It Takes a Village (Happy Birthday, Marlene Schang!)

Pam Carmagnola led neighborhood children in singing a special birthday song to Marlene Schang (seated center). Photo courtesy Jack Looney.

Marlene Schang celebrated her 75th birthday with a party at Mountfair Vineyards in White Hall Sept. 8 with about 100 of her Wayland’s Grant neighbors.

“My friends and neighbors are so wonderful,” she said, beaming with gratitude. “I feel like I live in a Norman Rockwell painting. There are kids. Everybody is happy. I’m so blessed.”

When Schang moved to in Crozet in 2006 she was newly diagnosed with macular degeneration, which had taken the central vision in her left eye. She had agreed with her son Scott that she would look for a place in Charlottesville where she could walk to the necessities in case her vision deteriorated.

“I was skeptical about Wayland’s Grant because it wasn’t walkable to Crozet, much less Charlottesville,” he said. “But she liked it and moved in.”

She loved the sense of community there and the plan was working when very suddenly in 2010 she lost the vision in her right eye as well.

“We hadn’t expected this, and it was quite a shock,” said Scott. “She was left unable to read, drive, or watch her beloved football. But the people in the area—young families new to the area themselves and with lots on their plates as well as older friends—rallied and supported my mom for 11 months as she underwent treatments at Augusta Health in Fishersville. I’m in DC, so there wasn’t much I could do on a weekly basis. They got her to and from the grocery store, doctors’ visits, Charlottesville for volunteering, etc. It was quite an effort.

“My mom has lived all over the country and spent eight years in Asia, but the people in Crozet have been the ones to rally. I credit the fact that a new neighborhood like Wayland’s Grant, which may seem coldly suburban to some, can be so tightly knit and supportive; the medical miracle of Lucentis, the drug that’s helped many; and my amazing mom who didn’t complain, kept a positive attitude, and soldiered on without giving up or delving into self-pity.”

Schang was a librarian. “Books are my passion,” she said. So being unable to read was a special hardship. She was legally blind and used two large magnifying glasses to look at things around in her house.

Just three years ago, her condition would have been irreversible (as is the loss of sight in her left eye). After 11 months of treatments, the sight in her right eye is almost completely restored. She can see 20/25. She can drive, read, and is enjoying watching football.

“Pat Cook and Elise Onyda took me every month to get eye injections,” said Shang. Her opthamologist is Dr. James Tiedeman in Fishersville. “He calls me a miracle.” She is still getting injections.

“It’s an incredible experience to lose your sight,” said Schang. “I’m so grateful now. I had the party because I love my neighbors. They are why I get up.”

“She’s like the grandmother of the community,” said Fritz Repich, who owns the vineyard with Brian Flamm. “Everybody loves her. You expect this kind of stuff in a movie, but we are living it.”

Another neighbor, Lauren Sime, recalled that “one day Marlene came over and said ‘I can’t drive.’ In our neighborhood there are people who work from home. We would call her when we were going to Charlottesville and she would go too. She’s very organized and she learned our schedules. About a half dozen neighbors were helping her get to the grocery store and to her doctor appointments. Her house is meticulously organized and she knows where everything is. She could sort of see light and some shapes. She kept getting the newspaper and she would bring it over for us early in the morning. If she didn’t bring it, I knew to check because something could be wrong.”

“It’s been neat because we’ve all gotten so close,” said Jack Looney. “She says she has no grandchildren, but she’s got a million in the neighborhood.”

“The kids really love Marlene,” said Christina Flamm. “I don’t know what we’d do without her. When we first moved in she came over and offered to babysit if we needed help. She has knit all kinds of wool hats for the neighborhood kids.”

About 25 of those kids sang her a special birthday song composed by Pam Carmagnola to the tune of On Top of Spaghetti. Her husband Mike accompanied on guitar. Then they sang Happy Birthday and the rest of the crowd joined in. When the songs ended, the kids gathered around Schang and hugged her.