Jenna Perez and her twin sister escaped a tough family situation in the South Bronx three years ago when they accepted an offer by a woman to be their legal guardian, giving them a chance at a new life on Long Island.
By most accounts, Jenna and Janell, 17 and identical, were flourishing since moving to Selden, working at a hamburger joint and volunteering with special needs children. Jenna was looking forward to graduating from Newfield High School this coming year and going on to college and a career in day care.
But her life came to a tragic end Saturday night, the week before her senior year was to start. The teenager was struck and killed by a car on Route 347 in Port Jefferson Station after she worked a double shift at two different restaurants of the Five Guys chain.
On Monday, Suffolk County police were still searching for the driver of the car that hit Perez and fled. When she was struck, she was on the phone with her guardian, Donna Austin.
Jenna had finished a 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. shift at the Five Guys in Selden when managers asked if she could then cover a 5—9 p.m. shift at the other location in Port Jefferson Station.
Jenna, always the hard worker, agreed, said Austin.
When she finished the second shift, Jenna had a longing for food from Taco Bell across Nesconset Highway, Austin said. She called Austin and told her where she was headed. Her guardian said she instructed her to walk up the road to the intersection and use the pedestrian crossing.
”She saw Taco Bell and she couldn’t resist,“ Austin said.
It is not clear what happened next. Austin believes the girl was walking toward the pedestrian crossing, while police believe she was more likely going across the highway in front of Taco Bell.
“I heard the phone hit the pavement and cars running over it,” Austin said.
On Monday, officials at the high school were offering grief counseling for traumatized students.
“She had a wide range of friends because of the absolute sweetheart that she was,” said Scott Graviano, principal of Newfield High School. “I can’t believe this happened. It is mind-blowing.”
Students at Newfield High School were organizing a vigil for Saturday night and fundraisers for the family. “I’m very devastated. Every ten minutes I cry,” said Heaven Wilds, 17, one of Jenna's classmates and a close friend who is organizing the vigil. “We’ve never really lost someone in our class before.”
Austin said she had put the twins in the Middle Country school system "out here where I knew it was safe and good, and they were flourishing.”
The Selden native had met the girls in 2008, when she went to the Bronx to care for one of her relatives. A social worker, Austin ended up running a community center in the building where the girls lived with their grandmother.
“They were sweet girls,” she said. “They became my little buddies.“
When the grandmother died, and no one else in the family was able to care for the girls, Austin volunteered to become their guardian and brought them back to the family home in Selden where she had grown up.
In Selden, Jenna developed an interest in photography, and would often do photo shoots of the family’s dogs. She volunteered at a club in the high school that matched up general education students with special education students.
The day after Jenna was killed, the mother of a student who the twins had helped through some difficulties showed up at Austin's home. She said the mother had adored the twins, telling Austin: “One day I came home and these two angels were standing in my house.“
Jenna was also active at Church on the Sound in Stony Brook, and would attend religious camps upstate with its youth group, her guardian said. She was hoping to attend Suffolk County Community College and then transfer to Stony Brook University.
The teen had worked at Five Guys for about two years, just after she turned 16.
“She was a really hardworking person,” said Jackie Cruz, the manager at the Selden store. “She was loved by everyone. Everybody in this area knew her and her sister. Even the customers who come in here always ask me, ‘Where are the twins?’”
Janell is devastated, Austin said. The girls shared a bedroom, and on Sunday relatives cleared out all of Jenna’s belongings. It was too much for Janell to bear to see them, Austin said.
She too had been working at the Five Guys in Selden when a relative picked her up Saturday night to bring her home to receive the news.
“She came in and asked me what happened to Jenna,” Austin said. “And I said, ‘I’m so sorry.’ She collapsed.“