© 2023 Peoria Public Radio
A joint service of Bradley University and Illinois State University
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

'We're going to make understanding exist': How a Peoria family is spreading the friendly with Pretendly

The family behind Pretendly from left to right: J Scott Hinkley, Willa, Larkin, and Jennifer Rosa
Jennifer Rosa
The family behind Pretendly, from left to right, J Scott Hinkley, Willa, Larkin, and Jennifer Rosa.

Two Bradley University alumni are the founders of an online art shop that wouldn’t be possible without the help of their children.

Jennifer Rosa and her husband J Scott Hinkley met during their time at Bradley University, both having extensive musical backgrounds. The pair moved to New York City to pursue their own artistic endeavors, eventually starting their own production company, Flat World Productions. Several years after being in New York, they decided to bring children into the mix.

“When we had children out there…you just adapt and you're outside a lot, and it looks different,” said Rosa. “But when we were there, they were young, we had our oldest, she's 8 years old now. Her name's Larkin…And then we had our youngest, she was about 6 months before we ended up having to make an emergency move from New York City. Her name is Willa.”

This emergency move back to their Peoria roots was spurred during their annual visit to see family in the area around the holidays. While the family was staying with Rosa’s sister, it was fun, chaotic family times as normal…until it wasn’t.

“We noticed just really suddenly, just a shift with our oldest daughter, just some debilitating symptoms that just, it seemed something neurological had taken place," said Rosa. "It wasn't a seizure or anything like that. But it was definitely something that we noticed, and we wanted to get attention right away, especially if it's your brain.”

The family found themselves in the Children’s Hospital of Illinois emergency room where a team of medical experts lined up to run tests.

“And they were bringing up Easterseals and talking about things that we had kind of questioned, but they sort of weren't validated when we were still in New York,” said Rosa. “And so we thought okay, well, they're getting it, and this is clearly a yes path. And like we operate very much in seeing what the yes path is and what the no path is, and we saw well, this is a yes path,” she said.

Jennifer Rosa
Jody Holtz
Jennifer Rosa

Rosa and her family eventually decided to move back to the Peoria area in the house right next door to her sister to continue receiving medical treatment for their oldest daughter, Larkin.

“Early on, she received her autism diagnosis, and that of course made complete sense to us. It wasn't this traumatizing event. So much of what we do now in our accidental advocacy work is, you know, it's this mentality of once you get that information, it shouldn't have to be life-changing in a detrimental way. It should be enlightening in a world of where you have resources,” Rosa explained.

Fast forward, and Rosa and her husband now sit on the community council for the Autism Collective in Peoria. She said throughout the process, Easterseals and many other community resources have aided them in helping create “yes” paths for their children, and they are big proponents of teaching them the mindset of if it doesn’t exist, you make it exist.

“And for us, we've had to see that head on with our young girls. Our oldest, she's autistic, and our youngest is neuro typically developing…and now where we are in the last year and a half, they've created their own little business called Pretendly,” said Rosa.

Pretendly was born out of a need to cheer Larkin and Willa up after experiencing many "no’s" throughout their young lives.

“As accepting as people can be, neurodiversity is one of those things…this is maybe a controversial view, but it's…one of the last forms of segregation that's like widely accepted, where you see this separateness,” said Rosa. “And with us at Easterseals…it always felt very integrated. We always felt like they were walking alongside us, with us. And we realized, okay, our kids are going to have this sense of rejection from time to time, but this time, they weren't bouncing back to their chipper happy selves, like they normally do.”

The girls were bummed out that they were separated from some of their peers. While Rosa said they visited the feeling of sadness, they were not going to live there.

“So we're going to make understanding exist. Instead of feeling this loss, we had to try to find the gain,” Rosa said.

Larkin (left) and Willa, the skillful artists behind the Pretendly art shop
Jennifer Rosa
Larkin (left) and Willa, the skillful artists behind the Pretendly art shop

Willa, who is now 6, was quick to name that gain Pretendly, and the girls started using their own artwork to design everything from shirts and pillows to blankets, tumblers, and much more.

“And then we decided, okay, then I guess we'll do an LLC…so it just kind of kept growing…and that was the thing that kind of gave them their spark back,” Rosa said.

Equipped with hot pink business cards that they frequently give away, Rosa said the girls love telling people they have their own company, and are eager to “spread the friendly with Pretendly.”

“It's an incredibly regulating activity, especially for our oldest who, you know, she's autistic,” Rosa explained.” And this is kind of her preferred activity…we're not overworking our children. Just to be clear, this is all art that they already have made that they like to make, but it gave them kind of this ownership.”

Rosa said while for now mom and dad take care of the business side of things, they’re excited to watch Pretendly grow with the girls.

“We also know they're so young, and what they like could change over the years. We know that even having this little business of theirs, the mission of that can change over the years…we're curious how the girls will want to see it grow because it'll be kind of their thing…I could see it being something where it grows a community of other folks of all ages, neuro-divergent and not, into kind of an integrated, creative, collaborative type community,” Rosa said.

A collage of some of the artwork you can expect to see in the online Pretendly store
Jennifer Rosa
A collage of some of the artwork you can expect to see in the online Pretendly store

Rosa shared the moment they knew creating Pretendly was the right move for their family.

“The first time we got something of theirs created, it was like this beanbag chair, and they just leapt right into it and they said, ‘it's real,'” Rosa recalled. “My thing is, I would like for other people to feel like it's real also for them. Doesn't have to be art, but just the mindset of you can make things exist as well.

Our aims are first to instill that confidence in our girls, to ‘spread the friendly with Pretendly.’ and inspire people to think differently. To do more than just accept that we all have differences, but to expect differences—enhance and amplify them, but very much together, not othered,” she said.

When Rosa reflects on where her children have been, from hospital rooms to business cards, she wants other people to realize that you can feel any emotion, but you never have to live there.

“You can try to start little by little to offer yourself that yes path, just sweeping things out of the way until you find that yes path and it's muddy and dirty, but you can clear the way,” she said. “So, we're hoping that people will see that light, that they'll see it through our kids' friendly little faces, to spread the friendly.”

Rosa invites anyone interested in learning more about her family and Larkin and Willa’s artwork to visit their website. She said they’re open to collaboration and to meeting new friends in the area.

We depend on your support to keep telling stories like this one. You – together with donors across the NPR Network – create a more informed public. Fact by fact, story by story. Please take a moment to donate now and fund the local news our community needs. Your support truly makes a difference.

Jody Holtz is WCBU's assistant development director, assistant program director, host of WCBU's newsmagazine All Things Peoria and producer of WCBU’s arts and culture podcast Out and About.