PORT ST. LUCIE | Elizabeth Jekanowski is blessed with God-given abilities that led her to a musical career, but it was God’s gift of her son that brought her true passion to life.
“My son introduced me to a whole field of education I would have never thought about,” said the music minister at St. Lucie Parish in Port St. Lucie.
She and her husband, Philip, recently authored "Learning and Living with Autism" published by Divina Press.
“I wrote the book to encourage and inspire anybody who works with individuals with autism,” Elizabeth said. “It is an awful lot of work, and it is hard. It was so helpful to me to read books about families helping kids to reach their potential.”
The couple's son, Tommy Jekanowski, 28, was diagnosed with level-three autism, just after he turned 2. Unlike a typical inquisitive and jabbering toddler, Tommy was nonverbal and lacked social skills as a result of his severe case of the developmental disorder.
Elizabeth and Philip immediately turned to God asking for help and guidance. Then, they sought intensive special education and support and services to help their baby boy.
“I had a lot of fears,” Elizabeth said. “I knew that the Lord was with us. Everything was going to be okay. I knew my son would have a good life. I wanted Tom to grow up and be part of a community and loved.”
Elizabeth was born in Cornwall, Vermont, a small rural town with covered bridges and apple farms. Her late father, Theodore Collie,r was a doctor. Her mother, Joan, was a retired nurse.
Elizabeth was 6 years old when her mother bought a piano at an auction and brought it home. “I remember wanting to crawl into the piano, the music itself,” said Elizabeth, who began piano lessons and immediately caught on.
Elizabeth attended public schools where she was a member of the choral group, and United Church of Christ in Cornwall with her family, where she sang in the choir.
After high school she entered Colby Sawyer College in New Hampshire. She was 19 and on school break in Nantucket, Massachusetts, working at a summer job when her girlfriend introduced her to Philip Jekanowski, a native of New York and professional musician also working on the island.
“She sat down near my grand piano. I looked at her, and I said, ‘God it’s her,’” said Philip, who had been praying for his soulmate and was love struck the first time he saw Elizabeth. “She has always been the one.”
Elizabeth and Philip began singing as a duo together that summer, and they were a big hit. Elizabeth said goodbye and returned to college to complete studies and earn her bachelor’s degree in American studies. The two singing love birds had a long distance relationship, and soon became engaged.
That summer on Nantucket, Elizabeth became hooked on the Catholic faith. Philip, a cradle Catholic, invited Elizabeth to Masses celebrated at St. Mary Catholic Church Masses on the island where he was involved and volunteered as music minister.
“When I went to Mass with Philip everyone was very loving to me. I saw Philip’s example. There was a lot of joy. I wanted to be part of it.”
Time passed. Elizabeth’s love for Philip and the Catholic Church grew. She joined the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults process or RCIA and entered into the Church Easter 1987. She and Philip married October 1987 at St. Mary, and their journey began.
“They are a wonderful couple,” said Barb Dixon, a parishioner of St. Martin de Porres, who has known the Jekanowski family for the past 20 years. “They are extremely dedicated parents.”
Elizabeth and Philip built a small home on Nantucket. Elizabeth joined her husband in his professional musical career, and as a couple, they continued to grow in their faith and be involved in the church community and music ministry.
Five years quickly passed. Son Patrick arrived followed by Tommy.
Tommy was 27 months old when he was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). A 2020 Center for Disease Control report indicates that 1 in 54 children in the United States is diagnosed with the disorder. Boys are four times likely to be diagnosed than girls.
The Jekanowski family was told to prepare him for an institutionalized life. “My biggest concern was about Tom growing up and being a part of a community and loved,” Elizabeth said.
They sought early intervention and therapy at home, and then, when Tommy was 3, he was able to attend a pre-school that incorporated special education and services into their program.
“I fell in love with watching my son grow and watching his teachers help him develop. It is still one step at a time.”
Family and friends continued to give their love and support to Elizabeth and Philip, and prayer and church were a big part of family life.
“The boys have been to church since they were infants,” Elizabeth said. “I always carried my bag of goodies. I had Cheerios and books to engage Tom and keep him doing something.”
Rosary prayer and prayer before meals and at bedtime were part of the household routine. The boys were also part of religious education at the parish.
Tommy was in the second grade when Elizabeth received approvals from her pastor to coordinate a religious education program for five children ranging in ages 6 to 16 with various disabilities including autism and Down syndrome.
“Our house on Sunday mornings was a one room schoolhouse,” she said. “In the spring of that year, Tom received his first holy communion.”
Inspired by her son, Elizabeth continued her studies. “I enrolled in a master’s of education program from Cambridge College.” She said that the classes were given on weekends on Nantucket with a professor who would commute from the college to the island. She earned her master’s degree in education to teach and went on to earn a special education certification to instruct students with special needs.
The family moved to Florida in 2003. “I heard that the schools in Martin County were really great,” said Elizabeth, who began teaching in the school system. The boys also began school.
Tommy advanced. He continued to grow academically. He began participating in baseball, and the school choir. He was active in the church youth group and joined in weekly religious education classes. In high school, he was part of the band and the music program.
The family continued to attend Masses together. Philip took on the role of ministry director at St. Lucie in Port St. Lucie. At Masses, the boys and Elizabeth would join Philip taking part in the music and singing.
Franciscan Father Mark Szanyi, pastor of St. Lucie, has known the family for years and watched the boys grow. He said Elizabeth and Philip are wonderful and dedicated parents, who stayed the course on their challenging journey of parenting an autistic child.
“Phil and Elizabeth decided that Tom was a gift of God and that they would cherish and sacrifice for,” Father Szanyi said. “As an autistic child, he would be raised and educated with classmates who were not, knowing this would require many hours of additional teaching on their part. Their lives would revolve around Tom, and so they have.”
Patrick is now 30. He earned a master’s degree in sacred music from the Catholic University in Washington, D.C., and is following in his father’s footsteps. He is director of music and liturgy at St. John Neumann Parish in Gaithersburg, Maryland.
Elizabeth, who now has a doctorate degree in educational leadership from Florida Atlantic University since 2016, became an author in 2021 with her book. She is also a speaker available to talk about her journey learning about living with autism as she walked hand-in-hand with her son.
Opening the book, we were moved by the dedication that reads, “Dedicated with thanksgiving to a loving God who moves mountains, parts the sea and blesses us with hope.”
Tommy is a young adult now who has transformed from a child unable to communicate to a young man, who has graduated from Florida Atlantic University with both a bachelor's and master's degree and is currently working in a full-time position with a global court reporting company in Maryland. He lives with his best friend and brother, Patrick.
Tommy contributed to his mother’s book. He writes, “My life has been an amazing journey. My life is far from over, in fact, it has just begun. I am sure it will have many more challenges as well as opportunities waiting for me.”
Before Elizabeth became a mom, she knew little about Autism Spectrum Disorder or what it meant to live with a child with autism. “It was definitely a blessing, a gift from God,” she said. “He continued to surprise us. I told him that I am excited to see what will happen to him in 2023.”
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