She lived less than 23 years. She never spoke. And her grandfather will never forget her.
Families of the severely disabled know things other people never have to learn, and some of those things are terrible. They witness lives lived under extreme disadvantage, lacking basic capacities the rest of us take for granted. but these family members often say they gain immeasurably from the disabled person’s presence in their lives.
Take Joe Rosamilia, for example. If you ask him how many grandchildren he has, he’ll tell you 10, because, as he explains, “we still count Jessica.” Jessica Rosamilia died just a month before her 23rd birthday in 2013, and her short life was dominated—and restricted—by a severe neurological disorder.
At age 70, Rosamilia no longer owns his beverage distribution company, but instead of spending days on the golf course, he has something more important to do. he runs the Jessica Foundation, a charity he established and funds to honor his late granddaughter.
Joe and his wife, Sandy, 69, live in Metuchen. In 2007, he sold his business “and decided to give some of it back,” he says. He and his wife have made donations to numerous medical centers and other facilities and organizations, and when Jessica died they established the foundation. Most recently, they gave $20,000 to Saint Peter’s University Hospital for upgrading the emergency department’s pediatric family room, which will bear Jessica’s name.
Jessica’s mother, Dana Rosamilia, 51, who is one of Joe and Sandy’s three children, also lives in Metuchen. She worked for the family business while raising Jessica; Kristina, 22; Olivia, 19; and Kenny, 15.
When Jessica was about one year old and wasn’t meeting her developmental markers, “we had every test under the sun,” Dana recalls, but no definitive diagnosis was ever made. “She was ‘neurologically impaired,’ or maybe it was cerebral palsy—it depends on which doctor you went to.” She began having seizures at age three, and “she had them every single day, without fail, until the last hour of her life,” says Dana. Jessica couldn’t speak and was in a wheelchair. She spent her days at the Lakeview School in Edison and her nights and weekends at home.
Jessica was always a spirited member of this sprawling family. “i live across the street from my mom and dad, and she was treated like everybody else here,” says Dana. “she was a daughter, granddaughter, sister, niece, cousin. she was definitely a happy kid.”
Despite her impairments, “she touched more people without saying a word than anyone i know,” Dana says. “She gave us unconditional love. She taught us patience. At the end all she could do on her own was breathe, and yet she taught my three other children things you can’t learn in a Harvard education.”
“She was the center of our lives,” agrees Joe. “A real little character. You knew exactly what she wanted. If she didn’t want to do something she pushed your hand away, and when she wanted to do something she’d smile and get whatever she wanted.”
Joe and Sandy also volunteer at the Lakeview School, but the foundation is their life’s work now. “I’m supposed to be retired!” Joe says with a mock-rueful laugh. “But we’re doing something every day—opening letters, speaking to people. These are the things that are important to me and my wife. It’s not about us, it’s about her, and her name, and how we can help her legacy continue.
“i lost my first granddaughter,” Joe says. “She was special.”
To find out more about Saint Peter's University Hospital and ways to help support it, please call 732.745.8600 or visit saintpetershcs.com/foundation.