|Jennifer Stephens. (Photo courtesy Lori Dill.)
Jennifer Stephens cried the first time she came to St. Mary’s Home for Disabled Children, for a clinical placement while she was studying to become a licensed practical nurse. She thought it would be too heartbreaking to be around children and young adults with severe disabilities. “I saw everything that was ‘wrong’ with the children, and what the children couldn’t do,” she said. “After I worked here, all I saw was what they CAN do.”
She ended up enjoying the experience so much that she went to work at St. Mary’s Home four years ago after she finished nursing school at Sentara Obici Hospital. Stephens, 28, commutes from Como, N.C., a drive that takes 70 minutes one way.
Stephens’ commitment to children with disabilities began in high school. She was so inspired by the boy she teamed up with when she volunteered for the Special Olympics that she decided to study special education. After one semester in college, though, she realized she wasn’t meant to be a teacher and switched to nursing, initially studying to become a certified nurse aide, while she worked fulltime as an assistant manager at a grocery store.
Her colleagues describe Stephens as a “very cool LPN” and a “sweet soul” who’s always looking for ways to help the children and to help other staff with their work. She’s dependable, quick-thinking, conscientious, passionate, easygoing and joyful. When told of this praise, she modestly said that she’s just doing her job and that it’s a privilege to work with the children at St. Mary’s.
But, like many at St. Mary’s, she does more than her job. One little girl she knows particularly well because they both arrived at St. Mary’s around the same time. She’s bought clothes and other items for Jenny, and, with the permission of the girl’s family, she occasionally takes Jenny home to visit with Stephens’ family.