developed at a Saturday morning school car wash fundraiser in 1997 where Alonso's older daughter Marisa was working.

"Vivian and I went to support the school and get our car washed," he smiled. "Vivian started washing cars and helping out."

His daughter's friendly and likeable personality was noticed by the faculty sponsor who mentioned the school was considering the possibility of including a Down syndrome student in non-academic classes, having been approached by a parent. Alonso met with other parents and the principal, who was supportive of the idea of a program for their special needs children, patterned after a Seattle school with which one family was familiar.

"We said if you can get us a classroom, we will raise the funds," Alonso said, and he, with the other parents, did exactly that.

One year later, in a freshly remodeled and painted classroom, the Options Program began with a full-time teacher. Today, additional classroom space and teaching staff have been added, and many students have benefited from the program.

In 2009, Alonso founded Porto Charities Inc., a nonprofit organization to expand the fundraising capabilities for the intellectually disabled, offering membership to both men and women. In addition to supporting programs at Paul VI, John Paul the Great and George Mason, fundraising goes to St. Mar School's "Evangelist" program in Vienna, diocesan "Keyboard for Kids" program, Gabriel Homes Inc., and other nonprofits such as Special Olympics, ArtStream Inc., Best Buddies and Camp Still Meadows.

The Cuban-born Alonso came to America, the "land of opportunity," in 1961 at 10 years old, with his mother and 9-year-old brother to escape the communist regime. In this land where dreams can come true, his determination and work ethic led to his success in the grocery business. By 1983, he owned six full-service supermarkets in Northern Virginia and Maryland, employing 250 people. In 1995, he started a mortgage business with 15 employees to serve immigrant Hispanics who were having difficulty obtaining loans. Today, he is a branch manager of West Town Savings Bank in Silver Spring, Md.

Over the years, Alonso has served on Paul VI's board of governors, as grand commander of Porto 104 of the International Order of the Alhambra, as a member of the Reston Optimist Club and Reston Chamber of Commerce, and as chairman of the Mid-Atlantic Food Dealers Association. He has received many awards for his achievements, including the 2008 Immigrant Achievement Award from the American Immigration Law Foundation. He and his wife, Betty, are members of St. John Neumann Parish in Reston.

When asked which achievement was his greatest honor, he did not hesitate in his response: "Helping others."

Find out more

For more information about Porto Charities Inc., contact Leo Alonso at 703/626-2051 or bettyleo@aol.com .

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2010