updated 03/07/2014 AT 3:15 PM ET
•originally published 03/07/2014 AT 12:15 PM ET
Jenny Hatch wasn’t trying to be a hero.
She just wanted to live with the family she loved.
But while the 29-year-old woman with Down Syndrome was fighting for the right to make her own decisions about where to live and whom to live with, she also created a path for others with disabilities to follow.
Last August, Hatch won a yearlong court battle in which she challenged her biological parents’ right to keep her in a group home, making her a celebrity in the disability world.
Love and Kindness
A court awarded temporary guardianship to Hatch’s close friends Jim Talbert, 54, and Kelly Morris, 45, who own the thrift shop where she’s worked for the past six years.
“I love them very much,” says Hatch, of Hampton, Va. “I know that they love me, too. They make my life very happy.”
Sara Gelser, board member of the National Council on Disability, says, “Jenny pushed back and won when her basic rights were threatened.”
“The ruling should give youth and adults with disabilities the inspiration to know they are the captains of their lives,” Gelser says. “They do not have to accept guardianships, and they can choose the future they want for themselves.”
Hatch says she was just following her heart, while Talbert and Morris say she captured theirs.
“Jenny has so much love and kindness around her,” says Talbert. “Kelly and I both have a love and fondness for her.”
It started in March 2012 when Hatch was injured in a bicycle accident and hospitalized for several days. She had been living with a family friend but the friend was losing her apartment so Hatch had nowhere to go.
Finding a Home
Her parents wanted to put her into a group home (Hatch has a good relationship with her father but not her mother). Morris and Talbert offered to take her in.
“I was so happy when they said, ‘You can come and stay with us,’ ” she says, crying at the memory. “It made me feel so good inside.”
She was also looking forward to spending more time with Morris’s 15-year-old daughter, Jordan, who has cerebral palsy.
Each night, Hatch would lay out the teen’s pajamas and brush her hair.
“I like to help Jordan,” she says. “I love her so much.”
But after five months, the court put Hatch in a temporary guardianship with her parents. She bounced between four different group homes over the course of the next year.
“We thought she’d be safe there,” says Jenny’s father, Richard Hatch, 53, who lives in North Carolina (Jenny’s mother declined comment).
Since her win last August, she’s been happily ensconced in Morris and Talbert’s home when she’s not traveling the country speaking at conferences about her experience.
Hatch has also formed The Jenny Hatch Justice Project, which advocates for others with disabilities.
“Every day I thank God I am not in the group home,” she says. “I am so happy to be home. I don t want to live anywhere except with Jim and Kelly.”
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