Five years ago, in December 2018, Connecticut elementary school teacher Jenna Riccio was introduced to a new student named Nate who quickly left an impression on her.
At the time, Riccio was a reading teacher at Walsh Elementary School in Waterbury and the young boy had transferred into her class.
“He was a super sweet boy, really quiet,” Riccio recalled to “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.”
Nate, who has sickle cell anemia or HbSS, had a blood infection when he was younger and as a result, doctors had to amputate part of his legs, part of his left arm, three of his fingers and part of one ear, Riccio told “GMA.”
Sickle cell anemia is a genetic disease and the most common type of sickle cell disease that affects the body’s red blood cells, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. With HbSS specifically, the hemoglobin (a type of protein) in red blood cells are abnormal and have a sickle or C-shape. In people with HbSS, red blood cells tend to die early, creating a deficit of the necessary cells, which the body needs to carry oxygen to vital organs.
“I’ve heard of sickle cell before Nate, but I had no idea what it entails until I saw firsthand with Nate and it’s a horrible thing to see,” Riccio said. “When he goes into pain crises, they are like 10 out of 10 excruciating pain, and really the only thing you can do is just manage the pain of it.”
Riccio said she hopes sharing Nate’s story will help shed light on sickle cell disease, which affects about 100,000 Americans. The disease affects 1 in 365 Black children nationally, according to CDC estimates.
For Nate, the disease has sent him to the hospital multiple times in his young life and when he was hospitalized in 2019, Riccio went to visit him. By then, Riccio had spoken with staffers from the Connecticut State Department of Children and Families about her student and learned that Nate had been removed from his biological family’s home and placed in foster care.
“I asked if I could go visit him in the hospital just thinking, he doesn’t have his mom. He doesn’t have his brother with him. … I just was a little sad that he didn’t have people he knew up there visiting him and that’s when I went to go visit him. And that’s when I started thinking, ‘You know what, I can be his foster mom, like I can be there for him,'” she said.
In less than two weeks, Riccio had been cleared to become Nate’s foster mom, after going through multiple courses, workshops, background checks and more.
“I had workers come to inspect our home, make sure everything was safe for him and it was like a crash course. We did that all in like 10 days,” Riccio recounted.
“When Nate was discharged from the hospital, instead of going to his previous foster home, I took him home,” she added. “So I picked him up from the hospital and that was on Oct. 3, 2019.”
In the middle of everything, Riccio also became engaged to Tim Riccio, an art teacher who also worked as one of Nate’s instructors at Walsh Elementary. When the couple married on May 15, 2021, Nate was there as their ringbearer.
Riccio said she had hoped that Nate would eventually be able to reunite with his biological parents, but over the years, his parents’ rights were terminated. So, when the state’s Department of Children and Families proposed the idea of adoption, Riccio said it was an easy decision.
“Like, this is the best place for Nate to be in and it was a no-brainer. I don’t even think it was like a long conversation, like yes, of course we’re gonna do this for Nate, of course we’ll be his mom and dad forever,” she said.
Nate’s adoption was finalized on Nov. 18, 2022, which just so happened to be National Adoption Day. Along with the Riccios, Nate’s older biological brother Giovhany was there with him at the courthouse.
Before [Nate] came into our lives, he had an amazing brother. His brother is now 22 so there’s an 11-year age difference but when I first met Nate as a first grader, his brother was his main caretaker and I give so much credit to him,” Riccio said. “He was a young man but he did his best to make sure Nate was OK, and I think that has helped [Nate].
Today, Riccio says 10-year-old Nate is “the most resilient person” she’s ever met, the “best big brother” to sister Julien, and a “super outgoing” fifth grader with “the best attitude.” The young boy also loves to cook but has also been bit by the acting bug of late.
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,” Riccio said. “He is an inspiration … not just to me and Tim, but every single person in our family.”
She added, “I’ve met a lot of children — I’ve been teaching for 14 years now — and Nate has every reason to be grouchy or a grump, but he’s not. He’s actually the total opposite. There’s just this light that nothing can dim.”
In addition to raising awareness about sickle cell disease, Riccio also hopes Nate and her family’s story can inspire others to consider fostering and adopting.
“It’s only going to help the world,” Riccio said.
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