The 10-year-old boy was too ill to care for his family. So his Waterbury teachers adopted him. – CT Insider | Wonder Mind Kids

WATERBURY — Three years ago, a Walsh elementary school teacher visited one of her first graders in the hospital.

At the Connecticut Children’s Medical Center, Jenna Riccio discovered that the State Department of Children and Families had removed her student, Nathanael, from his home because they feared he would not receive the medical follow-up he needed. He was supposed to be moving into a nursing home an hour away, Riccio recalls.

Although Nathanael, also known as Nate, was in the hospital, he was in high spirits, and without hesitation, Riccio asked what she had to do to make him live with her. She spoke to her then-boyfriend and Nate’s art teacher, Timothy Riccio, and the two were subjected to background checks, home visits and other measures to ensure the home was safe for him. After being released from the hospital in October 2019, he went home to Jenna Riccio and her dachshund, Frances.

“It was the best day ever,” said Jenna Riccio.

Nate, who is now 10 years old, has lived with her ever since. Timothy Riccio later moved in and the two teachers learned to be parents together. Nate eventually served as the ring bearer at their wedding and became an older brother in February when the couple had their daughter Julien.

Although Nate has been part of her family for some time, it was made official at Waterbury Juvenile Court on Friday morning.

“He was our son, now it’s in the law,” Riccio said.

Nate was among 50 children adopted Friday to celebrate National Adoption Day, which is officially November 19. After Friday, the Department for Children and Families said it will have completed more than 440 adoptions this year. The agency has also reunited more than 390 children and preserved nearly 300 children permanently through a transfer of guardianship, DCF said in a press release.

Dozens of people packed the courtroom on Friday morning to watch the special occasion. Family and friends sat among brightly colored balloons and shiny silver balloons that read “Happy Adoption Day.” Supreme Court Justice Tara Knight acknowledged her courtroom was often filled with sadness, but Friday was not one of them.

“He’ll be your son after today,” Knight said. He’s also now officially Nathanael Innocent Riccio.

According to his clerk, Jackie Vidal, Nate was under DCF supervision for 1,142 days. She began working with him in July 2019, shortly after he was taken from his home and hospitalized. She broke down in tears as she addressed Nate in the courtroom and thanked him for being so upbeat, resilient and inspirational.

Nate has not had an easy journey.

He has been diagnosed with sickle cell anemia and other conditions that require ongoing follow-up visits with multiple specialists and various medications. He had both legs amputated below his knee, he is a partial left arm amputee and two and a half of his right fingers were amputated.

Under the Riccio’s care, Nate attended more than 120 doctor’s appointments. The pair have been by his side through multiple surgeries and hospitalizations, some of which were unsure if he would survive, Vidal noted.

On Friday, Nate walked in with prosthetic legs and a brand new suit.

“You never complained, you never asked for help,” Vidal said, adding that she thinks she’s a better person today because of him.

The family smiled Friday after receiving the official document. But, as Tim Riccio noted, Nate was already family. The document made it very special.

“That day was amazing,” Nate told the crowd, which was filled with extended family, friends and even his biological older brother, 21-year-old Giovhany Mondestin.

“He was looking for happiness,” Mondestin said of his younger brother, noting that Nate found it in the Riccio’s. “He’s very special.”

He admitted that initially it was difficult to see his brother in another home. There was an emptiness and silence in Nate’s absence. His mother did her best, he said, but seeing the Riccio’s treating Nate like their own, Mondestin knew this other path was the right one.

Jenna Riccio said her family has grown not only with Nate but also with Mondestin.

Lt. gov. Susan Bysiewicz was also present on Friday. She told Nate and his parents that this is just the beginning of their story. Knowing he wanted to learn how to be a detective, she invited Nate to visit her and a detective’s desk in Hartford.

In a statement, DCF Commissioner Vannessa Dorantes said it takes a collective effort to ensure every child has a permanent home.

“There are different ways that families are formed – adoption is a particular way to achieve this goal,” said Dorantes. “This day is a celebration for the children and their families. There are also many community partners, service providers, attorneys, court officials and DCF staff, all of whom have worked tirelessly for those we collectively serve.”

Jenna Riccio recalls that promoting Nate was a big transition.

“It was really scary at first,” she said. The first few months were often spent in and out of the hospital. Not only did she and Tim Riccio have to learn how to put on Nate’s prosthetic legs, they also had to learn how to raise a child.

“He taught me how to be a mom,” Jenna Riccio said.

When he first went home to the Riccio’s, Nate said he was nervous but excited.

“It was just weird living with a new family,” he said. “My parents moved a lot, it was just weird being around and living with new people.”

During the first year living with the Riccio’s, Nate said he experienced many firsts: his first Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and his first trip to the beach and time to swim.

The family had hoped to throw him his first birthday party in March 2020 but had to scrap plans due to the pandemic. Although the family had small gatherings for his birthdays, they hope to host this first party for his next birthday.

In his second year with the Riccio’s, Nate had a wish that was granted by the Make-A-Wish Foundation. His hematologist at Connecticut Children’s Medical Center nominated him, and Nate met his favorite actor: Grant Gustin from The Flash.

According to Jenna Riccio, Nate is now healthier than ever. He will still need multiple surgeries as he gets older and possibly a liver transplant.

As a fifth grader, Nate immersed himself in several extracurricular activities, including choir, bucket band, and student council. He wants to be an actor when he’s older and to make that dream come true he takes acting classes and played a zombie in his first play over Halloween weekend.

Liz Hardaway can be reached at liz.hardaway@hearst.com

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