The word "family" can mean a lot of different things to different people.
Some people take the word literally: parents, siblings, aunts and uncles. Some people consider close friends to be family.
St. Thomas More senior Janie Girouard’s definition of family changed two years ago.
That's when Janie’s mother, Loretta Lela Girouard, succumbed to cancer after a vigorous and spirited battle.
The loss devastated the Girouard family and the community. Loretta had become something of a local and national celebrity when she participated in the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure in Lafayette.
Loretta was in a wheelchair for most of the race, but finished the race on her feet in a stunning display of strength, fortitude and bravery.
Janie, in a theme that has become so common in her life, tried to find the silver lining in the awful cloud hanging over herself and her family.
“Loretta's passing hit us all pretty hard," said St. Thomas More softball coach Andria Waguespack. "People asked Janie how she was doing at school. She would say, ‘It’s OK; my momma is in heaven now.’”
Janie and her sister, Maddie, had lost a mother; Jason Girouard had lost a wife. But the Girouards had gained a huge extended family in the St. Thomas More community, especially the softball team.
“I don’t really feel like they mean anything to our family because they are our family. It’s not what they did for us; it’s what we have done together,” Jason Girouard said. “It started a long time ago when they accepted (Janie) and they lived through it.
“They were with us from perfectly healthy to the battle to the death. What they mean to us? They mean the world to us. They have been everything to us.”
Since her freshman year at St. Thomas More, Janie, who has Down syndrome, had been an active member in the school’s Options program. It provides a modified academic inclusion plan designed to meet the needs of developmentally disabled students.
Janie’s favorite part of the program quickly became the St. Thomas More Lady Cougars’ softball team, where she was the team manager.
Shellie and Jamie Landry, former St. Thomas More Lady Cougars and current Lady Ragin’ Cajuns, were the ones who originally helped Janie get into the program.
Their efforts to include Janie evolved into a tradition called “Janie’s inning.”
Now, whenever Janie makes it out to the games, Waguespack will talk with the other team at the conclusion of the game and ask them to pitch one more inning.
Janie bats, runs the bases and scores the final run of every game for the Lady Cougars. And she loves every minute of it.
Janie getting ready for prom during her senior year. (Photo: Courtesy of Jason Girouard)
“As a parent, all we ever ask for our kids is to be given an opportunity to function normally in a modified setting,” Girouard said. “So, for that to happen, it takes the coaches, the staff and everyone involved. The team has to buy in; the parents have to be supportive.
“It’s the opportunity. It’s awareness for the next set of kids coming behind us. It’s an opportunity for them to smile. They don’t see their limitations all they see is their accomplishments.”
At first, Waguespack was hesitant about Janie's Inning, but she was convinced by the Lady Cougars’ pitching coach — and head of the St. Thomas More Options program — Danielle Price.
Now in Janie’s final, senior season Waguespack couldn’t imagine doing it any other way.
“She is a huge emotional and spiritual part of us. She's just part of who we are,” Waguespack said. “The first time we did it at Comeaux, it changed the way we looked at the game of softball.
“When you look at a kid like that who is genuinely happy, that genuinely loves being out here and being with her friends — it reminds you of why you started coaching.”