SURVIVING, THRIVING AND DRIVING
When their family grew too big and complicated to travel together, the Ablondis found the vehicle that could accommodate their special needs and put them back on the road.
By Gillian Aldrich
Dave and Rachel Ablondi get our vote for Adventurers of the Year. They may not have climbed Mount Everest, but their grit, determination and optimism rival the stamina of the world’s greatest explorers—and their journey is no less impressive. When the Mount Airy, Md. couple met, they bonded over their love of traveling. Every chance they could get, the couple took cross-country road trips to marvel at mountains, deserts and national parks. They loved driving and envisioned future road trips with their children.
But when their son, Andrew, was born with bleeding in the brain, which led to a diagnosis of cerebral palsy, they couldn’t think of a future at all. Andrew didn’t reach any developmental milestones beyond rolling over, yet a cause for his illness wasn’t easy to find. Years later, Andrew would be diagnosed with Lennox-Gastaut syndrome, a rare epileptic disorder that causes severe brain and neurological damage.
Two years later, Rachel became pregnant with a second son, but he was born prematurely and didn’t survive. During those tragic years, having Andrew to take care of kept Rachel and Dave from sinking into grief, and they determined to give him the fullest life they could, taking him along on their travels. As a toddler, Andrew felt the force and cool spray of Niagara on his cheek, his fingers played in the warm sand of ocean beaches, and he heard the close call of elk while perched on his father’s shoulder in the Rockies.
When he was three, the family adopted Amelia from Guatemala. She and Andrew bonded so well that a year later, they adopted Ava, also from Guatemala. It was a complete surprise in 2008 when Rachel became pregnant again, giving birth to a healthy girl, Jenna.
As the Ablondi family grew, traveling became increasingly difficult. “When Andrew turned 15, he graduated to a bigger wheelchair, and we were squeezed into our old minivan. We had to take out all of the luggage before we could even use the ramp, and the girls were in tiny fold-down seats.” When the minivan broke down on the highway in November 2015, the Ablondis realized they could no longer afford to take chances like that with Andrew—who still suffers daily seizures. They needed a better solution.
Dave, a lifelong Ford fan who keeps a sky-blue ’66 Mustang convertible in his garage for Sunday drives, had been keenly eyeing the Ford Transit. When he went online to Build & Price the van, he was surprised to find that the price point was much more affordable than that of most accessible vans. But it was the Transit’s versatility that sold him on his first drive. He remarks, “It’s revolutionary. It’s as large as a cargo van, but comfortable like an RV, and yet it feels like driving a car—one with a dashboard that feels like a cockpit. I’ve never seen one vehicle that checks all of those boxes.” Rachel likes the fact that everyone has their own space with access to the tinted windows, and she can park it easily no matter where she is.Dave has always been drawn to American icons. “In high school, I worked for two years at the local drugstore to buy a 1969 Mustang convertible,” he laughs. “Ford has never let me down. It’s my go-to.”
Dave was also able to customize the Transit’s height online (without paying custom prices), so he could size it to work with Andrew’s wheelchair. And with a $1,000 rebate on mobility uplifts through the Ford Mobility Motoring program to help defray the cost, they retrofitted the Transit with a wheelchair lift. “Getting him in and out is simple now, and there’s enough space for all of our gear.”
As soon as they had “Big Blue,” the family began planning their first cross-country road trip. For 15 days last August, they traveled from D.C. to St. Louis, to Colorado, to the Grand Canyon, and back through New Mexico. Rachel was a little nervous about Andrew, or the possibility of the girls going stir crazy, but everyone got along, and the space to spare made all the difference. “I used to have to change Andrew on a pad at a rest stop; it was awful,” Rachel confides, then adds, “The van felt like a happy contained living room on wheels. We sang, played games, and everyone could just take downtime to watch a movie, gaze out the window or read a book.”
Dave agrees. “I love that everyone can move around comfortably, or walk to the cooler and grab a snack. Even the longest driving days are enjoyable!” Not to mention the incredible scenery and the memories shared. “I’ll never forget the sight of my girls rolling on the Great Sand Dunes and Andrew grinning ear to ear as he splashed in Pagosa Hot Springs,” Rachel recalls.
After mile 5050, the Ablondis were happy to be home, but within two days they were already excitedly planning next summer’s trip—Yellowstone, Montana and Wyoming. “When people feel sorry for me, I say, don’t!” Rachel says. “Because of Andrew, our family has had so many great experiences. We’re living life more fully than we would have otherwise. And even when we’re just sitting in the car driving, talking and laughing, we’re making memories.”