‘I was always being told I couldn’t do certain things because I was disabled,” says Patrice Jetter, in an interview at the offices of Allies, Inc., the non-profit agency in Hamilton Township that assists people with disabilities. Jetter started working at Allies as a part-time file clerk last July, but once her artistic talent was revealed, she became the agency’s unofficial in-house artist as well. Never say never to this Hamilton Township resident, whose multiple disabilities haven’t kept her from tackling demanding outdoor sports, working as a school crossing guard, appearing on her own cable television show, and modeling. Jetter will showcase her artistic talents — she creates murals, caricatures, and crafts — on Sunday, April 27, when the 43-year-old will draw personalized caricatures from a booth at the Grounds for Sculpture’s annual “A Day at the Fair,” starting at 11 a.m.
Born in Montclair the fifth of six children, Jetter wasn’t properly diagnosed with mild cystic fibrosis and emotional, neurological, and hearing impairments until she was nine years old. At 13, she was committed to Marlboro State Hospital, the first of many institutions in which she would live for several years until being judged able to live on her own. Her mother was a stay-at-home mom; her stepfather was a longshoreman.
Even as a child, Jetter says, “I would do things anyway, and I’d usually get in trouble. I wanted to show everybody I could do stuff. Because anything I do myself is a major accomplishment.” You could say her artistic talents were revealed in 1966, when Jetter was just two years old, and her older sister bought her a Snow White coloring book. “After filling in the colors I started doing my own drawings,” Jetter says. The year Jetter turned four, the Johnson Administration began Head Start, a preschool program designed to reach low-income families. At Head Start, Jetter says she “was exposed to finger paint, clay, and more crayons. I loved it. My mom was obsessive/compulsive about dirt, and this was a place I could get dirty and she couldn’t see it.”
Little Patrice’s drawing of a porcupine made a particularly strong impression on her teacher. “She said I was really good, and I started taking extra art classes,” Jetter says. “By the time I was in kindergarten, I was able to take advanced art classes with the fourth and fifth grades.”
At public school, Jetter — as yet undiagnosed — was subjected to the cruel taunts of other children, not because of her disabilities but because of her new “gifted and talented” status. Despite her sunny attitude, she makes it clear that the unpleasant memories remain. “Once you get that label of being talented and gifted, you get associated with the nerds, geeks, and dorks,” she says. “It causes people to have the impression that you think you’re better than anyone else. My mom tried to pass me off as a normal kid, but they didn’t buy it.”
Meanwhile, art became an escape. Her crayons and markers in hand, Jetter retreated to her own private world when she got tired of being ridiculed, beaten up, and pushed into her locker. “Art became an outlet,” she says. “It was a great outlet, because I could get back at people I was mad at. I’d do cartoons with a balloon with what they were saying, or a stick of dynamite to blow them up. But I got used to it all. I learned to negotiate with the bad kids.”
It was a third grade teacher who recognized Jetter’s talent and intelligence and suggested to her mother that she enroll her in the Catholic school system, where she could have a more structured environment. But due to a change in special education mandates she had to leave that system, and the family, aware of no other options, committed her to Marlboro State Hospital.
Life at the hospital, which had bars on the windows, was like being in prison, Jetter says. She transitioned in and out of various other institutions over the next few years, eventually earning diplomas from both the Gramon School in Livingston and Montclair High School. She was forced to spend another two years at Essex County State Hospital after her mother became ill with cancer and family members declined to take her in. By then, however, Jetter was determined to live on her own and be in charge of her life. She moved into Project Live in Newark, a two-year program where individuals learn the skills they need to manage daily life. Jetter emerged from the program in only a year and a half.
Her next hurdle was finding employment. She was turned down for a job as a crossing guard with Montclair’s school system, but refused to accept the excuse that she did not have the experience necessary for the position. Twelve attempts and a four-page letter to the mayor later, the job was hers. She loved it and stayed for 13 years.
“I would do stuff to make the kids laugh,” she says. “I’d ask them to come up with things I should try, and then I got my own public access TV show, called ‘The Trish Show,’ and I’d do the stuff on the show. It was actually funny. The kids wanted to see if I was actually going to do things like skateboard or ski. They needed to see if I could do it or not do it. If I got scared, that’s real.”
Jetter’s enthusiasm for sports increased as she realized how much she could do. She has been skiing and skating since she was small, and has since added skateboarding, juggling, bicycling, and trapeze to her list. Her current pursuit is scuba diving. “I walk funny, but when I skate you can’t even tell I have a disability,” she says.
She also makes time to work with children and appear in theatrical productions, such as Allies’s production, “Through Our Eyes,” at Mercer College’s Kelsey Theater each year.
Since moving to Hamilton, Jetter has lived in a development called Project Freedom with her boyfriend, who is confined to a wheelchair. She is a popular staff member at Allies, Inc., where she files, makes copies, sends faxes, and designs invitations, thank you notes, and almost anything else that requires art. “I also make a mean cup of coffee, vicious tea, and bodacious hot chocolate,” she says with a smile.
“I call Patrice our Renaissance woman,” says Krystal Odell, president and CEO of Allies, Inc. “She’s so fearless. Her strength of spirit is something I admire. Having her here inspires everybody here. It seems there is nothing she can’t do. She loves a challenge. Her life is challenging, yet she takes on more challenges all the time. You think you might be having a bad day,and then you see what she goes through.”
Jetter squirms a bit when she hears that description. “It’s not so bad,” she protests, shrugging her shoulders. “It’s fun.”
A Day at the Fair, Sunday, April 27, 11 a.m to 4 p.m. Grounds For Sculpture, 18 Fairgrounds Road, Hamilton. Celebration to commemorate the former New Jersey State Fairgrounds. Tour the park, and enjoy popcorn, snow cones, hot dogs, and cotton candy. $12. Rain or shine. www.groundsforsculpture.org or 609-586-0616.