Penelope Lamadeleine is only 4 years old but she’s already making history.
One might say that young Penelope is a cover girl. But know this – she’s also the first little girl with Down syndrome to ever be featured on the front of Family Times magazine. And to say that her mom, Jenifer Mahannah, who has ties to a local Villages restaurant, is proud of her young daughter might be the understatement of the year.
“People wait a whole lifetime to meet their hero,” Mahannah said. “I gave birth to mine.”
Penelope graces the cover of the December-January edition of the magazine, which also features a special needs resource guide.
It was an achievement that came to be after Mahannah saw a casting call post for the magazine on Facebook.
“My daughter and I went there and I realized she was the only little girl with special needs that showed up,” Mahannah said. “A couple weeks back her picture showed up on their Facebook page and the contest started. I rallied together to get as many votes as possible and she ended up winning.”
Mahannah also ended up winning shortly after she started working hard to spread the word about the magazine and find places to distribute it, such as various lobbies, schools, etc. It wasn’t long before the dedicated effort paid off in a big way.
“The publisher saw my hard work and decided to offer me a job,” she said. “I immediately accepted and have been working hard ever since spreading the word about the magazine. They have been like family embracing us with so much love. My daughter is their little office manager.”
Mahannah also works part-time as a waitress at Olive Garden in The Villages – a job she’s held for eight years and one that she thoroughly enjoys. And like everything else in Mahannah’s life, its effect on Penelope is quite important.
“Olive Garden has been a lifeline and has embraced my daughter like family,” she said.
As with many children with Down syndrome, Penelope’s journey in life didn’t start out easy. When she was just four months old, she had to have surgery to repair a heart defect – something that plagues about 40-60 percent of children born with Down syndrome. But Penelope quickly showed her mom what being tough was all about.
“We had it at Shands Hospital and it was a success,” Mahannah said. “We were in and out of the hospital in less than nine days.”
During that frightening period of time, Mahannah was looking for a support group. And a few weeks after surgery, Penelope started therapy.
“I was asking the therapist if she knew any other family members in the community that needed a support system,” Mahannah said. “Shortly after that, I started a Facebook support group.”
Mahannah’s efforts quickly paid off, as her support group started adding members. Before long, she knew it was time to take the next step, which led to the creation of an organization a year ago called Just As I Am.
“We are a nonprofit organization designed to help children with unique abilities find resources and connect with other families for support,” she said. “Our organization believes every child deserves to have fun and that children with special needs are entitled to and benefit from the same opportunities as all other children.”
Just As I Am’s core mission is to provide social opportunities to children and adults with special needs, thereby creating a supportive community, helping to build friendships and promoting mental strength.
“We have free events all around Ocala with music, food and resources,” Mahannah said. “We help local families with children with unique abilities find the best resources and support in our community and abroad. Providing an environment where families can gather together, collect beneficial information and unite as a community in turn will give us a better platform for our children to grow and thrive.”
If that’s not enough to keep Jenifer busy, she’s also working alongside the owner of the Marion County Fair to spread the word about the event, which has only been in existence for three years.
“They need a new location that could accommodate a very large crowd,” she said, noting that the first Fair was held on the Marion Military Academy field. “Next year is going to be the biggest one yet.”
Mahannah said it’s important to note that the Marion County Fair is the only one in the nation that was created by a youth group, Florida Kids Helping Kids, a community service project to promote agriculture. It’s a subject that’s near and dear to her.
“I believe that a lot of our birth defects can be traced back to the foods that we eat and modifications to our food chain through GMO (genetically modified organism) seeds, grains and now even lab-grown meats,” she said. “Our fair will always be about education and community services in our community – what can we do as a community to help each other and how to get the word out there on what we do.”
Mahannah said she’s also proud of the fact that this past year Kids Helping Kids hosted its first-ever Halloween night geared to kids with special needs. The event included many different organizations, including the Down Syndrome Association of Marion County and Just As I Am.
“This went to sensory as well as dietary needs for gluten-free candy and foods,” she said. “It was a huge success and we will be doing this again in 2019.”
As for Penelope and the strides she’s making every day, Mahannah said she’s been a complete blessing in her life.
“My daughter has inspired me to take chances to stand up for what I believe and to make a beautiful foundation for her life,” she said. “I’ve made it my life’s mission to spread awareness and advocate for people of all abilities.”