Vennessa Brooks cried tears of joy the moment she passed her driving test. She immediately called lifelong friend Pam Reed to share the good news. For so long, Ms. Reed had always been there to offer her friend a ride anywhere she needed to go.
Vennessa had confidently told Ms. Reed one day that she planned to start driving. Now, that dream had become reality. For most people, learning to drive is a rite of passage. For Vennessa, it was validation of a never-give-up spirit that inspired so many people around her in Greenport.
At age 16, she lost use of her legs due to complications from lupus, a chronic autoimmune disease that attacked her spinal cord. She learned to drive using a specialized car designed with hand controls through an Adaptive Driver Training program at Eastern Suffolk BOCES. She passed her driving test on the first try about a year and a half ago.
“That was the proudest moment of her life and it just made me so happy I could share it with her,” said Ms. Reed, who considered Vennessa a sister.
“It was overwhelming,” said Gracie Brooks, Vennessa’s mother. “She felt blessed.”
A humble and determined woman who always strived to help others, Vennessa lived life with a smile etched on her face, always finding the positive in situations, even in her final days, her family and friends said. Vennessa died April 19 at Stony Brook University Hospital after her weakened immune system couldn’t fight off pneumonia, Ms. Reed said. She was 25.
Vennessa’s story nearly began with her having a different name. Her mother said she’d hoped to name her daughter Amanda. But her father, Casmore Brooks, didn’t approve. So they chose Vennessa (pronounced va-niece-a, not to be confused with Vanessa).
When Vennessa was in eighth grade, her father died suddenly; she was diagnosed with lupus shortly thereafter. At the time, her mother knew little about the disease. A few years later, Vennessa got sick and woke up one day unable to move her legs. Nerve damage had interrupted the motion in her legs below the knees. But as frightening as that would be for anyone, let alone a teenager, she never dwelled on her future.
“She would say to me, ‘I’m going to be fine, Mom,’ ” Ms. Brooks said.
Vennessa spent months at a time at the hospital when she should have been with classmates preparing to finish high school. She was determined to graduate with the friends she’d grown up with, like Ms. Reed. To help her achieve that goal, Greenport High School arranged for a tutor to assist Vennessa at the hospital. Jessica Dlhopolsky, a young teacher who had been substituting, coaching and tutoring at the high school since graduating from college, was approached by administrators and the guidance department. A senior who had lupus needed special attention, she was told.
Three days a week, Ms. Dlhopolsky would drive from Greenport to Stony Brook to tutor Vennessa. They would study from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., taking breaks only for lunch or medical procedures. At first, Vennessa was shy, but Ms. Dlhopolsky gradually got her student to open up, and eventually even crack jokes.
“It felt as though a bridge was crossed and I went from being seen as only a tutor to a new confidante, or friend,” said Ms. Dlhopolsky, who was close enough to Vennessa’s age to have been in school in Greenport at the same time.
During breaks, they’d sometimes go for walks and Ms. Dlhopolsky would wheel her around the lobby to provide needed distractions. Vennessa had a gift card for the hospital gift shop and they’d sometimes stop to buy a candy bar. One day, when she had little money left on the card, Vennessa bought her tutor a treat as surprise.
“Those were the sweetest Swedish fish I had ever tasted,” Ms. Dlhopolsky said.
The academics progressed slowly. They had limited time to cover a lot of material Vennessa needed to catch up on before taking regents exams in January of her senior year. She took the tests from her hospital bed, and the results were disappointing: She had failed both algebra and U.S. history.
Ms. Dlhopolsky advocated for Vennessa with the school’s guidance and special education departments to alter her educational plan, which allowed her score on the algebra exam to count toward graduation. With one exam out of the way, they could focus for the next three months on preparing for the other exam. In April 2010, Vennessa was released from the hospital.
“I had watched one chapter of her life unfold in that hospital, and was overwhelmed with happiness when it finally came to a close,” Ms. Dlhopolsky said.
When Ms. Dlhopolsky learned that Vennessa’s grandfather’s house, where she planned to stay after her release, was not wheelchair accessible, she solicited the help of her father, Scott Klipp.
Mr. Klipp, who also grew up in Greenport and works in construction, got to work quickly. He bought some lumber, drove to the house and knocked on the door. A few hours later, a ramp was completed.
“I knew that his heart was even larger than mine,” Ms. Dlhopolsky said.
Vennessa integrated back into the high school for the final few months and successfully passed her U.S. history regents in June 2010. That same month, she wheeled across the stage at the graduation ceremony to accept her diploma.
“She could have waited until the next year, but she wanted to graduate with the class that she grew up with,” her mother said.
Vennessa left a lasting impression on her tutor, who’s now a full-time teacher in Greenport and currently on maternity leave with her second child.
“She taught me that all goals are attainable, no matter the obstacles set in front of you,” Ms. Dlhopolsky said. “She taught me the value of focusing on the bright side, despite the times of darkness. She taught me that anything is possible.”
After graduating, Vennessa did office work for Southold Town and obtained a cosmetology certificate as a beautician, but couldn’t pursue further work in that field because of the chemicals in perms. She most recently worked for the Village of Greenport at the Mitchell Park carousel.
She was an avid fan of Sudoku and crossword puzzles and learned how to knit while recovering after a hospital stay at the Westhampton Care Center. There, she befriended an elderly woman she referred to as grandma. They would knit together, making scarves that Vennessa could give away.
“She made a lot of friends,” Ms. Brooks said.
Shortly before Vennessa died, Ms. Reed was set to leave for a vacation at Walt Disney World. She had seen her friend sick many times before, but could sense that this time was different. Vennessa implored her friend to go and enjoy her vacation.
On the day she died, Vennessa’s mother, her brother, Anthony Chance, and two of her aunts rushed to the hospital to be there in time to say a final goodbye.
“God allowed her to wait for us to say our goodbyes,” Ms. Brooks said. “She said goodbye to me.”
The pain of losing a child never goes away, her mother said. But slowly, the healing begins, day by day.
“I will never stop missing her.”
File photo: Vennessa Brooks of Greenport, who had dealt with lupus since age 13, following her high school graduation in 2010. (Credit: Katharine Schroeder)