One of the benefits to managing the Italian Enclaves Social Media pages (Facebook, Instagram, Twitter) and blog, aside from traveling to some very interesting places, is that it affords me the chance to meet spectacular people. Occasionally, I try to shed light on individuals of Italian descent who are making extraordinary contributions to society. The contributions that I look for are not of the glitz and glamour variety. People should hear about others who selflessly contribute to our society not only as a way of acknowledgement but also as a form of motivation. A fascinating part of the Italians’ contribution is that even as second, third, and fourth generation, we are always harnessing our unique skills and talents to add significant value to society.
One person who particularly struck a chord (no pun intended) is a young woman from Mill Basin, Brooklyn named Jenna Zirino. Born as a third generation Italian American to parents of Italian descent extending to Naples and Calabria, Jenna Zirino has personal challenges that she gracefully overcomes in fulfillment of her vocation as a behavior specialist. Despite suffering from a debilitating case of Fibromyalgia, Jenna gives her all to the patients with whom she works and when possible, she uses her God-given talent of song to brighten the lives of her patients and co-workers.
A Predominantly Italian Neighborhood
Jenna grew up in Brooklyn’s Mill Basin neighborhood. Mill Basin has two sections: New and Old. Old Mill Basin is a part of a greater section of Brooklyn called Flatlands. Old Mill Basin is generally anything from Avenue M to Avenue U between Mill Avenue and Flatbush Avenue. The homes in Old Mill Basin are from an older housing stock stemming from the earlier part of the 20th Century before World War 2. New Mill Basin is anything East of Avenue U between Mill Avenue and E 69th Street, extending all the way to National Drive. The homes in New Mil Basin are mostly post World War 2 and more frequently over the last few decades, some of the most luxurious homes in New York can be found here. New Mill Basin sits on a peninsula in Jamaica Bay bordering the neighborhoods of Bergen Beach, Flatlands, and Marine Park; all of which were mostly Italian throughout the 20th century. Many of the Italians who lived in Flatlands, Canarsie and Marine Park in the earlier and mid-20th Century, migrated to Mill Basin after World War 2 in search of fairly-priced housing that was made available specifically for veterans and their families.
Jenna works with severely challenged patients, many of whom are dangers to themselves and others. Amazingly, Jenna risks her own wellbeing, and despite having a handicap, aims to help these individuals live their lives as positively and happily as possible. Many of the patients with whom she works are from former state-run mental institutions such as the infamous Willowbrook State School in Staten Island, New York. To really put it in perspective without belaboring the point, these patients have very limited independent skills. Some of her patients have been rejected services by other institutions for years because they have extreme maladaptive behavior like aggression or self-injury. Jenna’s job is to find out why her patients are exhibiting a specific behavior and then helps them to communicate their thoughts and feelings in a safer way. The gamut of illnesses and disabilities that plague her patients include but are not limited to: cerebral palsy, autism, traumatic brain injury, and schizophrenia. Jenna’s agency handles patients within a very wide range of disabilities, but she specializes in helping those with the most severe delays.
Jenna humbly told us how she started off as a per-diem classroom assistant making $10 an hour eleven years ago and is now the head of the Psychology/Behavior department for her current site. To support the people with whom she works, Jenna uses sign-language, Italian, Spanish, Hebrew and picture communication if necessary.
Jenna’s case of fibromyalgia is sadly debilitating. She shyly says that she has “good days and bad days.” In some instances, Jenna’s Fibromyalgia acts up so much that she can’t stand and remains wheelchair bound. Even on her “bad” days, Jenna uses her gift from God to spread love and happiness despite her own struggles. Jenna’s singing ability opens the hearts and minds of her most difficult patients as well as her friends, relatives and colleagues. Enchanted by her beautiful voice, some of her most challenged patients are soothed enough to smile and laugh with delight when she sings despite their depression or anger.
Reflecting on the benefits of her Italian American heritage, Jenna attributes her drive and determination to the work ethic instilled in her by her parents and grandparents: “I have learned to give of myself until there is nothing left, to feed and to nurture….to provide warmth and comfort.” Her paternal Grandfather raised his family of seven in government housing projects in Canarsie while working as a longshoreman. He lost one of his arms in a tragic accident on the docks and her father and his siblings were left to fend for themselves. They worked hard and established themselves as successful entrepreneurs and wound up moving to a private home in New Mill Basin. When I asked Jenna if there is anything that makes her nostalgic and that resonates from her being Italian, she said: “eating antipasto and stuffed artichokes for breakfast after a holiday.”
A real person with real challenges helping people despite needing help. That is how I can sum up the life of our friend Jenna Zirino. She is an impressive person who should serve as a motivation to all of us. When Monday arrives, and we are all dragging ourselves out of our homes to work, we should think for a split second about Jenna. What if we could no longer get out of bed and stand up with both feet? What if we could only get out of the house with a wheelchair? Would we still use the little energy we have left after being mentally and physically drained by an illness, to go to work to help others even less fortunate? This is part of the sacrifice and challenge that Jenna overcomes constantly. In addition, Jenna sees no boundaries between people. Her friends are from a broad spectrum of society including different races, religions and sexual preferences. I pray she serves as a motivation to others and can motivate us all to be better versions of ourselves, so we can contribute our gifts and talents to the world with the same fervor and dedication as Jenna.
Please enjoy this beautiful showcase of Jenna’s oratory talents and may her angelic voice sooth you as it does for her friends, family, co-workers and patients: