To say that the odds were against Diavion Fonseca would be an understatement.
In 2014, Diavion – or just “D,” as she is called by those who know her – was a 15-year-old freshman at Pilgrim High School. She was living with her 19-year-old sister in the third floor of an apartment on West Shore Road. She was also mostly deaf, mostly blind and afflicted with Type 1 diabetes.
While she had been born on St. Thomas Island – making her a United States citizen – Diavion’s sister was not, and was in the country on a student visa while attending New England Tech. Her parents and immediate family were 1,657 miles away in their native Tortola, which is the largest of the British Virgin Islands. They believed that Diavion would be able to access better care for her needs in America.
“It’s a small island, and they really are not equipped to handle kids with situations like D,” said Dan Barrow, a Warwick Neck resident who with his wife, Debbie, has become a de facto parent to Diavion. “So, the thinking for someone like D to come here is good.”
“Although, the circumstances in which she was placed created this huge problem,” he continued.
Diavion’s relationship with her genetic family and her own personal growth has constituted a tumultuous journey since she first arrived in Warwick nearly five years ago. It is a situation that involves many troubling stories, investigations from DCYF and the state’s Child Protective Services, refrigerators containing nothing but lemonade, an unannounced whisking away back to Tortola without the school’s knowledge, and much more that cannot be explored within the confines of this article.
What started off as a less than ideal living situation with her older sister devolved into something even worse. Her sister would eventually leave Diavion alone in the apartment, at first only checking in on her periodically and, eventually, not at all.
“It was a very unsafe, unsupported, neglectful situation,” said Heidi Fanion, Pilgrim High School social worker.
Thankfully, the dreary climax of the first act of this story occurred on the cusp of Diavion turning 18 and gaining her independence. That would be the catalyst that enabled her to accept the help that was offered to her and begin a healing process that has resulted in a drastically different second act than may have otherwise occurred.
Truly, the story that emerges as most important among all these numerous details is how a guarded, malnourished, chronically neglected, 84-pound teenage girl who never laughed – with more challenges stacked up against her than many will face in a lifetime – transitioned from a rock-bottom reality of essentially accepting that she was going to die, into a healthy young woman who can brighten an entire room with her dry humor, big smile and genuine gratitude.
“The transformation, it’s kind of like the metamorphosis from a caterpillar to a butterfly,” Dan said. “It has just been a complete turnaround.”
The actors responsible for this unlikely happy ending – or perhaps more appropriately, this new beginning – are not the types to seek credit for their actions.
Dan and Debbie Barrow downplay their role in Diavion’s turnaround. This is despite the fact that they literally took her into their home during the worst, most uncertain period of her life and ensured that she received her insulin on time and got regular meals and a steady home life, which she had lacked since coming to the country.
Fanion is another person doing great things that go largely unnoticed. She organizes a self-start prom dress/tuxedo giveaway program out of her office each year, a story the Beacon picked up on only because her husband reached out about it – and simply considers these types of things to be part of her job.
Kaitlyn Rachiele is a teacher assistant, meaning she enjoys very little job security and receives even less credit for the work she puts in each week. In this case, Rachiele had no idea what she was signing on for when she took the job to be the day-to-day assistant for Diavion. In fact, she said the job description failed to even mention the depth of her medical conditions. The description certainly didn’t include the information that Diavion was conditioned to be untrusting of all forms of help from outside her family either – which made things even more complex.
“She hid a lot of her stuff. I never saw a lot of her emotions,” Rachiele said. “She was very to herself, and she didn’t want to share a lot of information.”
Rachiele said there were multiple opportunities where she could have cut and run from the position, but she knew in her heart that Diavion needed consistency. The pair stuck together for all four of her high school years, resulting in the two of them happily dancing down the aisle at the CCRI Field House following Pilgrim’s graduation ceremony earlier this month – where Diavion graduated with honorable mention for her senior project.
“We did it, we did it!” they chanted in a video taken of the moment. “Well, you did it,” Rachiele corrected. But Diavion would agree it was a team effort.
“I always looked up to Miss Kaitlyn like a big sister. She’s really good,” she said. “We would have fun in PE, she would take me to classes, make sure I have all my work done, and there were times I could talk to her about to anything or things that concerned me.”
“When I needed help with [learning] what’s disrespectful or what’s not the right thing to say, she would also help me with those things too. Just to look over me, you know? Which I appreciate,” she continued.
Rachiele’s efforts have not gone unnoticed in the larger community, either. Nominated by Diavion and the Barrow family, she was recently named the recipient of a Golden Apple award, which is granted via a partnership between the state Department of Education and WJAR to recognize outstanding educational efforts in Rhode Island municipalities.
“Kaitlyn is a natural. She is a natural at what she does, and in my opinion, she doesn’t give herself enough credit,” Fanion said. “And she is truly a genuine human being – has compassion and care for others, regardless of how they present.”
Wiping away tears, Rachiele was clearly touched by the words from her student and her colleagues.
“I just know that it’s what I love to do,” she said. “To go into it, my parents are both special ed teachers. It’s just a love I have. I have a very huge love for special ed and Special Olympics and just helping. Just doing what I can to help the student or the athlete.”
With the support of this network, Diavion not only improved her grades and learned a variety of skills such as Braille, she regained the ability to trust people and has found the stability that enables her to become more confident in striving to become independent.
“When she became more emotionally regulated, her mind became a sponge,” Fanion said.
Her supporters know in their hearts that Diavion’s story is a compelling one. Diavion herself knows this as well, and this is why she felt the importance of sharing it. It is her story, and one she will get to write the ending for, thanks in part to those guardians who cared for her when she had nowhere to turn and no one to rely on.
“The world changed overnight thanks to these guys and everybody. Because she was in a horrible situation,” said Debbie. “A lot of the details haven’t even come out, and that’s why that will be for the movie.”