Written by Cory Twibell Friday, 25 February 2011 00:00
The story is more likely to be found on the pages of a Hollywood screenplay, but the Petersons play out their script – no cameras necessary – right here in Westbury.
The story began in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, as Al Peterson, 16 at the time, was taken aback when a 13-year-old, blue-eyed Arlene caught him gazing.
“I saw these beautiful eyes and I looked over and it was her,” said Al, who noted it only took a decade before she warmed up to him and the two started dating.
Fast forward through 36 years of marriage, the Peterson family consists of Al, Arlene and six children – five of whom arrived on what some would call the road less traveled.
Al and Arlene are white. Their first and only biological daughter, Justine, is white. Their five adopted children, Sarah, Christine, Isaiah, Daniel and Michael are black.
But to know this family is to also know that love isn’t just blind, it’s colorblind.
Arlene Peterson’s Town of North Hempstead Hometown Hero nomination came by way of her husband. The nomination form is a one-page document asking three questions: How has your nominee impacted the well-being of the community (state specific activities); How has your nominee overcome any special challenges making his/her achievements even more notable; In your own words, why should your nominee be chosen as a hometown hero.
Al’s submission exceeded six pages, but it reads like just one.
He described how after they received a call from Mt. Sinai hospital, which described an infant girl in need of a liver transplant, Arlene soon decided to take the newly dubbed “Sarah” under her wing. Following a conversation with the family, Arlene brought Sarah into their home on March 28, 1991 and she received a liver transplant five months later.
One new addition became two later that year.
“I just wanted to have another child and felt I had much more love to give and I couldn’t have any more children naturally. God kept on opening up door after door,” said Arlene.
A similar phone call informed the family of another infant in dire straits – interestingly enough, it came in the form of Christine, Sarah’s biological sister. Al described Christine as very shaky. She was going through crack withdrawal, passed on to her from her birthmother, which left her hands clenched and feet curled. Al noted that Christine “slowly and stiffly came into bloom” with Arlene’s dedication and with the help of a special massage therapist.
As the years passed, Al described how three more young infants – boys this time around, yet still from the same unknown birthmother – were brought into the Peterson family. The trio was Isaiah, recovering from crack, heroin and alcohol withdrawal; Daniel, brought home with severe hearing problems later traced back to food allergies; and Michael, a toxic baby from crack cocaine with visible, deep wire marks around his ankle, suggesting he was bound and unable to move.
The family was now whole, healthy and together. Yet from the outside in, many viewed the Petersons in a different light.
The road less traveled often isn’t the easier of the two – a thorny realization Al and Arlene soon came to know.
The family was forced to leave their home in Oyster Bay and relocate to Arizona, hoping for a fresh start but discovering only much of the same.
“We had to leave a nice community right after Sarah came into our lives. We became the black family down the block who [was] causing property values to go down,” Al said in his nomination form, adding, “Arlene had found herself surrounded by young black girls that threatened to take her baby. I have been spit at for holding my baby.”
Yet Al pondered, “Where were all these people when Sarah was dying. Where were they when Christine, Isaiah and Daniel were abandoned and Michael was being tortured? It’s enough to make you bitter.”
Far from it, as Al describes his wife, saying, “The love that emerges from her is felt and it’s contagious.”
Feeling an all-too-familiar pressure in Arizona, the family moved to Westbury in 2005.
“Also we felt culturally we needed to get into a more mixed neighborhood because we were convinced many times by people that we weren’t allowing them to grow in their own culture. We felt Westbury is more of a melting pot and they seem to be very relaxed there,” said Al.
Regardless of location, the targeting is omnipresent, and unfortunately, isn’t limited to Al and Arlene.
“It’s hurtful and I just try to ignore it. I try to just think of something else. When people say it I’ll just go home and play a game and calm down,” said Michael, whose father has experienced similar prejudices in Westbury.
“I drive my van with one of my daughters. I get pulled over and they’ll say my van looks shady and I look shady. We are not out in the open often; we’ve been hiding for so long and we’ve been dealing with this for so long. It’s been a long hard road but it’s been worth it,” said Al.
While certain members of the community weren’t as welcoming, Al said the Westbury School District “extended themselves with love, kindness and caring” for the children.
“Arlene and I sat many times and said, ‘Would we have done this again, knowing all the tough times and all the things you have to go through to do this,’ and we would,” said Al.
Isaiah called his family a gift.
“It’s more than a gift,” his brother Michael chimed in.
“A lot of people have made fun of [Arlene] about the skin color and it doesn’t really matter anymore. I don’t care what people say I’m just happy to have a family and that’s why mom deserves to have this award,” Michael added.
His brother Daniel shared similar sentiments and reflected on his own life up to this point.
“I think that if it wasn’t for mom and dad, none of us would be here. We’d probably be walking the streets angry, thinking why we were abandoned. But if it wasn’t for them, we wouldn’t all be here together and have our personalities. We wouldn’t have had a chance in life,” said Daniel.
The product of love yielded five (six counting Justine, who at 34, is a professional dog groomer in school studying accounting) well-mannered, respectful and jovial young adults. With such limited collective life experience – the youngest among the group is 12 and oldest is 20 – they’re a very ambitious bunch as well.
Sarah hopes to become a teacher; Daniel, a veterinarian; Isaiah, a musical therapist; Michael, a car guy; and Christine, a chef. Michael aspires to take on President Obama in a game of one-on-one basketball someday.
“He’s taller than me and if I tried to shoot he’ll block it, so I’ll have to try to go around him,” he said.
Sarah, Isaiah and Christine are all set to attend Nassau Community College, while Michael is a student at Eagle Street School and Daniel is currently home schooled.
“Every one of them has a love in them, every one of them you’ll pass by on the street and if you find yourself hurt, they’ll pick you up and they’ll help you,” said Al.
And all of the Petersons remind us that love is blind, colorblind and steadfast; no book, TV show or Hollywood movie is better proof.