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Autistic Brooksville woman does Way of St. James pilgrimage in Europe

Brittany Guarino, right, who is autistic, made the El Camino de Santiago pilgrimage, or Way of St. James, from France to Spain.  Her dad, Michael Guarino, accompanied her part of the way.
Brittany Guarino, right, who is autistic, made the El Camino de Santiago pilgrimage, or Way of St. James, from France to Spain. Her dad, Michael Guarino, accompanied her part of the way.
Published Oct. 29, 2013

BROOKSVILLE — Thirty-two days.

Five hundred miles.

About 1 million steps.

And those numbers only begin to tell the story of Brittany Guarino, a 23-year-old nonverbal autistic woman from Brooksville who completed the El Camino de Santiago pilgrimage last month.

The trek, also known as the Way of St. James, began in a small village in France and ended at the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, Spain, where Catholic tradition has it that the remains of the apostle James are buried.

Brittany was accompanied on various legs of the journey, which began in St. John Pied de Port, at the foothills of the Pyrenees Mountains, by relatives, including her father, Michael Guarino, 49, and an aide.

A documentary of the journey that will focus on breaking barriers and giving hope for autistic people is in the planning stages by the Guarinos. The film's director will be Michele Guarino, Brittany's aunt, a contemporary artist who completed part of the walk.

Brittany's journey with autism started long before the pilgrimage. When she was 3, Michael Guarino was told his daughter was severely autistic, a condition that developed after she had her three-year checkup and received her shots, her father said. Previously a talkative toddler, she became non-verbal after running a high fever. Seeking the counsel of several specialists, Guarino was told Brittany would never be able to do things for herself. He and his wife, Michelle, were advised to place her in an institution.

"What that did was make me stronger," Guarino said. "You put a challenge to me, it's like game on. That's always been my mantra in my head: No hope? Let me show you."

In the ensuing years, Brittany, who communicates through gestures and sounds, astounded people with her accomplishments, including running track at Central High School and taking part in a youth bowling league. Today, she works at a food distribution company owned by her entrepreneur father and cares for two rescue ponies at her group home, Hope Estates. She has traveled all over the world with her parents and brother.

"She's always been an inspiration to me," her father said. "She can do things. She just has to do it a little different."

Devout Catholics, the Guarinos knew about the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage. Since the 9th century, thousands have completed the journey.

After seeing The Way, a 2010 film about the pilgrimage, Brittany's aunt and father were convinced that she could make the walk. Watching the film four times, Brittany absorbed the idea as well and began training with her aunt, walking some 300 miles in the hot Florida summer to prepare for the arduous journey.

"We wanted to go on the Camino de Santiago to educate for autism and for Brittany to keep walking closer to Christ — to take a million steps for our Lord," Guarino said. "The other reason was in memory of her cousin, Michael, who was killed in a car accident in August. He and Brittany had a special relationship."

After a visit to Lourdes, France, Guarino and Brittany began their journey on Aug. 29.

Guarino was able to complete the first eight days of the walk with his daughter. Then one of Brittany's aides took his place.

Ilcia Pineiro, who had the El Camino de Santiago on her "bucket list" when she began working at Brittany's group home five months ago, received words of praise from Guarino.

"She was up at 5 a.m. By 5:30, she gets Brittany up to do her morning routine, does her own routine, gets the backpacks ready, puts oils on Brittany's feet, puts her shoes on her, they have breakfast and then go walk for nine hours, praising God. Then back, to an unfamiliar room, (Pineiro) gets Brittany undressed and into the shower, washes the clothes, does Brittany's hair, goes to Mass at 7 o'clock and eats dinner, and it starts all over again."

Though many undertake the pilgrimage for non-religious reasons, the walk has a deep spiritual significance to Catholics. Guarino said his daughter, who enjoys listening to "Jesus music" on her headphones and attending Mass, used the journey to pray for fellow travelers she met along the way, pointing to their names as she and her companions prayed for the requests they had written down.

Throughout the 32 days, Guarino posted Brittany's progress on Facebook. More than 8 million people visited the page, many commenting on how inspired they were by Brittany. Others were inspired along the way, including a young man from Israel, whose words Guarino recorded.

"I didn't come here for religion or because a family member passed away," the man shared over dinner one evening. "I didn't come here for God to intervene with me. I came here just as a hike. But my world has changed since I met Brittany. To see her faith with God, I know there's got to be something."

Guarino began to see his daughter in a new light.

"So many people were inspired to do more," he said of her effort. "People would want to be around her and want to talk with us. People asked if they could just touch her. So now I just see her differently."

On Day 20, Guarino rejoined his daughter on the walk.

"Brittany did not triumph over autism, she triumphed with autism," he said in an interview with Gus Lloyd on the Catholic Channel's Seize the Day program on SiriusXM just days before his daughter reached Santiago.

With a badly blistered toe, Guarino was advised by doctors not to complete the last three days of the journey.

"It was like a message from God," he said. "I wasn't supposed to finish with her. I'm supposed to let her go. She has to do it. I can help her, but God our Father is going to protect her."

Brittany was the only one from her family to make it the entire way, receiving a certificate at the celebration at the church in Santiago.

During the pilgrims' Mass, with large incense burners swinging across the cathedral above her head and her father filming her, Brittany smiled and gave the experience a thumbs-up.