Teachers Help 'Incredible' Student Who Braved Amputations — and Decide to Adopt Him: 'Our Family Is Complete'
Courtesy Jenna Riccio Jenna, Nate, Tim and Julien Riccio
Connecticut teachers and spouses Jenna and Tim Riccio say their "family is complete" after they adopted one of their students, 10-year-old Nate Innocent Riccio.
"He taught me how to be a mother," Jenna — a 37-year-old reading teacher at Walsh Elementary School in Waterbury, Conn. — tells PEOPLE in this week's issue.
"He's a perfect example of how you can persevere," adds Tim, 38, who was Nate's art teacher.
That's because Nate has endured the unimaginable amid his struggle with sickle cell anemia — and yet he's always maintained a positive outlook, the Riccios say.
More than three years ago, complications led to the amputation of Nate's legs below the knees, his left arm and two and a half fingers on his right hand.
"He is so outgoing and so resilient," Tim says. "He finds a way to do whatever he puts his mind to."
Nate remained optimistic even when he was hospitalized in September 2019 for emergency surgery to prevent an infection in his arm. To comfort the boy who always brightened her reading class, Jenna decided to go visit him in the hospital.
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"He was there by himself with no family," she recalls. "I wanted to cheer him up and have someone he knew there with him."
Courtesy Jenna Riccio Jenna, Nate and Tim Riccio
At the hospital, Jenna learned that Nate had been removed from his family's home just 10 days earlier.
"Nate's doctors were worried about him missing appointments and not getting the medical care he needed," says Jenna.
Upon discharge, Nate was to be sent to a foster home more than an hour away from the school that had become his happy place.
"It wasn't the ideal situation for him," says Jenna. "I worried about what was going to happen to him."
Jenna realized she had plenty of space for Nate at her home, which is near his school, so she casually asked a Department of Children and Families caseworker if she could become his foster parent.
For more on Nate's journey, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday, or subscribe here.
When she headed to her car to leave, she immediately called another DCF caseworker to further inquire about becoming Nate's foster parent. Then she called Tim, who was her boyfriend at the time. His surprise quickly turned to excitement at the prospect of parenting the boy whose infectious charm always made him smile.
"I wanted to be a part of it," says Tim.
After Jenna underwent background checks and home visits to get approved as a foster parent, Nate went home from the hospital with Jenna on Oct. 3, 2019.
"Within weeks, it felt like we were a family," Tim says.
Three months later, on New Year's Eve, Tim proposed. Nate served as the ring bearer at the couple's wedding on May 15, 2021.
"The love in the room was amazing," Jackie Vidal, Nate's social worker, tells PEOPLE. "People had to get in line to dance with Nate."
Courtesy Jenna Riccio Nate and Julien Riccio
Last February, Nate became a big brother when Jenna gave birth to her and Tim's daughter, Julien.
"She's obsessed with him," says Jenna, "and lights up when she hears his voice."
Although Nate was already part of their family, it wasn't until Nov. 18 that he officially became Jenna and Tim's son.
"This day is amazing!" Nate exclaimed at Waterbury juvenile court at his adoption hearing, which happened on National Adoption Day.
"I was so happy," he tells PEOPLE.
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After 1,142 days in foster care, the courtroom was packed with Nate's social workers and even the Connecticut Lt. Gov. Susan Bysiewicz.
"This boy just really affects people in such a positive way — he just exudes positive, joyous energy," says Vidal, who is no longer a social worker but is now lovingly considered Nate's "Aunt Jackie."
Nate's biological brother Giovhany Mondestin, 22, with whom the Riccios remain close, was also there for support.
Courtesy Jenna Riccio “We have the best family ever,” says Nate Riccio (with Tim and Jenna and his older brother Giovhany Mondestin at his adoption hearing in November).
"We always tell Nate, 'I know you learned how to be a good big brother from your big brother,' " says Jenna.
By all accounts, the boy — now in the 5th grade — is thriving.
"They take care of me in every way, the best way possible — the way that my parents weren't able to," he says.
Once a wheelchair user, Nate now walks on prosthetic legs. He'll need more surgeries on his amputations as his bones grow through his skin, but his sickle cell crises — including gastrointestinal issues and a compromised liver — "have gotten so much better," says Jenna.
These days, when he's not playing with his little sister, Nate can be found at an acting workshop, pursuing a passion that he hopes will someday land him on the big screen.
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"Every night I go to sleep thinking, 'I'm very lucky,' " he says.
But his parents say they are the lucky ones.
"I'm happy that I never have to imagine life without Nate," says Jenna.
"If our story inspires others to foster kids who need a family," she adds, "that would be amazing."
More than 400,000 young people are in foster care, according to the U.S. Children's Bureau. For more information on becoming a foster parent, visit childwelfare.gov/nfcad.