City Lifestyle

Want to start a publication?

Learn More
Grace and Justin Graduating with Honors

Featured Article

Amazing Grace

Living a Life Inspiring Others

Grace Mariani, 22, has spent her entire young life determined not to be held back by her health challenges. Born prematurely at just over 24 weeks, she spent her first three months in the NICU, developed pneumonia at three weeks old, and was diagnosed with cerebral palsy. “We weren’t sure she was even going to make it,” says her mother, Nancy. “But she did and she’s been a fighter ever since.” Even with her limited mobility, her focus has been on what she can do, not what she can’t. “She was always a ‘what’s next?’ kid.”  

Growing up in Mahwah, she recently graduated magna cum laude from Seton Hall University with a Bachelor of Science in Education and plans to teach at an elementary school or in a special education classroom. “I’ve always liked the idea of working with children,” she says. “Helping them learn different skills and how to navigate life.” Grace participated as a child and then later a volunteer at Saturday Stars run by the Mary Therese Rose Fund, which offers programs like cooking, music, and crafts classes, tailored to children with special needs. “I also had a great experience as a student teacher last semester and I think teaching is the right career path for me,” says Grace. “I’m very excited about it.”  

Very early on, before she was 3, Grace started horseback riding as therapy and continued with it until she went to college. “When she started riding, she basically couldn’t sit up without support,” says Nancy. “Riding is good for strengthening the core, so it gave her great body strength.” She eventually had her own horse, Suds, and spent a lot of time riding. “When I rode, my disability wasn’t really a factor at all, I didn’t feel different,” Grace says. “Up on a horse I was just like everybody else.” When other kids were playing soccer or basketball on the weekends, Grace was out getting her own exercise, strengthening her muscles by riding Suds.  

She gained national attention this spring when Seton Hall posted a video that went viral of her receiving her diploma from University President Joseph E. Nyre at the Prudential Center, along with her six-year-old service dog Justin, who was awarded one too. “Justin went to class with me every day and everyone just fell in love with him,” she says. Justin is a labrador and golden retriever mix who knows over 40 commands; with Grace his work is primarily using the ‘get’ command, picking up things that she has dropped from her wheelchair, or carrying items for her. He was raised and trained by Canine Companions and has been with Grace for 5 years. “I have two different relationships with Justin,” she says. “A working one as a service dog and as a companion. When he puts on his service dog vest and we go out he’s all business and when we’re home and we take it off he’s more relaxed. Either way, he’s very intuitive to what I need him to do for me.” She even feels like Justin has a little sense of humor. “Sometimes if he’s in the room with me and hears something drop, he’ll look at me like ‘Do you want me to get that for you?’” 

Their special relationship amazes Grace’s mother Nancy too: “Justin is wonderful. He’s mellow, friendly, and goes with the flow, just like Grace, which is why they connected so easily.”  

When it came to being her companion at Seton Hall in class and living in the dorms, Justin fit the bill perfectly. “Not only was he helpful to me, he was an ice breaker for meeting new people, it was a great way for people to connect with me,” says Grace. “And on the rare days when he didn’t come with me to class, everyone would say ‘Where’s Justin?’” 

For those around her, Grace’s future as an educator engaging with a new generation of students is extraordinarily bright. “She’s very humble and doesn’t look for attention but I think she’s starting to realize how important her story is,” says Nancy. “How her positive attitude can affect and inspire others, and how even with limitations, she’s never allowed them to hold her back.” “The way I grew up, my disability was never a roadblock, it was always, how can we make this happen,” says Grace. “And that made me feel like nothing was impossible.”  

  • Grace Mariani and her Service Dog Justin
  • Grace and Justin Graduating with Honors
  • Grace Mariani's Service Dog, Justin