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How to help

Petaluma's Chris and Nina Gruener are planning a stage show to benefit Jazzlin Mejia, paralyzed in 2013 when a drunken driver crashed into the car in which she and her father were riding. Anyone interested in helping with the benefit can contact them at ngruener@gmail.com or visit jazzlinmejia.com

At age 8 and three-quarters, Jazzlin Mejia answers lickety-split when asked if she has an idea of what she might like to do as a grownup.

“I want to be a cop,” she said from her wheelchair, positioned just now before her latest art project at the dining table in her family’s small Petaluma apartment.

Jazzlin — or Jazzy, or Jazz — is aware that people in uniform rushed to her and her dad and to the drug-and-alcohol impaired driver who caused the horrendous, 2013 Sonoma Valley highway crash that so utterly changed everything.

A cop? People close to Jazzlin are thinking far less about what she may become than about what she is: a creative kid who’ll likely never walk again and has limited use of her arms and hands, but who’s grateful not to have died and who could use some help as she asserts herself ever more back into everyday life.

“She used to hide out a lot,” says her father, 29-year-old Gus Mejia, from his living room chair a few paces from where his daughter and fellow survivor busies herself. Mejia has healed from the extensive leg fractures and other injuries suffered when his Toyota, with Jazzlin buckled up in the backseat, was slammed head-on by a Jaguar that had crossed the centerline on State Route 121 not far from Sonoma Raceway.

A passenger in the Jaguar, 26-year-old Sergei Beoglozan of Ukraine, died at the scene. Driver Damodar Chandradas, 25, of San Francisco, pleaded guilty to vehicular manslaughter and 15 other charges and was sentenced to 25 years in state prison.

Jazzlin spent three months at Children’s Hospital Oakland for treatment of her injuries, the worst being a severed spine. For a long time after she returned to Sonoma County in a wheelchair, she had no interest in leaving home.

Today, her father said, she more and more often tells him and his wife, Nannette Andrade, “I want to go here, I want to go there. I want to do this, and that.”

“It wasn’t like that at first,” says Mejia, who works as a glazier at a Marin County ceramics manufacturer. “It’s time for her to be more independent.”

Jazzlin’s parents aren’t asking for more help from a community that’s already done much for them. They’re thankful for many donations and acts of kindness. And they’re fairly overwhelmed by what a group of school friends and neighbors led by Chris and Nina Gruener are seeking to do.

A son of the Grueners’, Wes, befriended Jazzlin in kindergarten at the Mary Collins charter school on the campus of Petaluma’s Cherry Valley School. Now the Grueners are rallying people to help plan and pull off a benefit stage show they hope will be so well done and prove so popular it will become an annual, sellout event.

All net proceeds would go to Jazzlin’s family.

“They haven’t the resources to absorb this tragedy,” Nina Gruener said. “Everything is so expensive. Even an upgraded wheelchair is thousands and thousands of dollars.”

She and her husband operate Cameron and Co., a Petaluma book publisher founded by Nina Gruener’s later grandfather, Robert Cameron, who was renowned for his books of aerial photographs shot above cities and landscapes.

They’re thinking big. They aspire for an annual benefit event in Petaluma to raise enough money to allow Jazzlin’s family to purchase adaptive equipment and to assure she has the therapeutic training to make her as physically strong and self-reliant as she can be.

The Grueners’ most ambitious goal: to help Jazzlin’s family buy a house.

The couple thinks it is hugely important for Jazzlin to have her own room and enough space in which to maneuver her wheelchair and contribute fully to home life.

Her father said it’s true, the two-bedroom apartment restricts what his elder daughter — he and Andrade, who works in the office of a Sonoma optometrist, also have 21-month-old Addie — can do at home.

“We’ll be cooking and Jazzlin wants to be in the kitchen. She can’t, it’s so tiny,” he said.

Mejia is grateful the Grueners want to raise money to help his family purchase a home. “That’s pretty much what I need,” he said. “It’s not what I want, it’s what I need.”

At nearly 9, he said, his older daughter “wants her own room. She wants her own space.”

Jazzlin, now a third-grader at Mary Collins School at Cherry Valley, would love to have a room with a desk. “The most I like to do is write,” she said. “I like to write stories.”

Her friends the Grueners are fleshing out a vision for a stage production to take place somewhere in Petaluma in early November. The crash that changed Jazzlin’s life, but did not end it, occurred Oct. 29, 2013.

Nina and Chris Gruener are talking with musicians, authors and others who might take to the stage, and to food and beverage purveyors who might contribute. Nina Gruener envisions, too, a pop-up store where supporters may purchase items donated to the fundraiser for Jazzlin’s family.

She and her husband invite anyone who might be interested in helping to contact them at ngruener@gmail.com and to visit jazzlinmejia.com.

Back at the apartment in southeast Petaluma, Gus Mejia said it’s like a dream to have people in the community talking about putting on an annual benefit show and hoping to help his family buy a house.

“I feel so grateful,” he said. “Jazzlin’s happiness means everything right now.”

Nearly three years after the crash, the Mejia-Andrade family works at not looking back. Said Jazzlin’s dad, “We try to keep moving forward.”

Chris Smith is at 521-5211 and chris.smith@pressdemocrat.com.

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