By ANDREW DODSON, The Associated Press
AUBURN — Jennifer Piotrowski says her 5-year-old daughter, Raven, is truly a miracle.
Born premature at 26 weeks and weighing just 1 pound 10 ounces, doctors gave Raven a 50 percent chance of living and said there was a 97 percent chance she would have severe cerebral palsy or significant mental disabilities.
But Raven proved doctors wrong.
Today, the Auburn Area Catholic School kindergartner is healthy and is overcoming her biggest challenge: the ability to talk and communicate.
Now she plans to show the public that she can speak clearly. She is performing a speaking role in the Catholic school's annual Christmas pageant called, "Love Came Down at Christmas."
Her line, that helps tell the story of the birth of Jesus, has been memorized since Thanksgiving, said Raven.
"I've practiced it a lot of times," she said.
"It just makes me want to cry," said Jennifer Piotrowski, of Monitor Township. "She still needs to work on her speech ability, but her progress is just amazing. This is a Christmas miracle."
Since she was born in 2005, Raven has undergone 15 different oral surgeries to repair cleft palate, a pushed back jaw and ankyloglossia, commonly known as tongue tie. The complications prevented her from eating without a feeding tube until she was 2 years old.
Without being able to eat normally or move her tongue, Piotrowski says her daughter never strengthened any of the necessary muscles that help her talk. Because of the many operations on her mouth, Raven developed an aversion to speaking and using her mouth.
"She became very protective of her mouth because people were constantly working on it," said Piotrowski. "That made progress difficult."
But after a couple of years of mouth exercises and work with doctors, Raven's on track to speak without limitations.
Gretchan Walraven, a speech therapist for Bay-Arenac Intermediate School District, visits the Auburn Catholic school twice a week, and Raven receives occasional checkups at Paramount Rehabilitation Center in Bay City.
"She's making nice progress," said Walraven, who has been a speech pathologist for seven years. "She works really hard and always tries.
"I foresee her doing well."
The progress has Raven sparking conversations with friends and singing loudly in the school's play, said Piotrowski.
"My favorite song is 'It's a Great Day in Bethlehem,'" said Raven at a recent dress rehearsal, talking about one of the song's she'll perform in the play.
On stage with her classmates, Raven's golden locks bounce and her smile beams.
Piotrowski said Raven could be done with speech therapy as soon as the third grade, but she isn't concerned about a timetable.
"The progress she has made, and this play, is such a huge Christmas gift," said Piotrowski. "She's a miracle; watching her stand up in front of everyone talking and communicating is beyond happiness.
"There's nothing more a mother could ask for."