In the Spotlight

Jennifer Gambino 

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Jennifer Gambino, pictured here with her mother, was diagnosed with CF at 21 and currently teaches math at an inner-city school through the Teach for America program.

Most people who have cystic fibrosis are diagnosed with the genetic disease by the time they are 3 years old. When Jennifer Gambino was diagnosed with CF at 21, she refused to let fear stop her.

“There’s nothing I can do to change the fact that I have CF, so I just try to fit it into my life as best I can,” she said.

In addition to having a positive attitude, Jennifer spends 40 minutes each day on treatments that include an inhaler and nebulizer, which help keep her airways clear of thick, sticky mucus. She exercises regularly, and washes her hands as much as she can to avoid germs.

She also volunteers for the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation. Originally from New York, Jennifer and her family have participated in a number of events hosted by the Western New York Chapter. Now living in Baltimore, Jennifer is busy working on her Science in Education Master’s degree.

Staying Focused

It’s in the classroom where Jennifer keeps her focus. She currently teaches math at an inner-city school through the Teach for America program. She faces the challenge of keeping second graders interested in learning while also helping them break the achievement gap.

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Jennifer uses puppets in her classroom as a way to keep lessons upbeat and fun. Her priority is her students, and she is able to care for them by adhering to treatments and having a positive attitude. “Staying positive with this diagnosis helps me stay healthy. As long as I’m healthy, I’m able to help my students, and that’s a great feeling,” Jennifer said.

Those challenges are exactly why Jennifer enjoys elementary education. Her job allows her to combine her love for children and her background in psychology.

“Because of the nature of Teach for America and where my school is located, I spend half of my time acting as a social worker, and half of my time teaching,” Jennifer said. “I deal with a lot mental health and nutrition issues, but I love the work. Being around kids all day is hysterical.”

Looking for Answers

She believes her diagnosis and subsequent experiences help her in the classroom.

“A lot of the children in my class have their own health problems related to socio-economic issues,” Jennifer said. “I have a lot of empathy for them and I work with each student to try to make accommodations and give them what they need to feel better.”

Over the years, she has learned that sometimes laughter really is the best medicine. She uses puppets to keep her lessons happy and upbeat. Puppets, she said, are perfect for helping students understand new concepts.

“I use a frog puppet to teach about number values. The frog might have a choice to eat 25 flies or 36 flies. It’s up the students to tell me which group of flies will make the frog happier."

Making Progress

The method seems to be working. At the end of each school year, Jennifer notes just how far her students come in understanding new concepts and embracing what they have learned.

“At the beginning of the year, some students can barely add 5 plus 5. By the end of the year, they are adding together two three-digit numbers. It’s great to see that much growth,” Jennifer said. “What’s really fun is how much the kids like carrying numbers. To them, it's big-kid math and they feel really proud when they are able to do it.”

Jennifer is also proud of her accomplishments and the way she’s been able to thrive despite having a life-shortening disease.

“A lot of people tell me how positive I am, and I really appreciate that. Staying positive with this diagnosis helps me stay healthy,” Jennifer said. “As long as I’m healthy, I’m able to help my students, and that’s a great feeling.”