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Andrea Rees leaves gift to the ARC of DE that is a legacy of gratitude

She didn’t live a flashy life. No bling, no fancy stuff, no throwing elbows to get in front of someone else.

No, Andrea Rees enjoyed simple pleasures – family, friends, her Siberian cat, Tanya, needlepoint, watching birds and reading Westerns and books about the Civil War.

She worked hard at Bank of America, as she had for MBNA America and the Elwyn Institute before it, in the bank’s Support Services Department, where she and others with intellectual and developmental disabilities have made good money in full-time jobs since the unit was established in 1990.

She listened to her financial advisers. She paid her bills and her taxes.

Her disability was not severe, but enough that she was “slightly off the pace,” her brother, Eric, said. She had a speech impediment and walked with an awkward gait. But she had qualified for The Arc of Delaware’s job training program years earlier, took advantage of it and landed the job at the bank.

So when she was diagnosed with endometrial cancer in June 2013 and had to leave work for surgery and follow-up treatment, Eric sat down with her at their parents’ Brandywine Hundred home.

They went over her situation and Eric was stunned to discover his sister had built a significant estate – including her condominium, a savings account, investments and insurance.

You should make a will, Eric told her, so your wishes will be carried out if something happens. She agreed, and she also agreed with his suggestion that she do something significant with the money.

So this past July, just a few weeks after Andrea Rees died of uterine cancer on June 24, the phone rang at The Arc of Delaware’s office. And the phone rang at Best Buddies of Delaware, a nonprofit that links people with intellectual and/or developmental disabilities with new friends in the community. Andrea’s “best buddy” had been Gail Fidance of Fairfax.

Andrea left The Arc $100,000.

She left Best Buddies $50,000.

And she left many people speechless.

“I sometimes get $10 or $20 from persons with disabilities, and I always want to thank them profusely,” said Terry Olson, executive director of The Arc of Delaware. “I am always touched when a person you serve steps up and does something like that.

“But we have had nothing approaching this.”

Endless gratitude

Not even her closest friends knew of Andrea’s wealth, let alone her plans for it.

“I was really amazed,” said Debbie Kohler of Wilmington, who knew and worked with Andrea for decades and considered her to be her best friend. “It was so great, I was just so happy that Andrea had done that.”

Mary Beth Limmina, a case worker for The Arc of Delaware, had known Andrea from the years she worked at the Elwyn Institute and later at Bank of America. Andrea needed little assistance, Limmina said.

“Honestly, considering what I do for others I work with, I did very little,” said Limmina, who has worked for The Arc for 13 years and worked for Elwyn for about 11. “It’s just the outpouring of gratitude from her and her family that is amazing.”

It was after Andrea got sick that Limmina took a more active role in her life. She helped with insurance, visited her at the hospital, kept up with her family, through her first diagnosis in 2013 and her last struggle.

Toward the end of Andrea’s life, Limmina remembers getting an email from Eric Rees, expressing the family’s gratitude, noting that Andrea had been good at saving money, and suggesting there may be some recognition of that coming.

“I thought that was nice,” Limmina said, “and thought maybe in the obituary they would ask that donations go to The Arc, which would have been wonderful.”

The obituary steered gifts to Special Olympics Delaware, though, and Limmina said she was fine with that.

“Then, out of the blue, I get a call from Terry Olson.”

Olson told her about Andrea’s gift.

“I was bowled over.”

So was Gail Fidance, Andrea’s “best buddy” connection. Kohler had urged Andrea to participate in that program and Andrea signed up.

It was a recent friendship, they were paired in October 2013. But they made the most of their time, getting together often, sometimes for lunch at the Hollywood Grill on Concord Pike, sometimes shopping for needlework supplies at Michael’s, sometimes just driving around talking. They talked by phone often.

“I have four messages saved on my phone,” Fidance said. “She’d say, ‘Hi Gail, this is your best buddy Andrea.’ Whenever we went out, she’d introduce me, ‘This is my best buddy.’ Or she’d just turn and say, ‘Hi, best buddy’ and we’d hug. She brought so much joy.”

But she never talked about her plan or the money she had saved.

When Fidance heard about Andrea’s gift, she had no words.

“I was completely and totally and I am still blown away,” she said. “God bless her. … Never in a zillion hundred years would I have thought that.”

Overcoming challenges

Eric Rees said his sister’s disabilities were obvious from her infancy. Their parents, Richard and Shirley Rees, rejected early suggestions from psychologists to place her in an institution, instead supporting her efforts in school, her desire to work and, eventually, to get her own place.

Before joining the bank’s roster, she worked at several other places, including East Wind Industries in Clayton, Elwyn Institute, the Opportunity Center, and also in food service during the four years she lived in Geneva, Switzerland, with her family.

But she found her niche at the bank, where she was a conscientious, cheerful worker, according to Mark Feinour, Support Services executive for Bank of America, who knew Andrea for 15 of the 18 years she worked there.

“She knew what her task was and she was always a perfectionist at her task,” he said. “And when she finished, if others were still working the same type of job, she would jump over and help them.”

She wasn’t crazy about getting up early, Eric said, “but she was up before dawn most days of the year and she enjoyed putting in a hard day’s work.”

Support Services has more than 300 employees in all, Feinour said, and Andrea took on greater responsibility as her skills increased.

“She was what I would call a silent leader, not very vocal, quiet and shy, but led in her work ethic. She would be here each and every day, a smile on her face and ready to work. No matter how bad a day you’re having, her attitude could help change your attitude, and you can’t put a value on that.”

A shining personality

Her attitude often came with a sharp wit that surprised many, friends said. Anyone who talked with her discovered it soon enough.

“She made everything funny,” Fidance said. “One time, somebody did not hold the door for us. I looked at her and I said to the man, ‘Thank you.’ And she said, ‘Let’s just go get him. Oh, on second thought, we’ll get him the next time.’ ”

Limmina said Andrea even found ways to make fun of her illness, describing some situations with such drama that they would both end up laughing.

“I just miss her every day,” Kohler said. “I loved her with all my heart.”

A few weeks ago, Andrea’s mother Shirley and “Best Buddy” Gail took Kohler to Andrea’s condominium at The Devon. They wanted her to pick out something to remember her best friend by.

“I picked out a plaque that had Andrea’s picture and my picture. Tears were coming down my eyes,” Kohler said.

Kohler said she promised Andrea that she would stay in touch with her parents, and she continues to call them each day.

When what would have been Andrea’s 54th birthday arrived this summer, Kohler led a celebration at work. She and her co-workers wrote birthday greetings, signed their names, tied the paper up with strings from balloons, went outside, said a prayer, and let those balloons rise into the sky.

“We said, ‘Happy birthday, Andrea. Happy birthday, Andrea.”

The balloons floated away to wherever balloons go on such missions.

But Andrea’s gifts remain for others to draw on, no strings attached.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.familiesspeakingup.com/2014/09/30/andrea-rees-leaves-gift-to-the-arc-of-de-that-is-a-legacy-of-gratitude/

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