By Matt Petrero
On September 28, 1995, a very special and extraordinary child, Jenna Zecchino, was brought into this world.
Now before I go any further, in the interest of a writer’s integrity, I must disclose that this special child, now a young lady, is my second cousin. However, not just a cousin but due to a very close relationship with Jenna and her father, my first cousin, Albert Zecchino, she considers me an uncle. It is a distinction with which I am not only honored, but accept gleefully.
For a six month transitional period in my life, Al and Jenna’s mom, Julie Rodgers-Zecchino were gracious enough to open their home to me until I was able to re-establish my own roots. During this time, I was around Jenna everyday, establishing that aforementioned special relationship.
Where this amazing story begins is on the very day that Jenna entered this world. You see, Julie was advised by her doctor on that day that they were going to have to take Jenna very prematurely. If Al and Julie did not heed the doctor’s warning, the prospects of Jenna making it even 24 hours longer were unlikely. In an uncharacteristic open display on her Facebook page, Julie posted an open letter to Jenna on her 18th birthday.
“…she was not doing well and would not survive if we waited even one more day. She was very early and I was terrified; I had read all of the books and they never prepare you for something like this. At three pounds, Jenna was born with a strong healthy cry and a whole lot of spunk,” remembers Julie.
It is that spunk that inspired me to write this article. In fact, when Kim Constantinesco invited me to write for Purpose 2 Play, Jenna’s story was the very first one that came to mind. As for her spunky personality, I will elaborate further after a little more backstory.
Over the next several years, Jenna would run the gamut of medical care from doctor’s visits to surgeries, and everything in between. She had to be fed through a feeding tube during this period of time and her lack of growth was referred to as “not normal” by physicians. Al and Julie were understandably devastated that their gift from God was forced to deal with such physical struggles.
“I had read all of the books and they never prepare you for something like this. At three pounds, Jenna was born with a strong healthy cry and a whole lot of spunk. We could have never imagined how hard the next few years would be for our little angel. My heart broke every day while watching her endure multiple surgeries, doctor visits, a feeding tube and numerous therapies. At a year old and just topping the scales at 12 pounds, her smile and laugh was contagious and with every doctor’s visit I was always expecting them to tell us something different. We kept hearing…’this is not normal,’ not on the growth chart, not meeting developmental milestones, not progressing well, and on and on and on. I refused to accept that my child was ‘not normal,’” Julie said defiantly.
As time went on, the Zecchinos grew and learned how to be parents of a special needs child. The experience was admittedly more trying for Julie than it was for Jenna herself. We should all be fortunate enough not to be cursed with the self-awareness that turns us from innocent children, who see the world through rose-colored glasses into cynical adults who find it hard to trust. Jenna doesn’t see herself as a special needs child and she doesn’t see the negatives in others. To her, everybody is as sweet and innocent as she is. And if not, it is nothing more than an aberration.
“Through all of the times other kids were mean, she would smile and tell me they were just having a bad day,” Julie said. “Once, when she was in elementary school, I got to the playground to pick her up at the end of the day, I found her hiding. She was so happy and told me that she was playing hide and seek with her friends and that she had hid so well they couldn’t find her. I was devastated and angry when I realized that the ‘friends’ were not even looking for her. With tears in my eyes, I wanted to march up to those kids and scream at them. It was a rude awakening for me, when I came to the realization that this was my problem and not hers. She was happy and never once thought any less of those kids. Her world is full of love and happiness and she refuses to see it any other way. Why would I want her to see things any differently?”
I asked Jenna, point blank, what her first impressions of other people are:
“That they are nice and they have things in common with me,” she so innocently stated.
Her altruistic look on life can sometimes lead to disappointment in addition to its intended result. Jenna recalls one day at school whereby two of her friends got into an altercation. Her first instinct was to get in the middle and try to play peacemaker. Well she got chastised by her teacher for “over-stepping her bounds”, which upset her a great deal. However, I got the idea that if the situation presents itself again, she will follow the same script.
“I was trying to fix their problems because I care about people and I want to help them”, said the little 4′ 6″ walking Detente.
While her teacher’s response may have upset her, Jenna was able to take solace in the support of her boyfriend, Devin, and her love of music and dancing.
“I’m usually around music…I turn on my radio a lot and start dancing and singing,” Jenna said.
And what music turns her into a dancing machine?
“I like Train, Lady Antebellum, Taylor Swift, Lucy Hale, and Avril Lavigne,” Jenna proclaimed.
In addition to a sweet disposition and outlook on life, Jenna inherited her parents drive and determination. Both Al (keyOp Document Support) and Julie are entrepreneurs, with thriving businesses in the metro Denver area. Julie’s business, Peak Athletics, would have a profound place in Jenna’s life and her development to living an extraordinary life. Jenna’s disabilities did not prevent her from being a “gym rat”. In fact she has spent a good portion of her life hanging out at the gym and honing her skills as a cheerleader and gymnast herself. In an effort to raise Jenna to live a “normal” life, her parents refused to coddle her beyond what her medical needs were.
“Julie and I just would not let her sit around,” Al told me on a recent visit to Colorado.
Their insistance that she was totally integrated into society and involved in as normal a life as possible led to an impressive list of accomplishments.
The senior at Mountain Vista High School in Highlands Ranch, CO. has won three national and one Colorado state cheerleading championships, one Colorado State karate title, has spent her four years in high school on the varsity poms team, is currently on of the leading scorers on the Mountain Vista unified girls basketball team, and was voted homecoming queen last September.
Now that’s not too shabby, if I do say so myself (and that is not just a biased, proud Uncle speaking). If all of these activities were not enough, she is an honor student and still finds time to work at Peak Athletics.
“She has grown in to a beautiful woman. At 4-foot-6 inches she is proof that great things come in small packages,” Julie said. “She’s a volunteer at the elementary school, plays unified basketball, she is a straight A student, her cheerleading team has won two national championships.”
(At the time of Julie’s open letter, Jenna’s cheer team has won another national championship)
Jenna has a wonderful home life as well. She is loved beyond comprehension by a large extended family and returns that love with as much gusto as she receives it.
“She has wonderful friends, family and a now a boyfriend and she truly loves life,” Julie said.
She admits that while she loves her brothers, an 18-year old girl is bound to have way too much in common with sisters.
“My sisters are more fun than my brothers.” Jenna said. “It’s fun because I get to go out and go shopping with my sisters…I can call them whenever I’m upset or have a problem.”
A good relationship with family is not the only moral support available to Jenna. As previously stated, she has a boyfriend named Devin.
He’s there to support her when she’s a little down or upset. In turn, she is there for him when he needs her.They go out to the movies and to her favorite spot, Starbucks. In fact, their first date was a year ago, April when Devin’s mother took them to the ubiquitous coffee house. If you are ever in a Starbucks and want to buy Jenna a blended drink, she prefers lattes: caramel flan, gingerbread, and pumpkin spice most specifically.
Another example of her sense of humor was at a family gathering a few weeks ago. We were heading in opposite directions to and from the beverage fridge and Jenna had a bottle of Starbucks mocha cappuccino in her hand.
I joked, “That will keep you up all night, kid!”
She looked at me, smiled and said, “Yeah, so what!” She then started laughing, realizing that she zinged me with a TOUCHE’! She likes the blended drinks so much that she jokingly holds it against people when they have an opportunity to bring her one and do not.
“I get mad at my teachers because they bring in Starbucks for other teachers, but not for me!” <enter an LOL!> With Jenna and Devin’s first anniversary approaching, I asked them what were they planning to commemorate the milestone.
Devin said, “Ask her, she’s the expert” and Jenna said, without batting an eye, “We’ll probably go back to Starbucks!”
Every day, Jenna proves to the doctors who cared for her early in life that she can live a “normal life.” She wakes up in the morning and gets ready for school. She has favorite subjects (spelling, history, and advanced dance), she spends time hanging out with friends, she laughs, she interacts with people as we do, she works some days after work and hangs out at Peak. She even gets up early on Thursday mornings and teaches gymnastics to pre-school children; something she enjoys.
“Yes, I do. I like this little kid, Laney, because she’s so cute and adorable. I’m always telling her that I want to take her home.”
If you think that Jenna’s life of normalcy ends when she graduates high school in May, think again. She plans on attending a program called Bridge Program, offered by the Douglas County school system. Bridge helps special needs adults gain skills that they otherwise might not have learned in primary or secondary school. They can learn to cook and do other domestic chores that will help them live normal adult lives. The program also teaches the students skills to enable them to join the work force. The itinerary usually is go out to work in the morning and head back to the campus for classes and additional learning.
Also, Jenna cited that there are people at this school who are less fortunate than she; those whom she plans mentor. She indicated to me that she plans to do this program for a year and then leave.
When I asked what additional plans she has after she graduates, she replied, “I want to go to Spain or Rome.”
I pressed for a preference and she said, “It’s not my choice where I move to, it’s actually Devin’s mother…who is setting everything up for us.” While Devin seems fine with one of these options, Jenna admitted that he would rather go to Alaska or Antartica. As is typical with a couple, the Venus v Mars dichotomy reared its head. Jenna’s response to those option was, “NO, it’s freezing cold up there!”
My final question to her was if there was one thing that she wanted people to know about her, what is it? Her answer was one last rebuttal to the doctors who said that she will not live a normal life.
“At school, I’m mostly the popular one. I walk through the halls and everybody is like, ‘Hi, Jenna, hi, Jenna’ and I’m all, ‘hi!'”
Then in true Jenna fashion she showed her conscientious side.
“I feel bad because I don’t remember all of their names all the time.”
Throughout this piece, I have pointed out that Jenna has lived a relatively normal life. However, if you consider the hand she was dealt, she has redefined what “normal” actually is. I have laid out the peaks (no pun intended) and valleys of a an extraordinary little life. One which has defied the odds and prognosis’ of medical professionals.
What those medical professionals did not account for was what love, support, determination, spunk, and a strong will can do to overcome those things which are perceived as disabilities.
Jenna, her family, and friends are a true case study of that very thing. Perhaps the most important of all of her aforementioned attributes, is to view the world from the window through which she peers.
Jenna sees the good in people before she even meets them. She assumes that they are nice and knows that even on a small level, they have something in common with her. She always has a smile on her face and is genuinely happy to see you. I know that first hand.
I get to see her about once a year and there are few things in this world that warm my heart more than walking in the door and seeing the expression on her face the first time she realizes I am there. That is followed by a hug where she squeezes me as tightly as her little self is able. In that moment, nothing anybody can say about you, no matter how disparaging, can change how Jenna makes you feel about yourself.
Her mom summed it up perfectly:
“I can honestly say Jenna has never spoken a negative word about anyone. She finds beauty in the world every single day and I only wish we could all see the world through her eyes. Anyone who knows her, knows that you will never see her without a smile. I am so thankful for all of the wonderful lessons she has taught me about life, love and especially about acceptance.”
I am not sure if I can adequately sum up this article about the amazing life of Jenna Zecchino and what she has accpomplished. So I will give those honors, one last time to her mother, Julie:
“Jenna is definitely ‘not normal,’ she is EXCEPTIONAL in every possible sense…I want to thank the Lord for choosing me to be her mother.”
Well said, Julie!