“Our Family Is Complete”: Connecticut Teacher Adopts Student With Complex Medical Needs
The adoption was finalized on National Adoption Day.
When first-grade reading teacher Jenna Riccio met Nate, she had no idea that one day, instead of calling her teacher, he would be calling her “mom.”
Their journey to becoming a family started at the Walsh Elementary School in Waterbury, Connecticut. It was December 2018. Nate, who was 7 years old at the time, had just transferred to Jenna’s classroom.
“He was a super sweet boy, really quiet,” Jenna told Good Morning America. “He was really shy. Sometimes he would just cry out of nowhere. I think it was a lot for him — transferring in mid-year, being the only kid in our classroom in a wheelchair. It took a long time for him to warm up and to open up to everyone.”
The Little Boy With Complex Medical Needs
Nate was born with sickle cell anemia, a genetic red blood cell disorder that can lead to other serious medical concerns, such as infections and chronic pain, according to the CDC. It is a disease that worsens over time. Treatments are available that can prevent complications and help relieve pain but the only possible cure is a stem cell transplant. It affects approximately 100,000 Americans.
In Nate’s case, a blood infection when he was younger resulted in the amputation of both of his legs below the knees, part of his left arm, three fingers, and part of one ear, Jenna told GMA.
In September 2019, Nate once again found himself in the hospital. This time it was for emergency surgery to prevent an infection in his arm.
Jenna decided to visit him at the Connecticut Children’s Medical Center. “He was there by himself with no family,” she recalls to People. “I wanted to cheer him up and have someone he knew there with him.”
How a Hospital Visit Turned Into a Forever Family
During the visit, Jenna discovered that Nate had recently been placed into foster care because his biological parents were unable to meet his extensive medical needs. At that moment, everything changed. “That’s when I started thinking, ‘You know what, I can be his foster mom like, I can be there for him,'” she said.
She immediately contacted his case worker. Less than two weeks later, after multiple background checks, home visits, and courses, it was official.
When Nate was discharged on October 3, 2019, Jenna was there to take him home.
Since then, Jenna became engaged to and married, her co-worker and Nate’s art teacher, Tim Riccio. In February 2021, Nate became a big brother to their daughter, Julien.
And finally, on November 18, 2022, after 1,142 days in foster care, Nate officially became Jenna and Tim’s son to the absolute delight of a packed courtroom.
The Teachers Hope Their Story Inspires Others To Foster Kids
These days, Nate is no longer in a wheelchair, walking on prosthetic legs instead. He will still need revision surgeries every few years, and frequent medical monitoring. But for now, he’s a “super outgoing” fifth grader who loves to cook and act and make his baby sister laugh.
“He’s gone through so much in his 10 years he’s been on earth and he wakes up every day with a smile on his face, ready to tackle the day,” Jenna said. “He is an inspiration … not just to me and Tim, but every single person in our family.”
“He’s a perfect example of how you can persevere,” added Tim.
The decision to adopt Nate was a “no-brainer” for the teachers who are undeterred by Nate’s medical needs. And they hope that their beautiful story can not only shed some much-needed light on sickle cell anemia but also inspire others to foster and adopt kids who need a family.
There are over 400,000 children currently in foster care, according to the U.S. Children’s Bureau. Over 117,000 children are waiting to be adopted. While fostering and adoption are not always easy processes, they are an incredible way for ordinary people to make an extraordinary difference in a child’s life.