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Ailing Reserve Township man's final wish centered on family

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Monday, Dec. 24, 2012, 11:18 a.m.

Growing up, Christmas was always a magical time for John Robinson.

Even as a kid, he dreamed of being able to go into a store and “give someone Christmas.”

“My parents always made my Christmas' spectacular,” said Robinson, who lives in Vanderbilt. “My Christmases were always perfect. That's why Christmas is important for me to do this.”

Robinson along with his wife, Bobbi, and a few volunteers, made one last Christmas special for a Butler County man.

The Robinsons purchased a mid-19th century building known locally as the Unity schoolhouse and opened “Unity, a Journey Home,” southwestern Pennsylvania's first residential hospice house. Each resident is granted at least one wish as part of the care and therapy he or she received.

In August 2007, the Robinsons created the nonprofit adult wish charity: Unity, A Journey of Hope.

“The people I grant wishes for, they have a limited amount of time," John Robinson said. “But God has given me at least 30 years of good health, and if I can change one person's life, that's what it comes down to.”

Each year, the Robinsons sponsor Operation Christmas, providing special wishes.

Phil Salerno of Reserve Township had this Christmas wish: to share one last Christmas with his family, son and daughter-in-law, George and Sara; daughter, Theadosia, 17, son Phil, 15, and grandchildren, Faith, 1, and Aunna, 4.

“His wish was to have an opportunity to provide his family with Christmas so he could see them smile and forget about his disease for a day,” Robinson said.

Joy Salerno remembers the day her husband of 25 years was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer.

He underwent chemotherapy followed by six months of treatments.

“Then they found out he had brain and pancreatic cancer after all of the treatments,” Joy Salerno said. “It's overwhelming right now. Our whole life was totally destroyed.”

Joy Salerno said she is amazed by how strong her husband has been through the ordeal.

“He's so spiritual. I just don't know where he gets it from,” Joy Salerno said. “People struggle every day, and this guy is so OK with everything. He's just a great person. He never wants anything for himself.”

Phil Salerno initially wanted to go away with his family.

But he was too sick to travel, his wife said.

Instead, a party was staged. It featured Santa Claus, carolers and volunteers dressed as elves.

“The reason he's battling the disease is because he wants his kids and grandkids to have one last Christmas together, and he does not want Christmas to be the time he died,” Robinson said.

“This wish is special, because of the time of the year. Because I know what it's like to be a dad and to be able to provide Christmas for your children.”

The wish began with photographs. A photographic memory album will be created for the family. Unity always provides wish recipients with either a photo album or a blanket with photos on it.

“To see the photos of his daughter and him – the true belief of love is in their eyes,” Joy Salerno said.

Joy said her husband, who at 49 is four years her senior, is charitable, noting he gives coats to the needy.

“If I knew this was going to be my last Christmas, I would want it to be the best (Christmas) it could be, whether it's the gifts or the memories,” Robinson said. “If I can help him to provide that for his family, then I did my job as a dad.”

In the days before the wish, his sister-in-law, Barbara Janicky, summed up the family's thoughts.

“It will be very meaningful for him to be with his children and his wife for one last Christmas,” Janicky said. “It means everything to him.”

Chris Buckley is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-684-2642 or

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