A home away from home

Midshipmen: To ease Naval Academy stresses, Annapolis families "adopt" students, offering them a refuge to sleep, eat and relax.

May 23, 2000|By Laura Sullivan | Laura Sullivan,SUN STAFF

In his bedroom in the basement, Manny Pardo displays pictures of his girlfriend, keeps a rack full of compact discs near his bed and hangs his clothes neatly in the closet. He seems perfectly at home.

Except this isn't his home. And the family milling about upstairs isn't his family.

But they might as well be, because for the past four years, since the day his parents dropped him off inside the gates of the Naval Academy for the agonizing experience called plebe summer, he has come to this home for food, rest and companionship.

The Naval Academy calls it the "sponsor program," in which more than 800 Annapolis families adopted students this year, as families have for almost 50 years. Pardo and other students call it the "sanity program," because it offers the occasional break from an otherwise overwhelming schedule.

The home on the Severn River where Pardo goes belongs to Dr. Juan and Claudia Pardo -- no relation to Manny Pardo or his family back home in Florida, but a coincidence that helped bring them together. A few weeks after meeting his sponsors, Manny Pardo brought over four of his friends, and the Pardos adopted them, too.

As the group prepares to graduate tomorrow, Mrs. Pardo, who still calls Manny Pardo "our midshipman" in a way that makes it sound like "our son," said she is happy, but sad at the same time.

"During plebe year, they need you so much, they are just struggling through," she said. "And then you watch them grow and you see them less and less. And you celebrate their birthdays and meet their girlfriends and you talk about them and wonder how they did on their exams.

"They're just like our own kids, and it's like watching them leave the nest all over again," she said. "We're proud of them. We feel like this is another family we've raised, except we didn't have to run a carpool."

Unlike the other military academies, the Naval Academy matches families to freshmen based on an extensive questionnaire both parties complete. It asks religious preferences, ethnicity, home state, gender, sports and special interests. Families can also request a midshipman by name.

Academy officials say most matches work well. Occasionally, they don't, usually when a host family expects more of a baby sitter or maid, or when a midshipman is unappreciative or lazy.

"We try to let the families know ahead of time what to expect," said Cmdr. Brian E. Burlingame, who oversees the program for the academy. "These kids are coming from a very stressful environment their freshman year, and they will really use the home as a respite."

Students can sleep during the day, eat junk food, watch television -- things they are forbidden to do on campus. Most freshmen are permitted to leave the academy only from 10: 15 a.m until about midnight Saturday, and occasionally until Sunday morning. And they aren't permitted to go beyond a 22-mile radius of the academy. Sponsors must live within the radius.

Some sponsor families stock their refrigerators with "Mid food" -- soda, chips, ice cream.

Most families take in a plebe or two a year. A few are hosts to members of sports teams, such as four students from the rugby team or a couple from the football team.

Some families request a different student every year. Some want the same one for the four-year cycle. Most of the families return each year to be part of the program.

From it has sprung a number of clubs for sponsor families that answer questions and provide outings for the students and the sponsors.

Manny Pardo was connected to the Maryland Pardos by the owner of a local restaurant. Upon learning the midshipman's name, he asked whether Pardo was related to a local family he knows. When Pardo said no, the owner called the Maryland Pardos and told them about the program. Manny Pardo's friends also received sponsor families but latched on to the Pardos, too.

In the basement recreation room, the group has made its way through all of the family's movies and compact discs, and gave a worn-looking foosball machine a run for its money.

"I remember coming in so tired, saying `hi' to Mrs. Pardo and then just going downstairs," Manny Pardo said, "and whoever got to the bed first could sleep there, and the rest of us would find a place on the sofa or the chair. Then, after a few hours, we would go upstairs and talk."

At some point, Mrs. Pardo said, all five of them have come to her devastated over something or other, burying their heads in their hands at her kitchen table.

"We would try to make them laugh and tell them that life goes on," she said. "We told them they can't shock us. There is nothing we haven't heard before from our own kids when they were in school. Except our kids didn't have juniors hammering down on them and we weren't able to sit down and talk them through it because they were all away at school."

The Pardos began going to Manny Pardo's rugby games to cheer him on and let him take their boat out on the water after he offered to wash it for them. At the start of his junior year, they gave him a key to the door.

She said they aren't going to take on a new group because they want to be able to travel more on the weekends. And, she said, pausing, "it would be difficult to replace them."

The Pardos here have become close to the Pardos in Florida.

"His parents would call us from time to time," Mrs. Pardo said. "His mother would say, `He doesn't sound good. How does he look? Is he eating?' I would tell her he looked good."

Tomorrow, all of them will watch Manny Pardo graduate. Their seats are right next to each other.

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