Children still fundraising to help former teacher drive again

Casey Brown, who started fundraising efforts to buy her former teacher, Anne Mekalian, a car, poses with her for a photo in 2012. (File photo/2012 / May 10, 2012)

Buying a new car is exciting for anyone, but for Anne Mekalian, a quadruple amputee, it was miraculous.

"It was so exciting," said Mekalian, 67, who purchased the Subaru Crosstrek last month and is waiting for it to be adapted for her special needs. "I thought, 'My dream is coming true.'"

Driving was the least of her worries in 2011. That's when she spent six weeks at St. Joseph's Hospital fighting for her life after being diagnosed with strep throat and double pneumonia, and then with sepsis, a complication from infection that caused circulation to her arms and legs to stop..

Both arms and both legs had to be amputated, forever altering the life of Mekalian, who was then a third-grade teacher at Cathedral of Mary Our Queen Catholic School in Homeland.

But life was about to change again for Mekalian, of Harford County. She was fitted with four prostheses, while her students, led by 10-year-old Casey Brown, of Cedarcroft, and her mother, Trudy Brown, started an online fundraising campaign, called "Driving Mrs. M," to help Mekalian drive again.

The students' original goal wasn't to help their favorite teacher drive, but "to get her back teaching," recalled Casey, who is now a rising sixth-grader at the school on North Charles Street.

"But then we found out she really wanted her independence," Casey said last week. "It grew into something great."

Last year the students began their fundraising campaign on the website http://www.giveforward.com, while Connie Bottinelli, a family friend of the Browns and a professional documentary filmmaker, began making a movie about Mekalian's ordeal and the children's initiative.

They also held a silent auction and a 50-50 raffle Sept. 30 at Zen West, a restaurant near Belvedere Square, and auctioned off items ranging from Under Armour sports gear to a Smyth Jewelers bracelet. All told, they have raised about $33,000, Trudy Brown said.

Mekalian and her fiancé, Pete Lodgen, a retired Maryland Transportation Authority police officer, purchased the car last month at Lawrence Subaru in Hanover, Pa. It is being outfitted with special features including a modified key, a lever for braking and stepping on the gas, an adapted steering wheel, voice commands for turning on the wiper blades and horn, and a button Mekalian can bump with her elbow to set cruise control.

The car won't be ready until September and the adaptations are expected top cost about $16,000, the couple said. Mekalian said she also had to take 20 hours of specialty driving lessons.

"I'll be on the road in early September," Mekalian said. "I'll let everybody know to clear out of the way."

'I would like to see her drive and know that I was a little part of it," Casey said.

Mekalian no longer plans to teach, because of what she calls "my physical limitations," but hopes to counsel other amputees. She also said she plans to drive to Cathedral of Mary Our Queen or to Causey's house, "so the children can see what their money paid for."

Said Casey, "I think we came a long way doing it."

Bottinelli, the filmmaker, is still working on the documentary, Trudy Brown said. Brown assumes that "the movie is going to end with (Mekalian) driving. "It's 'Driving Mrs. M.' It should end that way."