Desiree Foster stands at her stove. She’s cooking up some hamburgers and white rice for her two daughters. I’m hovering near her refrigerator when I notice the tattoo on her neck. It has her two daughters' names, Alyssa and Brianna, scrawled across the nape of her neck. Below the names is the serenity prayer:
God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.
Desiree Foster, who was born and raised in Southwest Detroit, and remains there to this day, says she decided to get the tattoo because she thought the prayer’s message might seep into her soul.
“I’m still waiting for that serenity sometimes,” she confesses.
Foster, along with her 12-year-old Alyssa and her 13-year-old, Brianna, all have a rare bone condition, called hypophosphatemic rickets.
Foster wasn’t aware that it was a hereditary disease until after both her children were born.
“The rickets, it just makes the bones a little more brittle. A little more soft,” she explains.
Throughout both of the girls' childhoods, Desiree Foster has spent much of her time shepherding both girls to and from doctor's appointments with bone specialists, surgeons, and physical therapists.
School to School to School
For several years, one of the only dependable things in the family's life was their beloved elementary school, Oakman Orthopedic School.
Oakman was a Detroit Public Schools facility designed for kids with special needs. The school offered physical therapy and smaller class sizes. The hallways had a handicap bar wrapped all around the building, but also had a general education population.
“And It taught a lot of those kids, who may not have ever been exposed to someone different, how to treat a person and how to be courteous and to be a friend of somebody who’s different, not to be afraid to reach out to them,” remembers Foster.
It came as a shock to the Fosters and much of the school’s families and supporters when it was put on the district's chopping block in the spring of 2013.
Since Oakman closed, the Fosters have been bouncing around, searching for a school with accommodating facilities and a rigorous special education program. Brianna, the older daughter, has a cognitive impairment that has put her in a special education classroom.
Both girls spent the 2013-2014 school year at Lighthouse Academy, a charter in Southwest Detroit, but were dissatisfied.
Finally, they’ve landed at Marcus Garvey Academy, a Detroit Public School located on the eastside.
Brianna has been paired with a one-on-one special education assistant, Cynthia Burton, who has proven to be a great help to Brianna.
“If I get stuck on a problem,” Brianna explains, “that’s when she’s there to help me. She won’t, like, tell me the answer.”
Ms. Burton spends all day at Brianna’s side. Most of their time is spent in a room for physically and otherwise health impaired students. Increasingly, however, Brianna is spending more time in a fourth grade general education class. Both Ms. Burton and Desiree Foster have noticed huge improvements.
“It’s been going great. I’m more focused now,” Brianna proudly exclaims.
There's Always Something
Despite the academic growth and improvement Brianna has been exhibiting, a major knee surgery in the spring has the potential to halt a lot of her forward momentum. She’ll likely miss at least a few months of school because of it. Her mom says this will be her sixth surgery in five years.
“She got robbed of a lot of her childhood, with delays and setbacks and surgeries – the downtimes, recovery, the sick days – the life of a special needs child,” Desiree Foster says.
The impending surgery has been stressful for Desiree Foster. They don’t have a walk-in shower at their house, so Foster is thinking about renting a second, more handicap-accessible apartment to use during Brianna’s recovery. She’s also looking for a short-term lease for an van with an automated lift.
After the surgery, Brianna’s going to need around-the-clock care. So money will be even tighter than usual. If that’s not enough to deal with, Alyssa, Brianna’s younger sister, has recently been experiencing severe hearing loss.
“It’s reality. It’s life. It’s going to happen," Foster says. "I just hope that my daughters can remember the good times, the fun stuff and the things that we did and the places that we went, but also see the struggles and try to avoid struggles that are avoidable. Try to control things that are controllable. Like that prayer, and let go of what you can’t, because ultimately, that’s life.”