ALLOUEZ — Jenny and Kevin Hoppe agree that Jenny best tells the story of their extraordinary family. While Jenny does the talking, Kevin keeps the four kids — ages 3 to 6 — rounded up.
The Hoppe family, members of St. John the Baptist Parish in Howard, were selected as the CP Telethon’s “featured family,” representing CP’s Early Education and Care Program. CP, based in Allouez, serves northeast Wisconsin infants, children and adults who have a variety of physical, developmental, communication and sensory conditions.
The annual CP Telethon (see cptelethon.org) will be televised Saturday, March 7, 6:30 to 10 p.m., and Sunday, March 8, 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., on WBAY-TV Channel 2. Viewers will meet the Hoppe family at 2:40 p.m. on Sunday. Their story, said Jenny, seems to touch people, “though we’re just a typical family.”
“We like teaching our children and others that we are all a little bit different, though just like you,” added Jenny.
Special needs ‘hiccups’
Of their four children, two were born with special needs. All have been enrolled in CP’s Early Education and Care Program, which is open to children 6 weeks to 8 years, offering full-time, part-time and drop-in care. It’s described as an “inclusive” experience where all children — those living with the challenges of disability (or as the Hoppes call those challenges, “hiccups”) and those who do not.
Kevin and Jenny, both 40, met 10 years ago and married May 5, 2012. Their firstborn, Gavin, 6, was born with Spina Bifida. Then came daughter Sydney, 5, Brayden, 4, who inherited a condition that Jenny was born with called Noonan syndrome, and Camden, 3, who is currently enrolled in CP’s Early Education and Care Program.
The older three children now attend Father Allouez School (St. Matthew campus) in Allouez, which is near CP and a short drive to Jenny’s work. She is a customer service representative at Nature’s Way in Green Bay. Kevin is an engineer with Braileigh Industrial in Manitowoc.
Parish, school supports family
The family spoke at all three Masses the weekend of Feb. 22-23 at St. Matthew Church and Fr. Bob Kabat, pastor, announced that all the loose collection at the Feb. 29 and March 1 Masses would go to CP. The middle school students at Father Allouez School (Resurrection campus) organized the “CP Carnival” for the Father Allouez elementary students this year, raising $1,500 for CP.
Sending their children to Catholic school means a lot to the couple, especially because “Kevin and I had to lean so much on faith.”
The family’s story really begins with a prayer.
Jenny herself had been born with significant challenges. Because of Noonan syndrome — a disorder that involves unusual facial characteristics, short stature, heart defects at birth, bleeding problems and developmental delays — she went into heart failure around age 1.
She had surgery, but the expectation was she wouldn’t survive past age 3.
As a child she struggled with attention deficit disorder and for years each summer her parents hired a retired math teacher to prepare her for the next school year. She’d find success in high school and would go on to attend UW-Stout, earning a degree in print management. A West Bend native, her first job took her to Washington D.C. But a desire to live closer to family led her to a job in Green Bay with Independent Printing.
When she turned 30, she decided to call her grandmother and tell her she wanted to meet someone. Her grandmother said she would pray for Jenny. Not long after, her grandmother called: “‘God spoke to me,’” recalled Jenny. “’You’re going to meet a guy, but he doesn’t live in Wisconsin.’”
She remembered her response was, “Ok Grandma, whatever. … How am I supposed to meet this guy?”
On Dec. 2, 2010, she met the guy.
Kevin was the contact for one of her accounts in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. They had talked before by phone, but his phone call one day was out of the ordinary. “He had a project that went horrible. ‘I don’t know what to do,’” she recalled him telling her.
Within that conversation it became apparent both were single, and they decided to exchange phone numbers. That next Saturday, she took a chance and decided to text him to see if he wanted to talk on Sunday. They did — for six hours.
During that conversation she told him she had a “genetic challenge.”
“I don’t know if I’ll be able to bear kids,” she recalled telling him, and mentioned she would be open to adopting children. It turned out Kevin and his sister had both been adopted through Catholic Charities in St. Cloud, Minn.
Night after night they talked — never getting around to exchanging pictures. They finally met in person in Iowa on Jan. 2, 2011. “He said he loved me before we even met,” said Jenny. At Easter 2011 he met her family and Kevin decided to find a job in Green Bay.
‘God will be saving you together’
When they married at St. Francis Cabrini Church in West Bend, Fr. Patrick Heppe, a distant relative of Jenny who was celebrant at their wedding, recalled how Kevin had proposed to Jenny on Kevin’s boat. He presented the couple with a life jacket during his homily, Jenny said, recalling he told them, “‘No matter what, even if one of you is sinking and the other one is not, … God is going to be saving you together.’
“We actually conceived Gavin during our first month of marriage,” said Jenny. “There was a 50-50 chance he could be born with Noonan syndrome,” so every four weeks they did an ultrasound of his heart. A difficult delivery led to a cesarean section at HSHS St. Vincent Hospital in Green Bay on March 25, 2013, and the discovery that Gavin was born with Spina Bifida.
Spina Bifida affects the spine when the neural tube doesn’t close all the way and the backbone that protects the spinal cord doesn’t form and close as it should. It can cause physical and intellectual disabilities that range from mild to severe.
Gavin was baptized at the hospital and within two hours he was transported to Children’s Hospital in Milwaukee, where Jenny had been treated as a child. “He had surgery less than 12 hours after being born,” said Jenny, and four surgeries before he was two weeks old. He will always have a brain shunt to drain spinal fluids.
CP makes a difference
Jenny carried the health insurance for the family, so needed to return to work. At the suggestion of a neighbor, the couple visited CP to consult with them to see if they were up to the challenge of caring for Gavin. They were, and as an infant — and for the rest of his life — he will deal with the “hiccup” of having to straight catheterize himself several times a day to urinate. For weeks, Jenny left work three times a day to do it until CP caregivers said, with training, they could do it.
By age 4, Gavin learned how to do the process himself, and when he enrolled in 4-K at Father Allouez School principal Kay Franz and staff readily made accommodations for his needs, said Jenny. Today, he plays sports, including flag football. “He just got a trophy for passing the next level of gymnastics,” said Jenny, and he ran the Cellcom 5K with her last summer.
When it came time to consider having more children, said Jenny, “We decided whatever God gives us we’re going to be so blessed. It’s OK to have a child with disabilities. It just makes you stronger.”
Daughter Sydney, who Jenny describes as her “right hand girl,” came along next.
A year later, Brayden was born. At three and a half weeks early he was immediately taken to the neonatal intensive care unit at HSHS St. Vincent with breathing problems. Brayden was genetically diagnosed at six weeks with Noonan syndrome. “I got the phone call, and I sobbed and sobbed and sobbed,” said Jenny.
Before he was four months old Brayden had a heart catherization. “Eventually he will need open heart surgery,” she said. Like Jenny, he has a blood disorder.
Camden is their youngest and Jenny jokingly said he’s “her tough guy” who’s got to deal with his three older siblings and be “tough as nails” to keep up with the rest of them.
‘We’ve got this’
“We’ve got this.” That’s the approach Jenny said she and Kevin have taken with their family. “God already knew (when) he picked these kids that these would be the kids that Kevin and I would raise,” she said.
For years, she has had a pillar holy candle burning in their home 24 hours a day.
“Whenever I bring out a new candle, I always think, ‘What do I need now, what guidance do I need now?’ Like this week, Brayden was having challenges at school. … I always say a prayer, ‘Please help me guide my children.’
“When you have kids with special needs it’s a challenge, but it’s how you perceive life. … It’s a part of them. It’s not who they are,” added Jenny.
What does the future hold for the Hoppe family? “We’re looking toward adoption,” said Jenny. The life they’ve built “really drew Kevin and I closer. … When you are presented with challenges, who is the first one you turn to?” asked Jenny. Her answer: “God.”