Center Grove Mom of the Year Jennifer Parker

Writer / Kate Rhoten . Photographer / Forrest Mellott

Being a mom is a full-time job. There’s no arguing that. However, being a mother to five with two of the children having special needs creates a unique experience. Additional challenges present themselves and the need to really be engaged with each child is part of the daily routine. This year’s Center Grove Mom of the Year, Jennifer Parker, is a mom that has embraced this reality and continues to find joy each day.

Beth Arkanoff, who has known the family through the difficulties as a nurse and friend, nominated Jennifer. Beth’s nomination of Jennifer said:
She never stresses over the small things or feels pressure to be the “perfect family.” She embraces her “messy life” with a deep faith in God, and she pulls it off with an endearing grace and an occasional little cheesy Cheetos handprint on her clothes.

Jennifer and her husband, Andy, are raising five children. Their son Andrew is 20 and travels as an electrician, Katie and Alex are seniors in high school, Max is a sophomore and Hope is 8 years old.

Two of the children have special needs. Alex is autistic, and Hope has a congenital heart condition. Their challenges are many, but having Hope has given them a new perspective on life.

Faith and Friends
Jennifer said she starts each day taking time for God. She needs to have a few minutes to herself before she takes on the day. Without her faith, she would not be able to handle the wonderful, chaotic life she leads.

Jennifer said, “Andy and I appreciate our entire network of support. Everyone who has kept us above water and loved us throughout the years blesses us. We have been very blessed by the community of our family, friends, doctors, nurses, therapists, educators and respite providers.”

Like many parents, at one point during the pregnancy with Hope, Jennifer was considered high risk due to her age. Andy and Jennifer were sitting and talking about the pregnancy. They discussed what ifs, more specifically, what if something is wrong with this child?

Jennifer’s response was, “We filled our quota with special needs. We already have enough challenges, more than most families have.” Andy, who is an anesthesiologist, said the only thing he couldn’t handle was if the child had Hypoplastic Left Heart Syndrome, which means the left side of the heart does not form correctly. As it turned out, that ended up being the reality for the Parkers. After Hope was born, she diagnosed with Hypoplastic Left Heart Syndrome.

It has been quite the journey. Jennifer said, “Hope has had 17 surgeries, four of them open-heart. Hope has been the sickest kid in the ICU.” In one instance, Hope nearly drowned on a second occasion when a special needs adult physically assaulted her. Due to a stroke, Hope cannot talk or sign, but she understands everything people say to her.

Hope has a 1 ½-year old service dog named Boaz that is in training. The thought was to have the dog finish his training with Hope, and as a result, Jennifer is participating with Boaz in the training. Jennifer says, “Boaz is coming along. We do well at training class.”

At home, it’s a little bit of a different story. It’s about keeping the dog from eating the stairs or couch. Jennifer laughs and says, “I’m keeping the service dog from eating the guinea pig, keep the cat from being eaten by the dog and keep the cat from eating the guinea pig.”

Early on, Jennifer kept a journal to record what was going on with Hope and her medical journey as well as her own thoughts. The journal entries have come together as a book, titled “Messy Blessings, A Story of Hope.” The book is more than the journal entries. It tells the story of Jennifer with her 8-year-old daughter Hope.

“We have so many blessings, they are just messy. We just are not perfect.” She says she is lucky if their clothes are clean and tags tucked in. The Parker house is organized chaos.

Proceeds from the book will go to charities she cherishes.

The Alex and Ali Foundation
The Alex and Ali Foundation is one of the charities that will receive proceeds from the book. Jennifer founded the nonprofit a couple of months ago. Ali is Alex’s best friend. Everyone who knows Alex and Ali love them both.

The mission statement of The Alex and Ali Foundation is:
The focus of the foundation is to empower and enhance the lives of individuals with autism and other intellectual disabilities to positively contribute to their communities through vocational activities, job skill training and meaningful employment.

Jennifer said, “There will be a lot of young adults with autism or other intellectual disabilities in a few years that will need meaningful employment, whether it is paid or not paid. There just are not places for them to work. We are creating it.”

Her dream is to create a resale shop of all kinds of items. She would like to start small with children’s clothing and other items. Later she would like to add refinishing furniture, a skill that the autistic adults can learn and carry forward as a life skill. In order to open this store, Jennifer is currently in the fundraising business.

It’s not about money for these adults. “It is to give them a skill, and letting them give back to the community would be positive,” Jennifer said. “I want to keep this in the area where they went to school. This area has been very good to them.” The foundation is about giving these adults a little help and resources when they leave school.

Lessons Learned
Success has been redefined in the Parker household. The wins in this family come from having Hope home from the hospital and helping pick up after the dog in the yard. Days at home with Hope are the best wins.

“My wins with Alex are that he tells me he loves me every day. I know teenage boys don’t always do that,” Jennifer said. Over the years, Jennifer has learned from Alex that she needs to be more like him. She doesn’t need to change him; she needs to embrace him.

They are selling their house to downsize. The Parkers want to have the ability to spend time with their children. Having less to tie them down, less to take care of in order to have more freedom and spend more time with their kids is what they have learned is most important. “It’s about creating memories,” said Jennifer.

“It’s really changed us. Our other children had to learn how to deal with their special siblings and their special needs,” Jennifer said.

Jennifer has learned to find joy every day and not get caught up in the little things. The journey of raising her family has been amazing. Jennifer said, “I have learned the hard way not to sweat the little things. I want other moms and people to know that there is joy in the midst.”

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