Mission to Heal: Gene Talerico '89
Gene Talerico '89 enrolled in the University as a computer science major, but his career plans took an abrupt turn when, as a sophomore, he interned with the Lackawanna County District Attorney’s office. Coincidentally, he was also re-reading “To Kill a Mockingbird” and admiring the great character, Atticus Finch. Little did he know that the career change his stint in the DA’s office prompted would lead him to situations every bit as dramatic as anything his fictional hero ever faced.
When Talerico switched to political science, he found a mentor in Dr. Bernie Williams. “He wrote my letter of recommendation for law school. He also encouraged me to take a job at the DA’s office as a victims’ advocate."
The victims’ advocate job was an 18-hour-per-week assignment with profound effects. “I came to realize that the legal system never makes people whole. The best we can do is get accountability.”
When Talerico graduated from law school, he returned to the Lackawanna County DA’s Office. His life changed forever when the first assistant DA in charge of child-victim cases left to enter private practice. Talerico took the post, feeling “scared to death” and, indeed, his first case was heart-wrenching. “It was the first step for me,” he said. “I found myself wanting to do more than the job required. These children weren’t ‘victims’ to me; they were people.”
That restless sense of not doing enough came to a terrible head in the early morning hours of July 5, 2009. “The police called at about 3 a.m. about a five-year-old girl who had been horrifically assaulted and was in the hospital,” he said. When Talerico arrived at the hospital, he had “the most significant experience in my 21 years of this work. The facts were unspeakable,” he said. “To see her and feel the humanity of her — it brought me to my knees.”
The offender pleaded guilty and got a life sentence, the first in Pennsylvania for a non-homicide case. Best of all, the child victim never had to testify. Despite these positive outcomes, Talerico suffered that nagging, incomplete feeling. “I should have felt professionally fulfilled, but this time that didn’t happen. I wanted this child to be whole again.”
A few months after the sentencing, the child’s therapist, Ann Cook, called saying, “Gene, you’ve got to see this.” She was referring to a new kind of therapy the child was receiving. Cook explained that the child’s devastated mother, April, used the gifts pouring in from the community to buy her daughter’s dream, a horse named Strawberry stabled in Honesdale. Cook was now conducting her sessions there with the horse in attendance.
“After just an hour, I became a believer,” Talerico said. “The child’s connection with Strawberry – you just can’t describe it unless you see it. If the child is anxious, the horse is anxious. The therapist can get her to talk about her feelings by asking why Strawberry feels this way.”
That’s how Marley’s Mission, a nonprofit organization providing equine-based therapy free of charge to children and their families, was born. April wanted to share the success of equine therapy with other children devastated by abuse, neglect and other trauma. Talerico became the nonprofit’s board president. Since late 2009, Marley’s Mission has helped 290 children in an eight-county area of northeastern Pennsylvania.
“The grounding I got at Scranton was my cornerstone,” Talerico said. “That’s where I learned that it’s not just about me, but how I serve others. Now I have the opportunity to truly give hope to kids.”