There have been times when 12-year-old Bennett Stefanowicz’s illness has made it impossible for him to eat and he has had to get nutrition through a feeding tube at night before bed.
Through it all, the goal of his mother, Leslie, has been not only to keep him healthy but to make sure he and his two sisters have “normal” childhoods — playing sports, going on family vacations, going to school, laughing with friends.
Last year her children submitted two essays and a drawing to let the judges of the annual Millis Mother of the Year know how neat their mom is.
And she won.
“I wanted her to know how much I appreciate and care about her,” Bennett said. “She’s a great person, she cares a lot, and I just wanted people to know that.”
Since then-recreation director Janet McCarron started Millis’s annual mother of the year contest in 1990, it has grown from a small activity generating just a few essays to a yearly tradition with more than 100 essays submitted.
Some kids write their essays at home on their own, some write them as part of elementary school assignments, and occasionally a mother will sit the family down for a writing session, according to current recreation director Kris Fogarty.
“The essays are all so different. We look for something that pops out at us, something a little different that shows some real thought,” she said.
Bennett wrote his essay in secret, pretending to be doing homework. His sister Maggie, 11, wrote her testimony to her mom’s excellence as a class assignment and 8-year-old Dory Stefanowicz drew a picture of playing soccer with her mom, who coaches her team.
Together, the package was selected by Fogarty and the Millis Recreation Committee, and Leslie Stefanowicz got the phone call that local mothers wait for.
“It’s a really cool thing, a really nice honor,” said Leslie Stefanowicz. “Of course my friends definitely give me good-natured crap about it.”
Joking aside, it’s an honor Stefanowicz appreciates.
“She teared up when she got the phone call,” Bennett said.
So did 2010 Mother of the Year Maryellen Jordon, whose then 10-year-old grandson, Joseph Tannetta, wrote the winning essay.
“I needed the Kleenex,” she said.
For Robin Hopkins, being a runner-up in 2010 after her teenage son, Derek, hand-delivered his essay to the Recreation Department office was “really, really, really touching.”
And for 2011 runner-up Kathleen Malewicz, a mother of quadruplets whose family went through a medical emergency the previous year, the essay written by one of her sons was “amazing.”
“I just wanted everyone to know she’s an inspiration to me and to everyone else,” 12-year-old Ryan Malewicz said.
The deadline for this year’s contest is Friday. Essays can be dropped off at the recreation office at 900 Main St. or in a basket at the Clyde Brown Elementary School.
The Mother of the Year receives a package of gifts, which often includes gift cards to area restaurants, spa treatments, flowers, or champagne. In addition, five runners-up are chosen each year who also receive gifts and certificates from local establishments.
“When I won, I’d see people in town and everyone would say, ‘Congratulations, you’re Mother of the Year,’ ” said Maryellen Jordon, laughing. “I felt like a movie star.”
It’s a long way from the days when she was a shy single mother working at a Dunkin’ Donuts in South Boston and the man she would marry, Joseph Tannetta, was working in the neighborhood.
“I knew he liked me, but I’d run in the back when he came in because I was too scared to talk to him,” she said.
He persisted, and soon his four kids and her daughter made a family together.
When Jordon’s stepson and his girlfriend had a child, she and her husband cared for the infant, and through some difficult circumstances eventually got custody of their grandson, who moved in with them as a toddler, she said.
As the now 12-year-old explains it, sitting next to and holding hands with his grandmother on a couch in their living room, “This has always been my home. I’m so lucky.”
It hasn’t been easy, though. Jordon was having a “down day” living through the difficult ups and downs, chemotherapy, and surgeries that came with her cancer diagnosis six years earlier when the call came that she was chosen as Mother of Year.
“I couldn’t believe it,” she said, hugging her grandson.
“I’ve been so sick, but God knows, Joseph needs me and I need him,” she said. “We have the most special bond, and we always have.”
Derek Hopkins also feels a special bond with his mother, though sometimes it may not have seemed like it.
“I heard about the contest and I felt she deserved it,” the now 18-year-old said.
“It was the year we probably clashed the most. I wanted her to know that when we had a fight, I didn’t really mean it.”
In his essay, Hopkins wrote that just about every morning of his life he has awakened to his mother’s face telling him it’s time to get up.
“Without her I probably wouldn’t even bother to go to school everyday,” he wrote.
The teenager won a place in the heart of Fogarty at the recreation office when he hand-delivered his essay.
“How often do you see a 16-year-old boy do something like that?” she asked.
“We still do battle all the time, but I know she does everything because she loves me,” Hopkins said about his mother. “She’s always pointing me in the right direction.”
Ryan Malewicz, who was camping with his family in Maine when his sister Emily was seriously injured by a tree limb in a freak storm, said watching his mom sleep in the hospital next to his sister’s bed was just another reminder of how amazing she is.
“I wanted everyone to know she’s an inspiration to me and everyone else,” he said.
Ryan is a quadruplet, and kept his essay a secret even from his brother, Joseph, and sisters, Katherine and Emily .
And what were his siblings’ reactions when they found out he had written an essay?
“They looked at my mom and thought she was an inspiration, too,” he said.
Of course, the women who have basked in praise are inspired by their kids as well.
Leslie Stefanowicz, for example, is in awe of young Bennett as he deals with food allergies that cause chronic problems with swallowing.
“There are days when I’d be in the grocery store walking up and down the aisles crying my eyes out because I couldn’t find a single thing my kid could eat,” she said.
But despite the challenges, the seemingly endless round of tests and doctors’ appointments, Stefanowicz said, Bennett has never complained.
“He’s never, ever said ‘No, I’m not doing that,’ ” she said.
“He’s stoic, strong, and compassionate, that’s just how he is,” Stefanowicz said. “My kids are all pretty cool. We’re lucky to have them.”