In a red shirt, shorts and rainbow-colored orthotic ankle braces, 4-year-old Vinnie Natale mowed circles around his friends as he pushed a little red shopping cart through the aisles of Janesville’s Target store Friday.
And while doctors have told Vinnie’s parents he will likely never walk because he has a congenital bone and joint disorder known as arthrogryposis, he has already proved them wrong. He can walk, and then some.
Vinnie’s parents Stephanie and Nick Natale held a party at Target on Friday evening to celebrate the Janesville boy’s fourth birthday. A pack of a dozen friends trailed behind Vinnie as he rolled his cart down the aisles of the store on Janesville’s north side.
Other shoppers veered out of the way as Vinnie led the charge, his chest puffed out and his feet moving in a rounded, wide-stepping gait.
This birthday boy had his swagger on.
On Friday, Vinnie was strolling through the place he seems to love more than anywhere on earth: Target. It’s where Stephanie and Nick Natale have taken Vinnie for respite, and a reward after dozens of painful and grueling rehabilitation sessions he has needed following two surgeries he has already had to stem and correct the symptoms of arthrogryposis.
The disorder affects Vinnie’s ankle and leg bones, turning his feet inward. It has made it difficult for him to learn to walk. It has also affected Vinnie’s wrist joints and hands, although to a lesser extent, his parents said.
Vinnie’s surgeries and treatments to gradually turn his feet outward have left his legs in casts 30 times, and his ongoing care and rehab has led him to specialists in Philadelphia who work with children with arthrogryposis, also known as AMC.
Some of the Vinnie’s happiest times have been at the place where he has learned to walk: of all places, Target.
“We started to take him to Target after his early treatments in Madison. He’d be tired and out of sorts, and we offered a trip to the store as a reward. Plus, the doctors said a store or supermarket with wide, long aisles would be a good place for him to try to walk,” Stephanie Natale said.
A Target store was nearby, and so Target it was. And as Vinnie learned to walk, at first with a walker, and for the last year and a half, without one, he began to favor the toy aisle. But really, he loves the whole store.
“I figured that out when I’d tell him, ‘I love you to the moon and back,’ and he’d say to me, ‘I love you to Target and back,’” Stephanie Natale said.
When his birthday, which is Saturday, rolled around, Vinnie picked his favorite place as the venue. He got his own shirt in the store’s signature, red color. He even got a store nametag printed just for him at Target’s corporate offices, his parents said.
Janesville Target provided Vinnie’s party with free popcorn, and treats that included cupcakes and cookies decked with the red target design, Target’s trademark.
During a treasure hunt that required children at the party to browse through the store’s aisles for items that matched the letters of Vinnie’s full name, “Vincent,” Vinnie burst out of the gates and pushed the cart far ahead of his friends and their parents.
He stayed ahead of the pack, at one point breaking away from everyone and shouting with a grin: “To the toys!”
“He knows where he’s going,” Nick Natale said as Vinnie bolted down an aisle, veering his cart on a hard right toward a sign marked “Hot Wheels.”
“He’s going for the cars.”
Vinnie’s parents recently learned their son has had some worsening of the inward curvature of his feet. It might have to do with his bone growth, or it could simply be a part of the chronic AMC that Vinnie will continue to live with, Stephanie Natale suggested.
But Friday, Vinnie showed off his Target name tag proudly, and after blowing past everyone in his romp down the aisles, he sat at the head of a birthday table set up near the store’s Starbucks kiosk. He blew out the candle on a red and white cupcake.
On the milestone of his birthday, his unique party, and the proud steps that everyone he knows saw him take Friday at his favorite place, Vinnie summed things up the way just about any little boy would.
“Daddy,” Vinnie said, “I want a cookie.”