Penny Jones was a single Mom of two teenage boys when she sought out a distraction and outreach for herself and her sons. After serving as a foster Mom and helping parents in dependency court achieve reunification, she felt called to adopt three dependent siblings and create a nonprofit organization as a tribute to their sister.
What do you do with a broken heart?
How do you carry on when a child is ripped from your arms and murdered? How do you sleep at night without hearing her sweet voice, as a flurry of memories rush to your head?
Ask Penny Jones, and she will tell you. If you don’t do something with all that unspeakable pain, all the suffering is in vain.
Somewhere in some clerical universe, the papers say she was Tariji Gordon’s foster mom. Timmy’s foster mom, too. And foster mom of another
precocious and beautiful wild child, Icesis.
But I know better. So do a lot of people. So do the children.
She is Miss Penny. Mommy Penny.
It’s always been about her. It’s not about Rachel Gordon, who is charged with murdering Tariji, her 2-year-old biological daughter. But let’s not waste any time on her. She represents the dark side of a story that is all about sloppy-wet-kiss love.
Miss Penny did some remarkable things after Tariji died of blunt-force trauma to the head and was dumped in a suitcase in a shallow grave in Putnam County in February 2014. She crawled out of bed and fought.
She fought to get Tariji’s siblings back to her home. Timmy, 4, and Icesis, 5, had an older sibling, Talia, who is 7. She wrapped Talia in her arms and took her in, too.
She vowed that Tariji’s death would not become one of those sob stories that fade away after the 24-hour news cycle. She fought hardest for the child who was buried in a pauper’s grave in Sanford.
It began with “Tariji Changed Me” T-shirts, signs and banners. It continued with a moving video montage set to the Phil Collins hit, “You’ll Be in My Heart.” Working her contacts, Miss Penny was able to get Collins to sign off on the rights to use the song, no charge.
Then came “The Penny Project.” It’s a nonprofit advocacy group that’s still a work in progress. Miss Penny wants to become an influential voice in Florida’s foster-care community. She wants to change the dynamics of a highly dysfunctional system, broken by too many boxes that need to be checked and not enough common-sense oversight. Give case workers tools to succeed. Train them properly.
This will be Miss Penny’s life’s work, trumping her stellar reputation in this community as an executive with Florida Hospital.
She’s suffered way too much already. Aurelia Juarez, another foster child once in her care, was murdered by Aurelia’s father in 2008.
“It’s like being struck by lightning twice,” Miss Penny said.
But there are no immediate thunderstorms on the horizon. Last Thursday, Miss Penny and her kiddos walked into the Juvenile Justice Center in Seminole County to make it legal.
Miss Penny would become their forever mom.
They won’t have to live with the fear, as the children thought for the longest time, that Miss Penny would give them back to Fryer. They couldn’t process the concept of state-ordered reunification. All they could process was, “Why is Mommy Penny giving us back?”
They’ve all graduated from trauma therapy. Miss Penny — a dear friend — sent me a video of Icesis the other day, strumming a plastic guitar and singing, “We want to be adopted!”
And so they rumbled into the courtroom as happy children. Icesis grabbed the judge’s gavel and bounced it on the table. Timmy hugged a guard and accidentally pushed an internal panic button in the courtroom. All three children fiddled with crayons as they sat next to Mommy Penny.
“Can we be adopted every day please?” Timmy asked the judge.
No need to, Little Man. This will always be your day.
Friends and family cried. A bailiff passed out tissues to people in the front row. Happy tears.
Miss Penny then took the kids home, and the Christmas tree finally came down. That was their one last present to each other, the very best one.
One single woman, blue-eyed and blonde. Three African-American children who see no color, only a mother’s love.
“No one can ever take them away,” Miss Penny said.
Congratulations, Mommy Penny. It has always been about you.
firstname.lastname@example.org Read George Díaz’s blog at OrlandoSentinel.com/enfuego.