Alina Prots was a baby when she met neighbor Tom Bungert, and said his wheelchair scared her at first.
“I got used to it,” Alina said, in that matter-of-fact way 9-year-olds have.
What blossomed was a relationship both treasure, one that grew so close that Alina’s family and Tom and Bev Bungert might as well be one group. One large group.
Stepan and Nadezhda Prots are Ukrainian immigrants who came to Tacoma 13 years ago, at first to visit her sister in Graham, then to stay. They have nine children.
The Bungerts have no children, unless you count the Protses. Especially Alina and her 7-year-old sister, Liliya.
“They’re wonderful, well-behaved children from a wonderful family,” Bev Bungert said. “We love them all.”
Alina and Liliya go to Lister Elementary School and have their chores at home — Liliya, for instance, puts the forks and spoons away. Any chance they get, they cross their quiet Eastside Tacoma street to the Bungert house.
Tom has been a quadriplegic for half of his 46 years, the result of a one-car accident when he was hurrying to work one morning 23 years ago. He guides everything from his wheelchair to his computer with a mouth control.
“We help him when the microphone on his computer slips or his water tube moves,” said Alina, a fourth-grader. “And we feed him candy.”
Ah, that. To demonstrate, Liliya disappears into the Bungert kitchen and returns with a small stick of red licorice, which she carefully places in Tom’s mouth. He chews it happily.
Every other Monday, he plays power soccer at a nearby church with other players who use wheelchairs. Alina accompanies him.
“I put the guard on his chair and we’ll kick the ball back and forth,” she said, although in Tom’s case, he simply rams it back to her.
When the game begins, Alina will ride on the back of the wheelchair and chase down the soccer ball when it leaves the court.
“When I was about 4 or 5, I’d go to the library with Tom,” Alina said. “I’d walk and sometimes ride on the chair with him, and when we got to the library I’d read books to him. He’d say, ‘That’s too easy, get another one.’”
Last summer, Liliya had a birthday party in the Bungert backyard, and Alina went on a day trip to Mount Rainier with Tom and Bev.
“I personally went up the trail far enough to see snow,” Alina said. “I brought some back for Tom to see.”
Sometime early in the summer, Tom or Bev showed the girls a magazine page. It announced the 2013 Veterans Day Poster Contest, sponsored by the Paralyzed Veterans of America.
Tom had served in the U.S. Navy, and the girls’ father had served in the Russian Army.
“Alina read it two or three times and said, ‘I really want to do this,’” Tom said.
“We told them they could work on it here every day after 2 p.m. I work from home before that,” Bev said. “With nine kids in their house, keeping the little pieces of paper together would be tough.
“Alina said if she won — the prize was a three-day, two-night trip to Washington D.C. on the Veterans Day weekend — she couldn’t go. No one in her family could get away to go with her. I checked with her parents, then told her, ‘If you win, I’ll take you.’”
The work began.
“Bev went through boxes of pictures with us and we found ones we wanted to use,” Alina said. “One was of Tom in the Navy. I didn’t even know it was him!”
Both posters had red, white and blue themes, and carefully printed stories about each girl and Tom, illustrated by photos of them together. Liliya focused on candy and helping with the computer. Alina on power soccer and trips to the library.
The posters were mailed late last summer, two of more than 1,500 entries nationwide.
Liliya’s poster was the winner from the first- and second-grade group.
Alina was the grand champion.
“They’d never had two kids finish that high from the same state, the same school, let alone the same family,” Tom said.
Bev and Alina went to D.C., walked it up and down, and saw President Barack Obama and the first lady at Arlington National Cemetery. Alina brought home books, postcards, a special coin and a pencil sharpener shaped like the Lincoln Memorial.
“What did you tell me on the flight home?” Bev asked.
“That the only way the trip could have been better,” Alina said, “was if my whole family had come.”Larry LaRue: 253-597-8638 email@example.com