Local family hopeful despite setbacks
When Chris Aiello transferred to Los Angeles for work more than a decade ago, he was full of hope, enthusiasm and ambition. He had been working for the multi-billion-dollar Dan Zimmerman Co., an accounting staffing firm, for two years straight out of college.
Aiello, the son of Lou Aiello, a Chestnut Hill Community Association board member and current vice president of its physical division, grew up in Chestnut Hill. He graduated from Our Mother of Consolation grade school and Bishop McDevitt high school and earned a degree in accounting from Temple University.
By all accounts, Chris did everything right. He interned during his college years and decided he liked the large corporate environment of Zimmerman as opposed to pursuing his CPA. Aiello quickly moved into recruitment where he earned a base salary plus commission.
By the time he settled in California, he was making decent money as a young man and enjoying the freedom of living away from his close knit family. His mom, Elaine, stayed home to raise five children – three boys and two girls – before returning to the work force when the youngest graduated from elementary school. She worked at Chestnut Hill Hospital, which was just across the street from the family’s home.
In 2001, Chris met Krista, a single mother who worked in the same building. They were introduced through a friend.
“I was in the ladies room one day and a mutual friend said to me, ‘There’s this guy that has a crush on you,’” Krista remembered, sitting on the couple’s sofa in their Plymouth Meeting rancher.
Chris said he first noticed his future wife while she was pregnant. Krista was married and about to have a baby girl. He may not have given it much thought, but as the months went on and Krista delivered her daughter and returned to work, he began to notice.
“She had a serenity,” he said. “She seemed very laid back.”
Krista’s daughter, Emily, was born 13 weeks early, weighing just 2 pounds, 1 ounce. Although Chris did not know it yet, Krista’s marriage to her baby’s father was crumbling as she struggled through those first critical months with Emily.
By the time their mutual friend mentioned Chris, Krista was completely immersed in caring for Emily.
“I wanted nothing to do with men at that point,” she laughed.
But the friend wore her down and got her to agree to go on just one date.
“We talked on the phone for five hours before our first date,” she remembered.
When they finally went out the following Saturday, just three days before Sept. 11, 2001, he said he knew she was it for him.
“I felt very comfortable,” he said. “I didn’t feel nervous.”
Over steaks at Delmonico’s, the two continued to bond, and a month later came Krista’s ah-ha moment.
“There is this restaurant in LA, Medieval Times, and I had always wanted to go, but I never said anything to anyone about it. About a month after we started dating, Chris told me had a surprise for me,” she said. “He took me there for dinner. I thought he was reading my mind.”
As their relationship was growing, Krista was coming to terms with the news that her daughter had cerebral palsy. Emily had spent the first 11 weeks of her life in the hospital. When she was just 15 days old, the doctors found cysts in her motor cortex and informed Krista that there was a 50-50 chance she would have CP. By the age of 1, it was clear she would have challenges.
Chris and Krista both agree that it was easier for Chris. He always knew that Emily had a disability whereas Krista spent a year hoping her daughter would escape without the diagnosis.
If it was difficult for Krista to come to terms with her daughter’s diagnosis, but she had the love and acceptance of her new boyfriend to uplift her spirits.
“It didn’t hinder me at all,” said Chris, who never thought of Emily as a potential burden or problem in pursuing his relationship with Krista. “Emily made it easy, she’s a very loving girl.”
“I was just so grateful that she was alive,” Krista said of her daughter at that point. “And here was this kind-hearted person, this gentle man. He never once treated Emily as if she had a disability.”
As they were getting dressed to go out to dinner one night, Krista felt that something was going on. They had already started packing, having decided to move east together. Chris had now been working for Zimmerman for 12 years and felt confident that his experience and level would provide a comfortable lifestyle in the area he grew up in. Los Angeles was prohibitively expensive, especially if you wanted to buy a house and raise a family.
He told her to wear something nice for the evening. They went to a nice restaurant where Chris proposed. It was official. Emily was almost three, and Chris knew that he wanted to be a father to her and a husband to Krista.
The family moved to Chestnut Hill for a couple of years before buying a ranch house in Plymouth Meeting. They had to find a one-story home with no steps to the door to accommodate Emily’s wheelchair. Now 4½ years old, Emily was just starting to talk.
“She is significantly impaired,” said Krista, describing her daughter’s disability.
Emily doesn’t walk. She cannot feed or dress herself. At 9, she is still in diapers.
About a year after they returned to the east coast, Chris lost his job with Zimmerman. He worked two jobs for a year before finding “a really good job” with Hudson Highland, another staffing firm based out of Chicago.
For the next three years life went on as usual. They bought the rancher for $216,000, using a first and second mortgage package to secure the deal. They had another child, a boy they named Giovanni, and Krista went back to work at an insurance company doing seasonal tax preparation work for half the year.
Then, as Chris put it, all hell broke loose in the economy. Chris lost his job again.
By December 2008, when Chris Aiello lost his second job in four years, he was married and the father of two young children (he legally adopted Emily years earlier). His older brother had passed away in 2007 at the age of 45 from colon cancer. He lost his mother, Elaine, a year later – the same year Krista would lose her father.
They were struggling to make their mortgage payments and had racked up a significant amount of credit card debt. Chris started applying for jobs. He got interviews but no offers. He collected unemployment and began working part-time at Wawa. They fell behind on their mortgage payments and applied for the Home Affordability Mortgage Program, created by the Obama administration for homeowners just like the Aiellos.
The rancher was no longer worth the more than $200,000 they paid for it and the banks’ weren’t cooperating. They were denied HAMP assistance when Citibank, the holder of the Aiello’s second mortgage on the property turned down the modification made by Bank of America, the primary lender.
According to Aiello, the new loan would have given BofA a larger amount of the mortgage and Citibank less. In a case where there are two mortgages, both banks must agree on the terms of the new loan. The Aiellos were out of luck.
“It’s a shame because we could have afforded the new payments,” Chris said.
Recently Chris made the difficult decision to walk away from the house, and the banks have started foreclosure proceedings.
Unfortunately it was not the most difficult situation the Aiellos would face last year. In the beginning of the year, their son Gio, now 4, was officially diagnosed with severe autism. He began exhibiting symptoms when he was 18 months old.
“It really broke my heart,” Chris said. “He was talking. He had a few words and then the boogie man came in at 3 in the morning one night and stole our son.”
It may have been familiar territory for Krista, having a child diagnosed with a disability. It was new ground for Chris, who was devastated. Gio has said one word, “hi,” in the last 15 months. He attends a pre-school through the Montgomery County Intermediate Unit three days a week.
Krista and Chris had already begun joking half-heartedly that there was a black cloud hanging over them when, in January, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She has stage 0 ductal carcinoma in situ, an early form of breast cancer that is confined to the milk ducts. Doctors were able to remove all of the cancerous cells and now Krista has radiation five days a week for six weeks. She has three more weeks to go.
The prognosis is good. And just this week Chris was offered a full-time job.
As they embark on the summer of 2010, the Aiellos will look for an apartment near where they live. They are limited by the children’s needs, but remain hopeful that they will find something in their price range.
Chris’ best friend since childhood, John Gannone, has organized a fundraiser to help the family on April 10. Other family members and friends have helped, too, over the past 15 months. And the couple is still going strong despite all the obstacles.
The hardest part they said is that they don’t get any time alone. It is not easy to find babysitting for two special needs children.
“The flight to California for my father’s funeral was the first time we’ve been alone in 10 years,” Krista said.
They find solace in the good moments with their children. Chris affectionately refers to Emily as “this young lady” and revels in her vocabulary and non-stop chattering.
“The best part is when they show joy when you come in the door,” Krista said.
The Beef and Beer Fundraiser for the Aiellos will be held from 7:30 p.m. to midnight Saturday, April 10, at the Bocce Club, 118 E. Hartwell Lane. Tickets are $25 at the door or by e-mail at AlforMailers@comcast.net to contribute through PayPal.