Thanks to a mother’s love and a daughter’s determination, the future is filled with possibilities for Jenny Story.
And when she walks up on stage to collect her high school diploma in June, it will be the end of one chapter and the beginning of another.
The 17-year-old honours student at Fulton secondary school will leave Vernon this summer and begin her studies at Vancouver Film School.
It’s been a long journey, and one that seemed impossible at the beginning. But Janet Walmsley was determined that her daughter’s future would be as bright as any other youngster’s.
When Jenny was born, the doctor who delivered her called her the most alert baby he’d ever seen.
Three years later, Janet was faced with the devastating news that her daughter was mildly mentally challenged. Jenny was finally diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder at Sunnyhill Health Centre, a program of B.C. Children’s Hospital in Vancouver, and Janet was told her daughter would never speak well, would never get married and would not do well in subjects like math.
“At 12 months, she had inoculations and got very sick, so I took her to the hospital, and she was there for 1 1/2 weeks and they still couldn’t tell me what was going on,” said Janet. “My best friend was looking after her and when I came home one day she said, ‘I don’t know who this is but it’s not Jenny.’
“She used to be very sociable and then she stopped talking, and she would get mad if we didn’t do things the same way every time, she’d have fits.”
Then living in Yellowknife, the family moved to Vernon, when Janet separated from Jenny’s father, who was not understanding of his daughter’s needs.
“When she had a fit, he would say, ‘she needs a smack and no dinner.’ As a mom, you have to be the rock, and I was assertive. I was told by a doctor that there was nothing wrong with her, but as a mother I knew.
“My big thing was for Jenny and I wanted to make sure I got everything I could for her. Vernon has been awesome.”
Thanks to support from NONA and Gail Cunningham and her team at Brer Rabbit Daycare, Jenny began to thrive.
“At daycare, I had imaginary friends and we would have adventures,” she said. “I was happy there.”
She started kindergarten at Okanagan Landing elementary school and recalls her early school days as difficult.
“I was the only one who had my own blankie there,” said Jenny, holding back tears at the memory. “But I did make one friend.”
Jenny had difficulty making friends and needed to build up trust before she could get close to someone.
“She preferred to be on her own,” said Janet. “Thank God for kids who have empathy.
“Socialization has always been a concern of mine. She’s a true-blue friend, kind and giving and would never want to hurt anybody’s feelings.”
Jenny admits that starting high school terrified her, with its large classes. But she also discovered a place where her artistic abilities could thrive.
“I always liked to do art because it comforted me,” she said. “But high school was scary because I had trouble talking to people.
“But with certain classes and with certain teachers, I had fun, especially Mrs. Wallberg, Mr. Gee and Mrs. Harrison, who really believed in me and I am where I am because of them.”
Janet has nothing but praise for everyone who has supported her daughter: staff at Okanagan Landing and Fulton schools, and family support such as Jenny’s older brother Chris, who lives in Australia, and her step-father, Travis Walmsley.
“Learning was hard for Jenny, with so many subjects at once, but she was always into drawing,” said Janet. “She worked hard and was determined, but I have had her come home in tears. We have such a bond. She will come to me and tell me what happens. She is my daughter and we are best friends, too,” said Janet.
“She has fought the fight and climbed to the top of an unbeatable mountain; every day for Jenny to go to school is a challenge as she has to face being able to converse with peers and teachers as she constantly is worrying and has troubles about how to say her thoughts and relay them and then to think about answering questions,” said Janet. “This is part of her autistic spectrum. It is a constant struggle for her but she heads to school every day knowing this and troops in there.
“She has excellent attendance, so this really is admirable of her. It is the same with her learning, however she works extremely hard at her school work.”
Jenny discovered a love of animation at a young age, sitting for hours and watching her favourite movies such as The Fox and the Hound, 101 Dalmatians and Bambi. So when she began to look to the future, studying animation was her first choice.
Her love of animation was a natural fit for studying at the Vancouver Film School, where she will study classical two-dimensional animation and digital character animation.
Eventually, Jenny sees herself working on feature films, similar to some of her favourites: How to Train Your Dragon and A Nightmare Before Christmas.
“I was really excited at first but now I’m also nervous because this is a new experience, but it’s one that is worth taking,” she said. “I’m glad Mom is going with me.”
And best buddy Sparkles will also make the trip. The long-haired Jack Russell has been with Jenny since she was a young child.
Both look forward to exploring Vancouver, once they make the move there, checking out favourites such as the Aquarium and Science World, to shopping at the large malls.
“I’m into hockey and we’ll do lots of exploring,” said Janet.
Meanwhile, as Jenny studies animation, her mom will be pursuing her acting career, continuing the work for which she is familiar to Vernon audiences in a number of shows at Powerhouse Theatre.
“We’re both following our dreams,” said Janet. “She has come from a place of autism and now is an honour student. I’m so proud of her. This young woman has taught me so much and has been such a blessing to me.
“Of course it’s hard, but it’s not been a yucky hard, it’s been a beautiful journey. She has studied hard and should be so proud of herself. A counsellor told me that she’s a miracle, that a child could do what she’s done, from three years old, through kindergarten, to now, it’s so rare it’s almost unbelievable.”
An account has been set up at VantageOne Credit Union and if there are local businesses or individuals who wish to contribute for Jenny to pursue her dream, they can contact Janet or Jenny at 250-558-1589.
“Their donation or scholarship would be in good hands of a girl who is so hard working, smart, honest, respectful, kind, who deserves to see her dreams come true and hoping people can help her and be a part of her dream,” said Janet.