By Kelly Craig
Marietta Daily Journal Staff Writer
Six-year-old Jennifer Ramirez, a kindergartener at LaBelle Elementary, recently received the experience of a lifetime. She was one of 14 children who won a trip to Disney World through Bert’s Big adventure, a special trip with Bert Weiss of Q100’s Bert Show. She was nominated by her kindergarten teacher, Jodie Kantrowitz, and co-teacher Teresa Hils.
Bert’s Big Adventure is a trip provided for a select few children ages 5 to 12 who have a chronic or terminal illness. Jennifer has arthrogryposis, a congenital condition in which she has limited joint movement. Jennifer cannot bend her knees or arms. A small brown-haired girl with a constant smile on her face, Jennifer keeps a positive attitude about life. She really just started walking a couple of months ago. She can now walk about 400 feet at a time with standby assistance, but does it with such ease, as if she has done it for years.
She is on Jodie Kantrowitz’s class roster, but Ms. Kantrowitz and Teresa Hils co-teach together. Jennifer captured both their hearts. Ms. Kantrowitz said she doesn’t have bad days, even if she is in pain.
“We always describe her as such a sunny personality,” said Ms. Kantrowitz. “She gets off the bus with a smile on her face and she gets back on the bus with a smile on her face.”
Ms. Kantrowitz and Ms. Hils decided to nominate Jennifer for Bert’s Big Adventure after hearing about it on the radio.
“It was definitely a challenge for us because her mom doesn’t speak English,” said Ms. Kantrowitz. “We downloaded applications and I filled out most of it myself.”
Ms. Hils said they felt that they definitely needed to make Jennifer stand out in order for her to be considered.
“We wrote a letter, which was not necessary, and enclosed her picture in the letter because – how could you say no,” she said.
Weiss of the Bert Show spoke over the phone with Ms. Kantrowitz since Jennifer’s mother did not speak English.
“I probably talked to him for months,” she said. “He would just ask me a lot of questions about her and her family and her situation.”
Ms. Kantrowitz said they got the good news that Jennifer was chosen right before the holidays.
“We put Bert on the speaker phone and that’s when he told us that she was accepted,” she said.
Ms. Hils and Ms. Kantrowitz said they knew this was a rare and amazing opportunity for Jennifer, considering that her world so far had been quite small.
“Jennifer had never been to a park or an amusement park,” said Ms. Kantrowitz. “She didn’t go to the store because her mom didn’t have a car. Also, she has a 17-month-old, so she would have to carry them both.”
Weiss said he was moved by the story of Jennifer’s family.
“When our interpreter visited (Jennifer’s home) for the first time, she said she was shocked by the physical strength of her mother. She was carrying Jennifer and her son, Christopher, in both arms,” said Weiss. “Now, Jennifer is six years old. She’s heavy. She said she has to do that a lot because they have no way to transport Jennifer around.”
The family had no car and no transportation that was wheelchair friendly. Jennifer’s mother, Marlenis Velasquez, had to borrow a car any time she wanted to take the family anywhere. At the send off party, Jennifer’s family received a van. The Ford Freestar minivan is fully wheelchair accessible and custom made for Jennifer.
“I decided that this was the family that needed a van the most,” said Weiss. “This is a family that we can affect even when the trip is over. As soon as I called Tony Gonzalez at Team Automotive he instantly got involved. Now, their life will become much easier and fulfilled because they can experience so much more together.”
Leading up to her trip, Ms. Kantrowitz put a calendar on her desk counting down the days until Jennifer departed. Jennifer said her favorite person at Disney World was Cinderella and she was excited that she got to sleep in her own big bed at the hotel.
“I loved Dumbo and the teacups,” said Jennifer.
Jennifer rode the teacups with Weiss.
“He spent all day Friday and Saturday with her and found himself looking for her on Sunday,” said Ms. Hils.
Weiss said he really enjoyed the time he got to spend with Jennifer.
“Every second I spent with Jennifer and her family was special. She has a spirit in her that burns so brightly,” said Weiss. “She’s an angel. I call her ‘Mi regala bonita’ because she really is a very special gift to the world-We rode rides together, ate together. We must have gone under Cinderella’s castle a dozen times together. One of the moments on this trip I’ll never forget is watching her face light up when she saw Cinderella’s castle for the first time. I was so moved that I bought her a blue Cinderella dress, tiara and shoes that very day.”
When Jennifer came back to school, she wore the Cinderella dress Weiss bought her. She gave Ms. Kantrowitz a picture frame of Cinderella’s castle with all the characters on it and a caption at the bottom that read “Dreams come true”.
“She said to me, ‘You made my dreams come true,” said Ms. Kantrowitz.
(This article originally appeared in the Marietta Daily Journal on 2/27/2007)