Tammy Gardiner didn't question her role. All she knew was her little sister had cerebral palsy and needed help, and she wasn't going to get it from their alcoholic mother. The girls became inseparable, and by the time she was 14, Tammy routinely bathed Missy, fixed her meals, pushed her to the park near their home in Safety Harbor and tucked her in bed. When Missy, five years younger, needed to go to the bathroom, she rang a cowbell that their mother had looped around Missy's skinny torso and Tammy came running. She said she didn't mind, "because I loved my sister.''
One day when Missy was 9, teachers at the special school she attended in Clearwater suspected she had been the victim of neglect. The evidence: dozens of painful welts from ants that had infested the crevices and hollow pipes of her wheelchair.
State inspectors interviewed the mother, her boyfriend and neighbors before deciding Missy would be better off in foster care. She would never return home.
Her mother told Tammy and seven siblings from various fathers that Missy had been adopted. Three decades passed. At various times, the siblings — in New York and Florida — attempted to learn more about their disabled sister. "Each time,'' said sister Deborah Guerrera, now 55 and living in Clearwater, "we ran into confidentiality laws and got nowhere.'' Their mother, who might have helped, fell ill with severe dementia and lived in a nursing home until she died in 2008.
Then one day about six months ago, Tammy signed on to her Facebook account. An old friend from her middle school days, Betty Wiseman of St. Petersburg, had found her. They enjoyed catching up and made plans to get together for a mutual friend's wedding in New Port Richey. Betty had kept a clipping from the St. Petersburg Times, a story that ran in 1999. She thought she might run into Tammy again someday, so she even had it laminated.
She figured her old friend might want to see the picture that went with the story.
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The Angelus, situated on 17 acres in northwest Pasco County, is a model of success among nonprofit care centers for profoundly handicapped people. Community volunteers have rallied to build specially equipped homes and an education center for cerebral palsy victims, and 20 years ago country music legend Charlie Daniels began gathering celebrities for annual fundraising concerts. Other celebrities, including NFL players, routinely stop by to say hello to the 34 men and women who live there — some since childhood.
In August 1999, the rock group Yes and several former NFL players visited the Angelus for a Sunday morning prayer service. One resident, a huge fan of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, could hardly contain her joy. A Times photographer captured her with former Oakland Raiders player Roman Gabriel III (not to be confused with his more famous father with the same name who played for the Los Angeles Rams).
Missy Gardiner had been at the Angelus since shortly after the state removed her from her mother's home in 1979. In fact, had it not been for Missy, there would be no Angelus.
"That's true,'' said founder Pauline Shaver. "Missy changed my life.''
In 1979, Shaver taught physical education at a private school in Gulfport. She was divorced, her kids were grown and she was looking for a new professional challenge. She intended to buy a farm and start a program to keep at-risk kids out of trouble. She was taking behavior modification classes when two women who ran a home for mentally challenged women showed up with a little girl in a wheelchair.
"For six weeks, they brought her to class,'' Shaver recalled. "They didn't pull any punches. They said the state stuck her with them and that she was going to be placed in a state mental facility in Arcadia. There were no group homes then for kids in wheelchairs like her. I kept thinking she was looking at me all the time. I started reading up on Arcadia and quickly changed my mind. By the time I got a license to open, I had five others, but Missy is the reason.''
The Angelus quickly outgrew her house in St. Petersburg and she relocated to the 17 acres in Hudson in 1986. In all that time, Missy has been more like a daughter to Shaver, who just last year took her in a van to New York City. "It was her dream,'' Shaver said. "We saw the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State Building — everything. She was so happy and excited. Missy is very smart. She has severe physical disabilities and she can't talk, but don't let that fool you.''
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Tammy Gardiner, 45, left her home in St. Petersburg July 18 and headed north to meet the sister she hadn't seen in more than 30 years. With older sisters Deborah and Sherry, Tammy turned onto the winding drive and drove past the attractive homes tucked into woods — past the Charlie Daniels log lodge that volunteers erected in an old-fashioned barn-raising in 1998.
Joe Neri, Shaver's son who now runs the Angelus, waited with Missy. He had done some checking on Tammy's story. "We knew she had family, but we thought they were out of the picture and long gone to New York,'' he said. "They have a lot of catching up to do.''
"It was a very emotional moment,'' said Tammy, who has three children and calls herself a "stay-at-home grandma.''
Tammy, who stands only 4 feet 11, pushed her sister's wheelchair once again. She read to her, admired some crafts, patted her arm. Missy laughed. Tammy returned a few days later and figures to become a regular visitor.
"She's so happy,'' Tammy said. "That's all I really wanted to know.''
Tammy said she had lived with guilt much of her life, since her mother blamed her for the ants in the wheelchair. But a caseworker in New York told her later that neighbors had complained about her mother's neglect. She made peace with her mother in the nursing home.
"I never thought I'd see Missy again,'' Tammy said. "I worried we might scare or confuse her, but she is secure here. What really made me feel good is seeing that this is the same Missy I left 30 years ago. She has the same personality, the same sense of humor.
"We're a family again.''