Jennifer Rothman Mancuso: Mom’s grief drives work to help others’ children

William Motchan
Jennifer Rothman Mancuso holds a photograph of her son, Vincent Joseph “VJ” Mancuso, who passed away in 2010 shortly before his fourth birthday. Mancuso started a foundation in VJ’s memory, which supports four local nonprofit organizations. Photo: Bill Motchan

By Ellen Futterman, Editor

To lose a child is an agony no parent should have to endure. How do you get out of bed the next morning, and the morning after that, and the morning after that?

For grieving mother Jennifer Rothman Mancuso, the motivation to keep going after her young son’s death came directly from him — his smile, his laugh, his dimples and the memory of the way he enjoyed playing with his mom-mom as he called her, when he woke up in the morning.

“I get out of bed because of him. He shaped my life,” said Mancuso, referring to her son Vincent Joseph Mancuso, known as VJ, who passed away weeks shy of his fourth birthday. 

“Believe me, I’m very upset he’s not here. His death is the hardest thing I ever had to deal with — and I can deal with anything. But I get up every day and I have faith and support and I know I am doing wonderful things for others in VJ’s name and that keeps me going.”

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Along with her husband, Vincent Mancuso, Jennifer founded the VJ Mancuso Memorial Fund to not only keep VJ’s legacy alive but also to create positive outcomes and to help empower other children and their families. 

During Mancuso’s pregnancy, doctors detected an anomaly with VJ’s heart. “They told me the condition,” she said. “They weren’t sure of the prognosis.” 

VJ was born with a rare, congenital disease called hypoplastic left heart syndrome, in which the left side of the heart is critically under-developed. Mancuso explained that VJ needed three major surgeries to help correct this condition. He made it through the first two just fine. With each successful surgery, the survival rate goes up, doctors told her, so he had a 90 percent chance of success going into the last surgery.

“He had a few complications after the third surgery that the doctors didn’t understand because he had presented clinically so well,” said Mancuso, 47. “The third surgery was a challenge. He went back in for a test months after the surgery and to make a long story short, he didn’t make it out.

“He passed away in my arms with my husband and my beautiful stepchildren there. I told him how brave he was and how wonderful he was because he was the happiest little guy you’d ever met. When he passed away, I vowed to honor him and not hide.”

VJ died on Oct 12, 2010. On Jennifer’s first birthday after his death, the Mancusos held the foundation’s first fundraiser at VJ’s favorite place, Donut Palace in Ellisville, where VJ’s favorites, blueberry doughnuts and apple fritters, were served. 

Each year since, the VJ Memorial Foundation hosts a trivia night fundraiser, the proceeds of which benefit primarily four organizations: St. Louis Children’s Hospital and its Camp Rhythm, which gives children with heart disease a traditional camp experience; the Rockwood School District Early Childhood Center, where VJ attended; Temple Israel’s religious school; and St. Ambrose School. Both schools are given annual stipends to be used for any educational tools they need, along with scholarships. 

This year’s ninth annual trivia event will be on Sept. 21 at the Jewish Community Center. To date, these trivia nights have raised more than $250,000.

“Jen is our guardian angel,” said Leslie Ronzio, a parent educator with Rockwood School District’s Parents as Teachers program. “She has been amazing to our early childhood center. When she found out parent educators were in need of iPads, her foundation gave each of us one — all 21 parent educators. She has given our early childhood classrooms iPads and donated all kinds of books so that when we see a new family on a home visit, we can present them with a new book to help promote literacy.” 

Added Mancuso’s friend Susan Fadem: “When the Mancusos donated their first iPads to the district, one youngster with autism, who never communicated before, began interacting with classmates through the iPad. VJ loved the classroom, Jennifer told me, and it gave the Mancusos such peace to see another child engage in the magic of the school experience.”

A native St. Louisan, Mancuso graduated from Parkway Central High School and the University of Kansas. She is a sales development executive with HBO. Mancuso attended Congregation Shaare Emeth as a teenager and was, as she puts it, “very, very involved” in BBYO. 

She met her husband, who grew up Catholic, on an online dating site. 

“I looked for a Jewish guy but the Jewish guy didn’t email me back,” joked Mancuso, who exudes warmth, is naturally outgoing and seems to know no strangers. “Vince and I laugh that our wedding was ‘The Godfather’ meets ‘Fiddler of the Roof.’ ” 

They had their rehearsal dinner at Favazza’s, in the Hill neighborhood, and were married at Windows Off Washington, where Rabbi Janine Schloss of Shaare Emeth officiated. 

After Schloss left Shaare Emeth, Mancuso looked elsewhere to find a rabbi with whom she could connect. Then she met Rabbi Amy Feder at Congregation Temple Israel, where Mancuso now belongs. Both Feder and Monsignor Vince Bommarito at St. Ambrose on the Hill presided over VJ’s funeral service.

“Jennifer is just amazing,” said Feder. “We first met in the hospital when VJ was born; I helped her give him a name that we hoped would give him strength and healing, which we knew he would always need.  

“From day one, she was a model of hope, courage and strength. I never saw her with him without a huge smile on her face.

“I wish I could tell you what gives her the strength to do it, but I truly have no idea; I have never seen anything like it.  Every day of VJ’s life, they inspired people, and they do every day since then, as she and Vinnie work together to make sure that VJ’s memory lives on.”  

Jennifer Rothman Mancuso

Age: 47

Family: Married to Vincent Mancuso, two stepchildren and mother to the late Vincent Joseph, VJ, Mancuso, who passed away in 2010.

Home: Chesterfield

Fun Fact: While in college, she bungee jumped off of a crane on Mother’s Day. Suffice it to say, her mother was not all that thrilled.