In June 2009, Karen DeRiemer took a chance. She entered her family in a contest to win a $10,000 dream vacation. HomeAway, a Texas-based company that matches travelers with vacation properties all over the world, sponsored the contest to give a free vacation to a deserving family. Contestants had two weeks to recruit votes, and the family with the most votes registered would win the vacation.
“I am the mother of a smart, witty, charismatic son named Christian. Along with all of the many positive attributes he has, I need to mention that Christian has been diagnosed with a rare form of muscular dystrophy, which makes him dependent on a ventilator, a surgically-placed feeding tube and a motorized wheelchair, among other medical equipment,” she wrote in her contest essay.
To their surprise and delight, the family won the vacation, and they chose Fenwick Island as their dream destination.
How did this family from West Chester, Pa., beat 1,500 other contestants?
The family sent out e-mails to relatives and friends, asking for their votes.
“Christian sent it to all his friends, and we sent it to all our friends. And it really went! I really understood what going viral means,” said Neil DeRiemer, Christian’s dad. “We had 10,000 votes in the first couple days, and we thought, “Wow – 6,000 votes won it last year, we’ve got a shot at this.’ Out of 65,000 votes, we got 51,000.”
The DeRiemers received 50,392 votes. The next closest finalist only received 1,438.
Christian gives credit to online comic book creator Tim Buckley for helping their campaign for votes go global.
“Tim put it out to the whole gamer community, and it all just took off,” added Neil DeRiemer.
Christian credited his dad for first getting him into computers.
“It’s all his fault!” he said.
“We were trying to get something for him to do with basically one hand. And he got pretty good with Nintendo,” explained Neil DeRiemer. “He’s got Wii, Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. It’s amazing because, given his condition, the computer is his window into the world. He stays up ’til 2 or 3 o’clock in the morning, talking to people.”
The family was given $10,000 to pay for the rental property and the remainder to use on their vacation. They had originally wanted to travel to North Carolina to stay at a beach house with handicapped accessibilities, including an elevator, but they were unable to get one that would coincide with their schedule.
So they opted to cut down their 10-hour journey to a short two-and-a-half-hour trip and stay at a house in Veranda Bay in Fenwick Island, rented out by Sarah Ford Schifano. The family couldn’t have been happier with their choice – especially when it came to activities and Fourth of July fireworks.
“We’ve had a great time. For the fireworks, we had the best views. We could look south and see the Ocean City stuff and then we could look north and see all the Bethany stuff. It was great,” said Neil DeRiemer. “There was no lack of things to do. The kids were in the pool. We’d like to come back, I think. It’s a nice place.”
The family had visitors join them throughout the week, to celebrate the family’s vacation. Christian even went out a number of nights, with friends to local bars.
“He’s 22. His friends are going to the bars. And we checked with the doc and, he said, ‘moderation,’” said Neil DeRiemer.
When in West Chester, Christian attends Delaware County Community College and has become interested in acting.
“He’s written a couple of vignettes. He’s done some very funny, creative things. Part of acting is getting out of yourself; Christian does what he can with his abilities, and I think his teacher appreciates that.” He added, “Hey, it’s your life, man. We’ll support you in any way we can.”
Neil DeRiemer recalls that he was on the corporate fast track when Christian was first diagnosed. He left the fast track and changed his own life.
“When he came along, it was like, ‘Wait a minute. This isn’t the kid I ordered. This isn’t the kid I planned on. What do you mean he’s “special needs” and we’re going to have to do all this stuff?’ And he might not have been the one I expected or wanted, but it was definitely the one I needed and am glad I got,” he said.
He also noted that, with Christian, the stereotypical father-role went out the window and that the two of them have a truly special relationship.
“There’s no instruction book on how to be a father of a special-needs kid. So we just play it by ear. Mostly people, I think, perceive being a father as the corrector, the coach, the disciplinarian, the ‘don’t do that’ guy.”
Continued DeRiemer, “It’s a very different relationship than what I had with my father, which was great but just real different. He was teaching me to shoot a gun and tie a knot. Me, I’m just trying to give him a philosophy about being in the moment, don’t worry about the past, the future — plan for it, but mostly be happy and make a difference right now because now is all you’ve really got. Yesterday’s gone. Tomorrow, who knows? So you’ve got this moment. Be in the moment.”
The DeRiemers have embraced fully their moment in the sun in Fenwick Island and have brought their positive outlook to all aspects of their lives.
“My friends, they go, ‘God, it must be so rough,’ and I go, ‘Well, it’s different.’ But I get to hug my son before every bath, before every transfer from his bed to his wheelchair or any other apparatus,” said Neil. “So I get to hug him. It’s great. I wouldn’t know what else to do at this point. There is something ennobling about taking care of somebody else so completely. It gets you off yourself and allows for others to come in.”
To read Karen DeRiemer’s HomeAway contest essay, visit blog.homeaway.com/node/534.