Brynna Clarke Venoski has lived with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis — and the pain and monthly intravenous infusions that come with it — for the past nine years. One might expect the 18-year-old to be somewhat bitter about her condition. But Clarke Venoski’s attitude about her arthritis is anything but bitter.
“I relate very well to 80-year-olds,” she said with a chuckle.
Her sense of humor, as well as healthy doses of optimism, gratitude and faith, shapes Clarke Venoski’s outlook on life. A member of St. Michael Parish in Newark, she said she really doesn’t feel limited by her disease.
“I’ve gotten so accustomed to it that I’m not really living any differently. I know what I can do and what I can’t do by now,” she said.
Clarke Venoski can’t do the breast stroke, for example, but rather than dwell on that limitation she simply chooses another stroke to work on in the pool.
“OK, I can’t do that. OK, go on,” she explained.
Clarke Venoski’s monthly trips to the hospital have allowed her to witness people suffering from what she perceives to be far more serious and debilitating diseases, such as cancer. When she sees these patients, she said she can’t help but feel grateful for all she has and for the suffering she’s been spared.
“I’m just very thankful that all I have to deal with is pain. If this is all I have to suffer with, I’m fine. I’m very blessed,” she said.
Clarke Venoski’s attitude is just one of the many reasons she was nominated to receive the diocesan Hands of Christ award, which is given each year to high-school seniors who have demonstrated outstanding service to their churches, schools and communities. Clarke Venoski is one of the approximately 800 teens who received the honor last spring.
Clarke Venoski has been an active member of St. Michael Parish for most of her life. She said her family moved to the Newark area when she was 5, and she completed the first eight years of her education at St. Michael School. She regularly helps out with the children’s liturgy at weekend Masses, and for the past two years she’s been a fourth-grade Sunday-school teacher. Clarke Venoski taught four students her first year and more than 20 students this past year. Although teaching the fourth-graders was challenging at times, she said it was a very fulfilling role.
“I’ve always found my faith very interesting. I like passing that on and seeing the moment that (students) finally see exactly what I mean, and that’s so gratifying,” she said.
The experience also helped Clarke Venoski realize she was not cut out to be a teacher.
“After the two years of teaching, I realized I do not have the God-given patience to teach (professionally),” she said. “God bless the people who can do this; I’m not one of them.”
Instead, Clarke Venoski hopes eventually to get a job working for the U.S. Department of State, in part because she loves to travel. She plans to begin college at SUNY Potsdam later this month, then to head to Washington, D.C., after a few semesters to continue her schooling at Catholic University of America, where she looks forward to taking theology classes.
“My faith is a big reason that I want to go to Catholic University of America. I want to continue researching and asking questions (about faith). I so enjoy that,” she said.
In the meantime, Clarke Venoski is enjoying her last few weeks at home in Newark. She said the tight-knit Newark community has been incredibly supportive both of Clarke Venoski and her 9-year-old brother, Andrew, who has special needs.
The teen said she often takes Andrew — who was born right around the time she was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis — on outings to the library and other places around town when their mom needs a break. Helping with Andrew always has been something that just comes naturally, she said.
Clarke Venoski said some people don’t understand her positive attitude or faith in God, but she tries to surround herself with people who do understand her. She said her faith is strong because for the most part God has given her what she needs.
“Yes, he gave me disabilities, but he’s given me the attitude that I have. Yes, he gave Andrew mental disabilities, but Andrew is such a great little person and I’ve grown to love him. It’s a blessing in disguise,” she said.