At just eight years old, local baking whiz-kid, Connor Rodriguez, debuted his sweet prowess in the kitchen with Connor’s Cupcakes this past April, and is already the talk of the town. However, what is even more amazing about the little renaissance man is that he has Down syndrome, and after four surgeries and a host of developmental delays—he has proven that like his idol, Hell’s Kitchen’s Chef Gordon Ramsay—“I am what I am. A fighter.”
When Connor’s mom, Marian Tinnelly-Rodriguez, was pregnant, she and her husband, Fred, decided not to take the screening test for Down syndrome. This test usually performed during the first trimester of pregnancy, is when a needle guided by ultrasound, is inserted through the mother's abdomen to take a sample of cells from the placenta. The cells are tested for missing, extra or abnormal chromosomes, and determine a chance for a Down syndrome diagnosis. However, Connor’s dad, Fred, said, “We just weren’t interested in taking the test, not just because of the risks associated with the procedure, but also because we knew we were going to love our baby anyway.”
Connor was born on June 13, 2010, and immediately the medical team realized that he had Down syndrome and began running a series of tests. During the heart test, they discovered that Connor has a tracheoesophageal fistula (TE fistula), a birth defect in which there is an abnormal connection in one or more places between the esophagus and the trachea. When a baby with a TE fistula swallows, the liquid can pass through the abnormal connection between the esophagus and the trachea and get into the baby's lungs. So on day two of his life, Connor had his first surgery, and was in the intensive care unit for two weeks.
Tinnelly-Rodriguez shared, “When he was born, finding out that he had Down syndrome was definitely a shock. All my family in Ireland were expectantly waiting to hear the good news. I called my sister and told her that I felt so sad that my baby was starting life on a negative note. I’ll never forget her response: ‘God gives special children to special people.’ Besides being in absolute agony because I had a cesarean, I was dealing with the news of Connor’s diagnosis, but my sister’s words gave me strength.”
According to the family, one of the most frustrating hurdles they faced was the lack of information and optimism from the hospital’s staff. “Rodriguez-Tinnelly said, “The hospital gave no information. All they gave us was a book that was outdated. I remember sitting with the social worker, and her saying, ‘You can always try again. He’s never going to be able to do much with his life.’ She made it a point to tell us that he won’t be able to go to college, will never have his own bank account. She was so negative. In her eyes, it was like Connor did not matter. That really lit the fire for us. In my head, I was thinking, ‘You’re talking to the wrong people here.’”
Rodriguez said, “When we heard that, it gave us even more fuel to want to fight for him even more. We wanted Connor to prove these naysayers wrong by having the best life ever.”
After two weeks in ICU and he was finally home, the determined husband and wife duo got on the ball pretty quickly with NYC’s Early Intervention (EI), a program that provides services for infants and toddlers with disabilities.
Rodriguez said, “Thank God for the therapists we met in EI. They gave a lot of information. We kicked down doors left and right to get him everything that would help him. Unfortunately for special-needs families, it’s a battle because information is not readily provided. You really have to explore every avenue and talk to people, who could refer you to great programs.”
Connor’s mom added, “A very big part of it is Connor was always such a happy baby, and our families completely embraced him, which gave us loads of strength. We worked 24/7 to make sure that he got the right professional help as early as possible, so he would have the best chance at being able to do all the things that kids his age could do.”
Four surgeries later, today, Connor is a happy and healthy third-grader attending the Tiegerman Elementary School (formerly known as the School for Language and Communication Development). He is a world-class traveler, and is already on his second passport with most of his stamps being from Ireland. He also loves playing soccer, swimming, horseback riding and of course, what he’s most popularly known for—baking!
How the little baking tycoon launched his own business is nothing short of amazing. According to Rodriguez, Connor has always had a passion for cooking. “He had his own play kitchen and would ‘pretend’ cooking concoctions like chocolate soup or banana soup. You name it, he would whip it up for us. Then he got into watching cooking shows. One of his idols is Chef Gordon Ramsay from Hell’s Kitchen. He would sit riveted, staring at the screen, and asking questions, so early on, we realized that cooking is his passion.”
Then soon Connor took over his mom’s kitchen. “He started helping me bake banana bread. He would get up on his little step stool, and mix flour and the other ingredients. Soon, he was in charge and I became the sous-chef,” Tinnelly-Rodriguez laughed.
However, Connor’s parents saw his passion for baking as an opportunity for him to start building on his future. “We worry about when we’re not around, and he’s older, what will become of him? So launching Connor’s Cupcakes was a way to start him on the right foot, where he gets to perfect a craft that could not just provide an income, but give him independence. So Connor’s Cupcakes was born. When we bought him his chef’s outfit, he never looked so proud and of course, happy,” Rodriguez said.
Connor’s Cupcakes became an instant hit. “We started getting hefty orders from locals to the FDNY, schools and organizations. We just did an order for a whopping 200 cupcakes for his school!” Rodriguez said.
Connor has been such as inspiration to his family that they even started their own nonprofit, Connor’s Place. “With Connor’s Place, we get the opportunity to help other special-needs parents, who are in the same dark place we were. Our aim is to provide a resource, where parents can access vital information to help their children. We have so much information from the years that have gone by that we want to share with parents on a similar journey.
“We want parents to know that a special-needs diagnosis doesn’t put a value on your child’s worth nor what he/she can contribute to society,” Rodriguez said.
BLOG COMMENTS POWERED BY DISQUS