Petaluma girl with spinal cord injury focus of fundraising campaign

Three years after her spinal cord was severed in a car crash, 8-year-old Jazzlin Mejia is still meeting Petaluma residents who want to support her recovery.

Residents turned out Sunday night for a “Dear Jazzy” benefit that sponsors hoped would raise upward of $50,000 to pay for special therapy sessions for Jazzlin. The girl was injured in October 2013 when a drug-and-alcohol impaired driver crashed into the car her father was driving on Highway 121 near Sonoma Raceway.

Supporters said they have an even more audacious goal: to collect $100,000 in order to help the girl’s family afford a single-family home where Jazzlin would have wide hallways for her wheelchair and a room of her own.

“It’ll happen, I’m confident,” said Nina Gruener, who helped spearhead Sunday’s gathering and concert at the Mystic Theatre.

About 250 adults were expected to attend Sunday’s benefit. Jazzlin was there, too, seated at a special table with best friend Lila Seufert, also age 8. As the grownups nibbled hors d’oeuvres and milled about before the concert, the two girls drew pictures, but also took time to greet well-wishers and have pictures taken with them.

Jazzlin’s parents, Nannette Andrade and Gustavo Mejia, said the community’s support was incredible.

“To have people wanting to help out is just crazy,” Andrade said. “But I’m really thankful for it.”

Her husband had suffered extensive leg fractures and other injuries in the same crash that injured her daughter. A passenger in the other vehicle died and its driver, Damodar Chandradas, 25, of San Francisco, was sentenced to 25 years in prison after pleading guilty to vehicular manslaughter and 15 other charges.

Community members, including those connected to Jazzlin’s school, Mary Collins at Cherry Valley, previously set up a trust fund through Exchange Bank and helped raise money for a car that could better accommodate the girl and her wheelchair.

Gruener and her husband Chris said they helped organize Sunday’s benefit because Jazzlin’s family must pay out of pocket for the girl’s therapy and because her parents received little from the insurance settlement linked to the crash.

“We’re just realizing this is an ongoing thing,” said Chris Gruener. Supporters hope to produce some kind of benefit each year and plan on “staying committed to Jazzy and her family.”

Gustavo Mejia said the community support “means everything to me.” Keeping the physical therapy going is key because of how much it has helped Jazzy cope with her injuries.

“Her confidence has gone through the roof,” he said.

In August the Grueners opened a campaign on the crowdfunding site GoFundMe with a goal of raising $100,000 to help Jazzlin’s parents purchase a house.

Before this weekend the site had collected about $4,400, but sponsors were urging attendees Sunday to make a pledge on computers set up at the Mystic.

Barton Smith, the master of ceremonies, received loud cheers when he told the audience the one purpose of Sunday’s gathering was “to raise money.” He acknowledged the goal of helping the family move from an apartment to a house was “a really, really big one.”

Sunday’s benefit, for which participants paid $48 each, featured musicians and speakers, including two spinal cord injury survivors who were there both to encourage Jazzlin and to help the audience understand some of the challenges the girl faces.

Before the concert, Jazzlin said she was most looking forward to the evening’s music, with an appearance by Petaluma artist Sean Hayes, plus Charley Crockett and the group Royal Jelly Jive.

The reason, she said, is “I like to hear music.”

But she acknowledged it also was fun to be the guest of honor.

Nina Gruener said after the crash she first pondered the question, “What if it had been our child?” But a revelation came later when she realized, “It is your child, because you’re living in a community where this happened.”

You can reach Staff Writer Robert Digitale at 707-521-5285 or On Twitter @rdigit

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