November 20, 2012 by JAN TYLER / Special to Newsday
"I had a hunch that they'd hit it off," said Judy Carey, who introduced Emily Costanza and Frank Sciaretta about a year ago.
And they did. Costanza, 37, of Bay Shore, and Sciaretta, 49, of Levittown, both of whom have spinal disorders that have confined them to wheelchairs, are engaged to be married and plan to tie the knot in September.
"There are so many details, like working out everyone's schedules," Costanza said, "and we're still looking for a catering facility that's completely handicapped-accessible where we could hold the wedding ceremony and the reception; four of our friends are also in wheelchairs. Plus, I'll need a custom-made gown, and we'll need both a pastor and a priest because Frank is Catholic and I'm a born-again Christian."
They spend as much time together as they can, meeting for lunch, going to movies, shopping and to church. They often drive Sciaretta's retrofitted Toyota Sienna minivan.
As Costanza showed off her diamond engagement ring, Sciaretta held tight to her right hand. They both beamed with joy.
"She's a blessing," he said. "She's brought so much happiness into my life."
Matched with dogs
The couple had been accepted, separately, as recipients of support dogs at Canine Companions for Independence (CCI), a nationwide nonprofit with a campus in Medford. CCI donates service dogs that have been bred for intelligence and docility and are specially trained to assist disabled children and adults in their daily lives.
Dogs and their human partners are matched in terms of the recipient's needs. CCI dogs can open drawers and doors, turn light switches off and on, retrieve and pick up fallen objects and alert caregivers to an emergency with their partners. The service is free, and candidates have to show they can care for the dogs, according to the CCI website.
Sciaretta and his black Labrador retriever, Bastien, have been together since 2007. Each day, Bastien accompanies Sciaretta to his job as a computer systems manager in Melville.
Costanza was diagnosed 10 years ago with a rare condition called Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome (EDS), which weakens connective tissue in skin, bones and other organs. She and her companion, Carmel, also a black Labrador retriever, were paired in 2010.
"My family thought I was crazy," she said. "They said I couldn't take care of a dog, that it would be too much for me to handle. But these dogs are so well trained, they're so devoted and obedient, it's like having a loving friend with you all the time." As she caressed Carmel's silky coat, Costanza recalled that she "had the oddest feeling that something wonderful would come from my connection with CCI, that it was absolutely the best thing for me to do, and I was so right."
Costanza met Carey, a volunteer puppy raiser for CCI who lives in Massapequa, during orientations at the Medford campus, and they became friends. "I began visiting Emily at her home," Carey said. "And it just broke my heart to know she was alone when she's so pretty and full of life; I wanted to change that for her."
Carey knew Sciaretta from events at CCI. "I knew him to be a great guy, and my matchmaking instincts started to heat up," she said. "I admired the spunk and hopeful outlook they both have.
"I invited them to lunch, and it was really funny to see the looks on the waiters' faces when they saw all three of our dogs, which, by the way, are very well behaved. But the restaurant was very nice about it.
"Frank came in with a rose for Emily and one for me; a very romantic gesture. I could tell they were taken with each other, and before the end of the meal they were exchanging phone numbers. I couldn't have been more delighted."
"That night," Costanza said, "he called, and we talked for hours. We started to date and the attraction grew; it was magical. We knew we'd found our life partner."
There are other bright spots in the couple's future. Costanza, a professional vocalist with a bluesy, light-contralto delivery, said, "I'm lined up with Sony Music Entertainment as backup for an album featuring Gordon Bahary, a retro-pop singer, and I'm really excited about it."
Although Costanza is planning to stay in her Bay Shore apartment until after the wedding, the couple is looking forward to living together in the remodeled Levittown house her fiance grew up in with his four siblings. His father, Frank Sr., has died, and he shares the home with his mother, Rita.
Built at ground level, the house needed no entry ramps. With contractors making the improvements based on Sciaretta's designs, several interior walls in the public rooms were removed, creating a spacious and barrier-free living, dining and kitchen space. Some countertops and sinks were lowered for easy access.
"Over the years we made changes that helped me get around, first on crutches and then in the wheelchair," said Sciaretta, who was born with spina bifida, a condition in which the vertebrae aren't fully connected. "It's now totally handicapped-accessible, and I know Emily will be very comfortable here."
But the couple's happy engagement is only part of their story. Cupid's arrows seem to have found their marks in Bastien and Carmel as well. During visits, the dogs carry on a lovefest of their own.
"They run to greet each other and rub noses and do all the usual doggy hellos," Costanza said. "They cuddle and play together; they love to wrestle and pull each other around the floor. Sometimes it gets a little rambunctious, but it's such fun to watch them."
Volunteer puppy raisers are urgently needed at Canine Companions for Independence in Medford. To learn more, contact the organization at 631-561-0231 or cci.org.