“Just Jillian”: the struggles and successes of 2020’s Groundhog Queen

Jillian stands on stage with PAHS math teacher and Groundhog Club member Jason Grusky at Gobbler's Knob.

submitted by Holly Hartman

Jillian stands on stage with PAHS math teacher and Groundhog Club member Jason Grusky at Gobbler’s Knob.

On Groundhog Day, the world was watching PAHS senior Jillian Petroff.

A record-setting 40,000 people crowded into Gobbler’s Knob this year for Phil’s prediction, but before the groundhog emerged from his burrow, Jillian took center stage as her class’s Groundhog Queen. Keeping the cold and the noise out with a Phil beanie and her red cheerleading earmuffs, Jillian stood with the Groundhog Club and smiled to the crowd. 

The senior class had chosen Jillian for Groundhog Queen the previous month. Senior homerooms nominated two students, a boy and a girl, for Groundhog Court, and then students narrowed the list down to Jillian and Jachob Haines, the Groundhog King. 

When Sarah Petroff, Jillian’s mother, heard her daughter had won Queen, she felt “overwhelmed.”

“I was blown away,” she said. “Just the idea that the school has embraced a child with special needs, it’s huge. When I was in high school, it was unheard of to have a child with special needs even be nominated.”

Jillian has Trisomy 21, a form of a genetic condition most commonly called Down syndrome. This condition manifests when a baby is born with three copies of chromosome 21 instead of two. Down syndrome is associated with delayed physical and mental development, moderate learning disability and a range of health problems. 

Petroff said raising Jillian often presents challenges. She said that although she has two younger children, 13-year-old Dacoda and 15-year-old Piper, the family “revolves around” Jillian. In addition to ensuring Jillian can participate equally in all family activities, Petroff said she has to focus much of her attention monitoring Jillian’s health and development.

“There’s a lot that goes into raising a kid with Down syndrome,” she said. “There’s doctor’s appointments, and there’s all kinds of people that come into your home to make sure that she’s developing correctly and becoming ‘a functioning member of society.’”

At school, Jillian splits her time between classroom learning in the Life Skills class and out-of-school job training at local businesses like Goodwill and Fox’s Pizza. Petroff said Jillian does this training to prepare for life after high school, as Jillian plans to enter the workforce upon graduating. This might also present a challenge, Petroff said, as Jillian cannot do some things independently yet.

Despite these challenges, though, Petroff said Jillian’s life is far from just struggles.

She said Jillian “has a really good time” while learning independent skills during her summers at Camp Friendship, a local day camp for children with disabilities. Jillian has participated in activities there ranging from talent shows to fishing.

Camp Friendship, Petroff said, is the one place Jillian “thrives” without her mother. 

“I’m really proud of her for that,” Petroff said. “It’s kind of a big deal when I can send her off on her own and not worry.”

Jillian has also found success on the cheerleading squad. She joined cheer in seventh grade and has cheered ever since. Her seventh-grade teacher, Jill Kerr, encouraged her to try it out. Kerr told Petroff that Jillian might excel because she loved attention and being around people, and although Petroff said she “was a little bit leery at first,” Kerr eventually convinced her to get Jillian into tryouts. 

She tried out for the squad, Petroff said, and “it’s been history since.”

Head cheerleading coach Dana Hartman said Jillian has been enthusiastic about cheerleading from her first day. Hartman said Jillian has grown “tremendously” as a cheerleader since seventh grade. She knows all the cheers, and she often chooses the squad’s cheers for basketball games. Jillian, Hartman said, is “the center point” of the entire squad.

Holly Hartman, Coach Hartman’s daughter and cheer co-captain, said the squad doesn’t help Jillian succeed — in fact, it’s the other way around. Holly said Jillian bolsters the squad’s cohesion and spirit with her positive attitude and ability to “make anyone smile.” 

“We wouldn’t be us without Jillian,” she said.

Coach Hartman called Jillian “dynamic.” Although she can be sassy and likes acting silly, Coach Hartman said she is always ready to cheer and loves showing her sentimentality with hugs. She said Jillian reminds her that every moment is special because “they are to her.”

Holly said she enjoys not only cheering with Jillian, but also being her friend. 

“She’s honestly my best friend,” she said. “She calls me ‘best friend Holly,’ which is the cutest thing in the world. She’s always there for me every time. If I have even the smallest hint of a sad face, she’ll be like, ‘What’s wrong? What’s wrong?’ She’s such a great friend.”

Holly said Jillian is unique because she is “truly nothing but kind and free-spirited.” She doesn’t care what people think, Holly said, and will dance or sing whenever and wherever she wants to. Holly added that Jillian encourages her to be herself, to help those who need it and to treat people with dignity and respect. Overall, she said, Jillian inspires her “to be a better person.” 

Petroff said Jillian “is just like any other kid.” She wants to fit in, enjoy herself and make the most of her high school experience. She likes to pretend — Petroff said she put her hand up “like a queen” and waved when she learned she had won queen. Besides cheerleading, she likes watching movies, listening to music, dancing, eating and playing baseball in the Punxsutawney Challenger League. At school, Petroff said Jillian hangs out with her friends and participates well in class, though she has her “off days.” And at home, Jillian is very close to her sister Piper but loves to spend time with both her siblings. 

Petroff said Jillian takes some time to warm up to strangers but is friendly to those she knows well. Everyone Jillian likes, she said, “is in 100%.” However, Petroff said she didn’t know how to accurately define Jillian’s personality in just a few words — to her, she’s “just Jillian.”

Raising Jillian, Petroff said, has been both difficult and rewarding. Keeping up with Jillian’s health, development and specific needs, she said, has given her a deeper understanding of what it means to have a disability. She said some people regard those with disabilities with disdain or pity, but she simply now “understands.” She understands other parents, she said, and she understands the struggles and successes of their children.

Petroff said parents of children with special needs must support their children in everything they do. A child with a disability, she said, can do everything an abled child can. The only difference between “can” and “can’t” is belief.

“Don’t let people tell you that they can’t do something,” Petroff said. “You’re that child’s cheerleader, you’re their advocate, you’re their number one, and if you start to believe that they can’t do it, then they will start to believe they can’t do it. They’re just like everybody else and they can. Don’t put that word in their vocabulary.”

Jillian is on the verge of graduating high school as a cheerleader wearing the Groundhog Queen tiara. Petroff said that as recently as when she attended high school, a student with special needs achieving so much would have been almost impossible. Petroff said she was grateful for the support of her community, as she believes it has helped her daughter succeed.

“I just want to say thank you to the student body and to the Punxsy school district for embracing Jillian as much as they have,” Petroff said. “I think without her classmates and the school district, Jillian wouldn’t be the person that she is today.”

Jillian herself said she was excited to win queen. She added, of course, that she did her wave.