By Cathy Free Jill Smolowe
February 17, 2014 12:00 PM

Bursting through the front door of the Village Thrift store in Newport News, Va., Jenny Hatch greets her coworkers with shouted hellos and hugs. Though it’s her day off, Jenny, 29, who has Down syndrome, can’t stay away. “I love my thrift store,” she says of the shop co-owned by Jim Talbert and fiancée Kelly Morris. Walking to the back office, the petite honey-haired young woman with the sunshine grin settles down at the computer and pulls up a video on YouTube, watching news footage of a court decision she has viewed hundreds of times before. “I watch it every day,” she says. “It was a happy day.”

Most Americans celebrate July 4, but Jenny marks Aug. 2, 2013, as her personal independence day. After a yearlong legal battle in which Jenny challenged her biological parents’ authority to keep her in a group home, a court granted Jenny’s wish to have temporary guardianship awarded to Talbert, 54, and Morris, 45. Jenny’s victory made her a star in the developmentally disabled community and gave her what she wanted most: the right to choose her future. But in her fight for self-determination, she discovered in her employers a loving second family. “I love living with Kelly and Jim,” Jenny says. “They helped me when everyone else treated me like a child. They always make me feel happy.” In turn, Jenny brings joy to Jordan, Morris’s 15-year-old daughter, who has cerebral palsy. “I’ve never met anybody with as much love in her heart as Jenny,” Talbert says. “She’s an example to all of us.”

She never set out to be a role model. Raised mostly by her mom (her parents are divorced), Jenny graduated from a mainstream high school, volunteered on political campaigns and loved riding her bike. But she had a difficult relationship with her mother, and at 27 got an apartment with a friend for a time. In 2012, after sustaining a back injury while cycling, she moved in with Talbert and Morris to recuperate at their invitation. Five months later her parents placed her in a group home. “We thought she’d be safe there,” says Jenny’s father, Richard Hatch, 53, who lives in North Carolina. (Jenny’s mother declined comment.)

To Jenny, the group home felt like a prison. “They took away all my rights,” she says of the 24-hour supervision with no access to her computer, the church where she sings in choir or the sales-clerk job she’s held two days a week since walking into the store and filling out an application five years ago. Hearing how unhappy she was, Talbert and Morris came up with a plan to help Jenny secure her ultimate independence.

Today Jenny is enjoying life with the family she chose for herself – going out to the local Olive Garden, baking cookies with Morris, helping Jordan with her hair. “I am very proud of Jenny,” says Hatch. The couple’s guardianship expires in August, but their embrace of Jenny is open-ended. Not surprisingly, Jenny knows exactly what she wants: “I don’t want to live anywhere except with Jim and Kelly. I’m so happy to be home.”