The Barraza Family
“(DSCC Care Coordinator) Ariel is wonderful. She’s very understanding and good about following up and helping provide financial support.”
— Anita Barraza, mother to Daniel and Diana
“As a parent, we can feel so overwhelmed. Even if help is right there, that reach can be hard to do.”
Daniel Barraza, 17, and his big sister, Diana, 22, were born with the same rare condition. Yet, it took many years before their family knew their true diagnosis.
Doctors first thought the siblings had cerebral palsy with hypotonia and seizure disorders. Hypotonia means decreased muscle tone, so Daniel and Diana have a hard time sitting up, holding their head and body upright, and so on.
Both siblings enrolled with the Division of Specialized Care for Children (DSCC) shortly after they were born. (Diana recently aged out of DSCC’s Core Program after turning 22.)
In 2017, genetic testing revealed they both have a rare gene mutation called GPAA1. The Barrazas first knew of only a handful of families living with this syndrome worldwide, their mom, Anita said. They’ve learned of a few more families affected by GPAA1 since then.
The official diagnosis was initially difficult for Anita.
“It caused a lot of mixed emotions,” she said. “It was another phase of the grieving process you go through as a parent and a reminder of what’s wrong.”
Now, she focuses on her children’s abilities and helping them have the best quality of life possible.
She is thankful for the support DSCC provides to help maximize her children’s strengths, navigate their needs and connect with resources as they grow.
“(DSCC Care Coordinator) Ariel is wonderful. She’s very understanding and good about following up and helping provide financial support,” Anita said.
“DSCC, The Arc of Illinois and DRS (Division of Rehabilitation Services) have been wonderful for our family.”
“Engaging them is what matters”
The Barrazas prioritize being active. They enjoy camping together and have traveled to Yellowstone, Mount Rushmore, Starved Rock and more.
The family is always on the lookout for accessible sites for Daniel and Diana’s wheelchairs. The siblings have also participated in the Special Olympics Illinois Summer Games.
“Seeing them active and engaging them is what matters to me most,” Anita said.
The family also wants to empower Daniel and Diana to be as independent as possible. They also want to help others understand their abilities.
Anita likes to make videos showing Daniel and Diana doing a variety of activities, such as preparing food, doing chores, playing sports and having fun outdoors.
“Since my children are non-verbal, this is a good way for people to know what they are capable of doing,” she said. “I encourage other parents to make them!”
Anita shares these videos with teachers, camp counselors, recreational program staff and more.
“A lot of times, we focus on the ‘cannot do’ and it limits our ability to see what they can do,” she said.
You can watch these videos below:
“Education empowers me”
As an occupational therapist who works with schoolchildren, Anita understands both sides of the need for information and resources when supporting young adults with disabilities.
“As a parent, we can feel so overwhelmed. Even if help is right there, that reach can be hard to do,” she said.
Anita was grateful DSCC arranged for her family to attend the Illinois Statewide Transition Conference together. The conference helps families and professionals learn about the resources, information and opportunities available for youth with disabilities as they prepare for adulthood.
DSCC covered all the related conference costs. The conference was a valuable networking opportunity for the Barrazas.
“These types of resources educate me on how to best provide for my children’s needs and for their future,” Anita said.
Both Daniel and Diana are unable to safely live on their own due to their significant medical needs.
Anita says it’s hard to think about, but she realizes she must start planning for who can care for them when she and her husband can no longer do it. Residential placement may be necessary in the future.
She appreciates DSCC’s role in helping families prepare and outline goals for their child’s future. Families can never have enough information and resources, Anita said.
“Education empowers me to be better prepared to help (Diana and Daniel) have a good quality of life.”
Eloise’s Family Story
“I’m grateful for the team that we have surrounding us… How else would we have gotten here?”
— Eloise's mom, Rachel
“It takes a village, and you need to find your village.”
Rachel Singleton has faced many frightening unknowns throughout her daughter Eloise’s life.
At 20 weeks pregnant, Rachel learned Eloise has a rare brain malformation called alobar holoprosencephaly. The condition causes a developing baby’s brain to not properly separate into the right and left hemispheres (halves).
At first, Rachel and her husband, Zach, didn’t know if Eloise would survive birth. Once Eloise was born in November 2019, they didn’t know how long she would live. Her life expectancy was six months or less.
The new parents also didn’t know how much they would gain. Understanding doctors. The generosity of family and friends. And caring professionals from the Division of Specialized Care for Children (DSCC).
Rachel credits this support team with helping Eloise and her family reach her 3rd birthday.
“This has been three years we didn’t know that we would get,” Rachel said. “I’m grateful for the team that we have surrounding us… How else would we have gotten here?”
Help from a “jack-of-all-trades”
Immediately after her birth, Eloise spent 20 days in the neonatal intensive care unit at OSF Children’s Hospital of Illinois. She then went home to hospice care just before the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
Early on, her family contacted DSCC. Care Coordinator Haley Shropshire helped them navigate many new and unfamiliar challenges.
“That first year we learned to do a lot on our own but when we needed additional nursing help, Haley and the team at DSCC helped us sort through insurance and get Eloise’s needs met,” Rachel said. “Haley is a jack-of-all-trades, and we’re so thankful for all that she does.”
Eloise has since moved from hospice to palliative care and continues to defy the odds.
Her middle name is Joy and that’s exactly what she brings to all who meet her, Rachel said.
“She has the biggest smile and hair that can’t be tamed. She’s a charming warrior – feisty, sweet and sassy.”
The family was overjoyed to celebrate Eloise’s third birthday. They used the occasion to give back to OSF Children’s Hospital with a donation of sound machines and other special treats and gifts for the hospital’s patients and staff.
“The party was a way to give back and celebrate something we never dreamed possible,” Rachel said.
“It takes a village”
Along with the joy, there are still immense challenges in caring for Eloise’s complex medical needs.
“You can feel like you’re drowning. Some days it feels impossible,” Rachel said. “It takes a village, and you need to find your village.”
Rachel is thankful to have Haley and DSCC as part of her village.
If a need comes up, “she’s the first person I go to, and I can count on her to look into something,” Rachel said, whether it’s glasses for Eloise, new equipment or an insurance question.
“So far, there’s no question that she hasn’t been able to answer,” she said.
Rachel also appreciates how Haley takes the time to really talk with her during their monthly check-in calls.
“I get so many calls for Eloise, and I have to go through things as quickly as possible. With Haley’s calls, there’s time to chat. I don’t have to just run through everything,” she said.
Eloise now has an Individualized Education Program (IEP) and may start preschool soon.
Rachel also started a blog called Eloise’s Mom to help other medical moms and families feel less alone. She also hopes to educate others about the grief and happiness that come with raising a child with medical complexity.
“The ‘loss of normal parenthood’ has taken on different meanings over time,” Rachel wrote in one post. “I no longer grieve experiences. I have sort of allowed myself to dream again. But the anticipatory grief lingers. And that’s okay.”
You can read more about Rachel and Eloise’s powerful story at https://eloisesmom.com/.
Dominic’s Family Story
“It’s been a pretty easy program to work with. All of my case managers have been extremely helpful.”
— Aurea, mother of Dominic in the Home Care Program
“The tunnel can be very long, but there’s light at the end of it.”
Dominic’s mom, Aurea, felt like she lived at the hospital during the first years of her son’s life.
“Everybody joked that I was an honorary staff member,” she recalled of the many and long hospital stays.
Dominic, now 7, was born with a large omphalocele. Omphalocele is a rare condition at birth that affects the abdominal (belly) wall. It caused his intestines, liver and bowels to stick outside of his belly in a sac through his belly button.
Aurea said the omphalocele’s size prevented his lungs and chest wall from fully developing.
“Initially, he didn’t really need that much respiratory support. But as he started growing, he needed more oxygen,” she said.
Dominic soon got sick with pneumonia and was placed on a ventilator. He was able to get off the vent, but his chest wall was too small to support his breathing needs.
“They did a chest surgery when he was 6 months old. They cut his ribs to give his lungs a chance to grow and give more respiratory capacity,” Aurea said. “(His condition) has not been a linear thing. It’s definitely a little up, a little down. It’s all trying to figure out what works best.”
Through the highs and lows, the University of Illinois Chicago’s Division of Specialized Care for Children (DSCC) has helped Aurea and her family navigate Dominic’s changing needs over the last seven years.
“It’s been a pretty easy program to work with,” Aurea said. “All of my case managers have been extremely helpful.”
Dominic and his family receive in-home nursing through the Home Care Program. DSCC operates the Home Care Program on behalf of the Illinois Department of Healthcare and Family Services (HFS).
Dominic has a tracheostomy and a vent. His home must meet certain requirements to support his ventilation equipment.
Aurea said Dominic was in the hospital so long that her family didn’t renew the lease on their home and stayed with her parents. When preparing for Dominic to leave the hospital, they had to find a house with grounded outlets.
A friend of Aurea’s family is an electrician and was able to ground their home’s outlets before Dominic arrived home. Dominic’s DSCC Care Coordinator at the time helped their family with the necessary paperwork to pay for the electric work and complete the home inspection.
Once Dominic was home, Aurea grew frustrated with Domonic’s local care. Dominic’s Care Coordinator helped her find pulmonologists used by other DSCC participant families and move Dominic’s pulmonary care to Ann and Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital.
“That was really helpful and made it very easy to switch,” Aurea said.
Dominic’s current Care Coordinator, Julie Gosnell, is now working with Aurea to find a cart that can easily carry his vent beside him while he’s on the go outdoors.
“He’s very active. He runs up and down the hallway all of the time, jumps on the bed, jumps on the couch. He loves jumping on whatever he can jump on,” Aurea said. “He just loves to climb on things. I tell people he’s a regular little boy, he just has extra tubes.”
Julie has helped Aurea apply for the Health Insurance Premium Payment (HIPP) Program and compile Dominic’s medical records to share when seeking a second opinion.
Aurea also partners with Julie to focus on goals for Dominic and his future.
“My ultimate goal is for him to be done with all of those machines – no oxygen, no trach, no g-tube (gastrostomy tube). But I realize that goal to ultimately get him off machines is not a goal that I can attain. I can’t do anything to make that happen,” Aurea said.
“I can make sure that I am on top of his medical care and making sure he gets what he needs, whether that’s joining Facebook groups or Google searching or finding things out about different techniques… I want to do what I can to improve Dominic’s quality of life.”
Although she is an independent person, Aurea said she appreciates having a team to contact when problems occur, she has a question or she just feels overwhelmed.
“It’s nice to have someone follow up with me consistently,” she said. “It’s nice to speak with Julie, and she can give me ideas for doing something differently.”
Aurea has also joined DSCC’s Family Advisory Council (FAC).
“I’ve always felt with this journey in general is if I can to anything to help somebody else along the way, I’m going to do that, whether it’s having a conversation or sharing some of the hiccups in a program I’ve seen,” she said.
Aurea recommends that families of children with medical complexity focus on what they can control and celebrate the small victories.
“There is light at the end of the tunnel. The tunnel can be very long, but there’s light at the end of it,” she said.
Lisette’s Family Story
“I think seeing how much DSCC (the Division of Specialized Care for Children) helped my family made me want to do social work. I want to help people, and I want to make things better or try to find solutions to things.”
— Lisette Rios, current DSCC team member and former participant
“It’s more than simply providing information; it’s about building relationships.”
Lisette Rios’ career has truly brought her life full circle.
Born with a cleft lip, Lisette grew up receiving services from the University of Illinois Chicago’s Division of Specialized Care for Children (DSCC).
“I remember my mom talking on the phone a lot to my Care Coordinator, who would always ask how I was doing,” Lisette said.
DSCC helped the Rios family find medical specialists, discuss treatment options, coordinate surgeries and ensure Lisette and the family’s overall needs were met.
Now as a DSCC employee herself, Lisette is that helping hand and voice of comfort for other families like hers.
“My mom likes to say it’s a full circle for me. It was meant to be,” she said.
True to her dream
For as far back as Lisette can remember, DSCC was a part of her life. Shortly after her birth, her pediatrician referred the Rios family to DSCC.
“I think my parents were probably very overwhelmed. I was the firstborn and there were a lot of issues, and they didn’t know what was going to happen. The fact that my pediatrician told them about DSCC helped a lot,” she said.
Lisette required at least eight surgeries throughout her childhood until age 12. She particularly remembers DSCC helping her family navigate her orthodontics issues and finding a specialist who could address them.
The family’s Care Coordinator would also check in about Lisette and her goals for the future. Around age 12, she decided she wanted to become a social worker.
“My mom told my Care Coordinator that, and my coordinator said, ‘Maybe she can come work with us,’” Lisette recalled. “After I got my internship, I joked with my mom that I’m coming for this position I was promised.”
Lisette stayed true to her dream.
After high school graduation, she double majored in sociology and criminology at UIC. When it was time to look for internships, she reached out to DSCC.
Lisette started an internship in the Chicago Core Regional Office during the fall 2018 semester.
“I think seeing how much DSCC helped my family made me want to do social work. I want to help people, and I want to make things better or try to find solutions to things,” Lisette said.
“You’re already dealing with so much when you have a child born with a health condition. It’s already a lot of emotions for the family and then to try to figure everything out on your own – that’s a lot. I want to be on the other side trying to reassure families and help them.”
Part of the DSCC team
Lisette called her DSCC internship a wonderful experience. She learned how to read medical reports and the steps necessary for families to apply for DSCC’s assistance. She also learned how to communicate with families and help them identify their needs.
After her internship ended, Lisette graduated in December 2018. Since DSCC had no job openings at the time, she looked elsewhere for employment.
A few months later, a job in our Chicago Core Office became available. Lisette applied and in August 2019, DSCC hired her as a full-time Program Coordinator Assistant (PCA).
In this role, she makes sure families complete the necessary paperwork for DSCC to communicate with their providers, provide financial assistance and so on. She also takes calls from families about any needs or problems that arise.
Three years into her full-time role at DSCC, Lisette continues to learn and deepen her passion for helping others.
“I’ve started working on my master’s and really love working with our families,” she said. “Getting to know our families and how they all approach things a little differently has been very gratifying. Having a child with special healthcare needs can be scary and overwhelming. I have gained so much respect for our families and all that they do.”
Lisette is proud to be part of the DSCC team that is helping families navigate so much more than just health care and all the appointments.
“There are many pieces that need to come together,” Lisette emphasized. “Kids are also transitioning to school, finishing school and aging out. At every stage, parents may have to adjust and learn a whole new routine or list of things. I’m really thankful that I can provide encouragement and help ensure that our families don’t have to figure it all out alone.”
Lisette’s experiences with DSCC have not just helped her grow professionally. Now as a mom to a young daughter with specialized needs of her own, Lisette is drawing on what she’s learned from working with other families.
“I recently had an Individualized Education Program (IEP) meeting for my 3-year-old daughter who will be starting pre-school. I’ve been thinking a lot since then about how I know the process and it was still stressful,” Lisette said. “I just keep thinking about how intimidating the IEP meeting could be for someone who doesn’t have any background or information and how education is just one of the areas that parents are trying to navigate for their child.”
Lisette also understands how difficult it can be to ask for help.
“It’s not always easy to let someone know that you need help,” Lisette said. “I really appreciate our families and their ability to share and let us know that they need assistance. It’s more than simply providing information; it’s about building relationships. It’s like we’re being adopted into their family.”
Willa’s Family Story
“It’s been an incredibly positive experience working with (the Division of Specialized Care for Children), and I’ve gained even more of an understanding that I’m not alone.”
— Whitney, mom of Willa in the Home Care Program
“Don’t be afraid to take advantage of the resources and supports that are out there”
Willa is a 4-year-old “tiny tornado” with an iron will, her family says.
This strong will earned her the nickname “Wonder Willa.” It also keeps her family entertained and hopeful through the uncertainty of her rare medical condition.
Willa was born with Congenital Central Hypoventilation Syndrome (CCHS), a lifelong and life-threatening genetic disorder that affects her breathing and nervous system.
Willa’s mom, Whitney, said there are only about 1,400 to 1,500 people in the world with a CCHS diagnosis.
“No single person with CCHS presents the same way,” she said. “So, it’s really hard to come up with a plan of care.”
Whitney is grateful for Willa’s amazing medical team and the support of the University of Illinois Chicago’s Division of Specialized Care for Children (DSCC) to help Willa continue to grow and thrive amid the unknowns.
A tough pill to swallow
Being born prematurely is often not ideal. But Willa’s arrival six weeks early turned out to be a blessing, Whitney said.
When Willa was born, her family and doctors did not know she had CCHS. They simply wanted to monitor her still-developing lungs.
“In most cases of her condition, it doesn’t present itself right away so we were lucky that she was early because she didn’t really start showing danger signs until 3 days old,” Whitney said.
“For Willa, her respiratory tract is only impacted by her condition when she’s sleeping. When she’s awake, she breathes just like you and I do. But once she falls asleep, her brain doesn’t tell her body to breathe. It doesn’t register the CO2 changes and she goes into CO2 narcosis. Her organs then shut down to protect her from that buildup of CO2 in her body.”
Three days after birth, Willa went into CO2 narcosis. Fortunately, doctors made the call to quickly transfer her to Cardinal Glennon Hospital in St. Louis before irreversible damage occurred.
A month later, genetic tests confirmed her CCHS diagnosis.
“Once we got the official diagnosis, we focused on what does treatment look like and how do we ensure she has the best life she can have,” Whitney said.
Willa’s medical team soon recommended placing a tracheostomy in Willa’s neck so she can breathe through a mechanical ventilator while she sleeps.
“It was not an easy pill for my husband or me to swallow when the pulmonary team wanted to put a trach in,” Whitney recalled. “But it was what needed to be done to keep her healthy and safe.”
“I’m not alone”
Willa received her trach at 2 months old. She arrived home more than two months later and has received in-home nursing through the Home Care Program ever since.
DSCC operates the Home Care Program on behalf of the Illinois Department of Healthcare and Family Services (HFS). The program provides in-home nursing and other support to help families safely care for their children with complex medical needs.
Whitney said the in-home nursing support is invaluable.
Willa’s nervous system can’t regulate, so if she’s playing hard or gets overexcited, her body won’t tell her to breathe. Therefore, Willa needs constant monitoring.
“But if you didn’t know about her condition, you’d have no idea that there’s anything going on with her except for the fact she has a trach,” Whitney said. “She is just your normal, crazy 4-and-a-half-year-old. She is a tiny tornado who loves to terrorize her older sister.”
As Willa grows, Whitney remains a strong advocate not only for her daughter but also for other families of children with special healthcare needs.
She joined DSCC’s Family Advisory Council (FAC) in 2021 and soon volunteered to serve as its advocacy chair.
Whitney appreciates the opportunity to connect with other families and share what she’s learned.
“It’s been an incredibly positive experience working with (DSCC), and I’ve gained even more of an understanding that I’m not alone. Being a medical mom and a medical parent is often very isolating. My husband and I know what each other is going through and what we face on a daily basis (with their daughters) but our friends or outside people don’t really get it,” she said. “(The council) has opened my circle.”
Improving services for families
Whitney is also passionate about helping improve how the Home Care Program serves families. In particular, she wants to help families better understand the process for how HFS assigns in-home nursing allocations for each Home Care participant.
She also wants to help HFS understand the unique needs and circumstances of families like hers when deciding nursing allocations.
As part of her FAC service, Whitey hopes to speak with families across the state to learn about their experiences with nursing allocations and the appeal process.
“I want to hear their experiences so I can make a more well-rounded recommendation for changes,” she said.
Illinois families can email Whitney directly with feedback at email@example.com.
Whitney also wants to use her role with DSCC’s FAC to educate families about existing resources and encourage them to use them.
“There can be a stigma associated with accepting help but don’t be afraid to take advantage of the resources and supports that are out there,” she said.
Visit our Family Advisory Council page to learn more about the FAC and how to get involved.
The Stearns Family
“(The Division of Specialized Care for Children) was one of the first organizations to step into our lives. They were some of the first social workers who came into our home and really began helping us to navigate our new lives with a medically complex child.”
— Erica Stearns, mother of Margot and Caratacus
“DSCC has played a tremendous role in helping our family to thrive”
Erica Stearns is the proud mother of two children who are enrolled in the Home Care Program.
The University of Illinois Chicago’s Division of Specialized Care for Children (DSCC) operates the Home Care Program on behalf of the Illinois Department of Healthcare and Family Services.
The Home Care Program helps children who require in-home nursing care. Home Care participants include children and adults who receive services through the Home and Community-Based Services Waiver for children who are medically fragile and technology-dependent (MFTD).
Margot, soon-to-be 6, and Caratacus, 4, Stearns both qualify for the MFTD waiver. They were born with a rare lanosterol synthase (LSS) genetic mutation that causes profound intellectual and physical disabilities.
“DSCC was one of the first organizations to step into our lives. They were some of the first social workers who came into our home and began helping us to navigate our new lives with a medically complex child,” Erica said.
These new lives included learning how to cope with the unexpected of her children’s rare condition and the emotions that come along with it.
“DSCC has played a tremendous role in helping our family to thrive, really. Not only have they helped to provide the means for us to care for our children at home rather than in a hospital or an institution, they’ve also supported us emotionally throughout every step of this journey,” Erica said.
“They are the people who we can guarantee to check in on us regularly, to tell us about a resource or a charity that might benefit our children, and they even go so far as to send birthday cards to each of the kids, which I just can’t express it enough how touching and heartwarming that singular gesture is.”
In 2021, Erica became involved with DSCC’s Family Advisory Council (FAC). The council connects families to resources and provides guidance to strengthen DSCC’s teamwork, improve communication and empower families to have a voice in their child’s care.
Erica soon volunteered to chair the council. She said she enjoys the unique opportunity to learn about and discuss current initiatives related to supporting families of children with special healthcare needs.
“All too often, families like our own feel as though many decisions are made without our knowledge or input, which ultimately impacts our children and our family as a whole. The DSCC Family Advisory Council is a safe space where our concerns and our input are not only valued and requested but also received with respect and genuine consideration,” she said.
Erica also appreciates the opportunity to network with other families from across the state and partner with professionals as well. This collaboration helps lead to supportive solutions for families throughout Illinois.
“It brings me immense comfort to know that (and be a part of) a team of people who place the family perspective at the center of their discussions and decisions,” she said.
Erica also started a podcast called, “Atypical Truth.” The podcast focuses on issues affecting caregivers, individuals with disabilities and individuals with complex medical conditions. One podcast episode highlights DSCC Care Coordinator Amanda Kaufman, who previously worked closely with the Stearns family.
The Monical Family
“The Division of Specialized Care for Children has been incredible since the start”
— Collin's mom, Christine Monical
“We’re grateful for DSCC’s help. They’ve always been there for us.”
Collin Monical was born with abnormalities of the hips, feet and legs, including a dislocated hip.
A surgery to relocate his hip led to a severe infection that further damaged his ball-and-socket joint.
Collin experienced developmental delays and numerous hurdles but grew up determined to be considered a typical kid.
The University of Illinois Chicago’s Division of Specialized Care for Children (DSCC) helped Collin and his family get the right equipment for his developing mobility needs as he grew. His DSCC care coordination team also provided guidance and resources to help Collin and the Monicals navigate each transition of Collin’s life.
Now 21, Collin is happily employed and ready to take on adulthood with the same determination he showed throughout childhood.
Collin’s parents, Greg and Christine, appreciate DSCC for supporting Collin and helping him fulfill these goals.
“We’re grateful for DSCC’s help. They’ve always been there for us,” said Greg.
“Incredible from the start”
The Monicals first relied on DSCC for help with obtaining Collin’s orthotics. Orthotics are braces that allow additional stability while standing and walking.
As Collin grew, he would need new orthotics to replace the old ones. The Monicals say DSCC was helpful each time.
“When he was just a toddler, DSCC helped us get a platform lift that made it possible for him to be at the table with us in an upright position. It made such a difference,” Greg said.
Christine agreed. “The Division of Specialized Care for Children has been incredible since the start,” she said.
From addressing Collin’s medical and educational needs to later fostering his independence and employment goals, DSCC has played an important role in Collin’s journey.
Kristin Lenover is Collin’s current DSCC Care Coordinator. “I have helped with things such as resolving a medical bill issue to walking through what they want the next steps of their lives to look like,” Kristin said. “I provide resources to help families and their children navigate private and public benefits, college scholarships, obtaining medical equipment and even tax preparation.”
Strength in helping others
DSCC covered the costs for the Monicals to attend the Illinois Statewide Transition Conference together in 2019. DSCC helps sponsor and plan the conference, which highlights the opportunities and resources available for youth as they prepare for adulthood.
Collin and his parents benefited from the range of conference session topics, including government benefits, education supports, the financial aspects of transition planning and self-advocacy.
One especially impactful conference session for Collin focused on matching an employee’s strengths to the employer’s needs.
Collin’s strength is interacting with others, which he’s proudly shown in each of his jobs to date.
“My first job in high school was the electronics department of a major national chain. I grew to be very knowledgeable about cell phones and many other products,” Collin said. “Dad would often have co-workers approach him saying, ‘Yeah, I was out at Walmart and met a very nice young man.’ Dad would encourage them to elaborate.”
After almost two years at Walmart, Collin began work at Taco Bell. He also upgraded from a Rollator walker to an upright style.
“I had some of my regular customers let me know that I was looking better.” Collin said of his posture. “This made me stand even taller. People ask me about an upright walker, and I highly recommend one.”
Collin eventually left Taco Bell to work at Wally’s Travel Center, where he continues to work today.
“The place is really big and always busy! There are 76 fuel pumps, electric charging stations, food and merchandise. We see lots of truckers, businessmen and families coming in with questions or needing help to find stuff,” he said.
Collin rings up purchases and helps customers find what they need.
“I often work a 10-hour day. I really enjoy it and don’t shy away from picking up extra hours,” he said. “I’m most content during my day when I’m making others happy.”
“Move forward with confidence”
Kristin is happy to see Collin pinpoint his strengths and use them in the transition to adulthood.
“Helping individuals move forward with confidence when they turn 21 is so important,” she explained. “It’s important for Collin to be able to navigate and better understand things like insurance and benefits, financial planning, taxes and moving from pediatric specialists to adult care.”
Now that Collin is 21, he is ready to age out of DSCC’s Core Program. It’s a milestone that Collin, his parents, and Kristin have worked together to achieve.
Collin said he is truly happy as he starts this new chapter. He looks forward to helping more Wally’s customers with a kind attitude and big smile.
“Always remember, ‘You may be the best part of someone else’s day,’” Collin said.
The Miller Family
“(The Division of Specialized Care for Children) has been a saving grace."”
— Ryker's dad, Brad Miller
“DSCC has been there through all of it”
Watching your child take their first steps is an emotional moment for any parent.
For Brad and Amy Miller, the milestone represented all the obstacles their son Ryker has overcome in his short life.
Ryker, age 3, was born with spina bifida and a structural defect in his brain called Chiari malformation. He’s had 11 surgeries, a tracheostomy, a gastrostomy tube and many hospitalizations.
In May 2020, Ryker took his first steps without assistance. (See video below.)
“It might look like nothing to most, but for Ryker and children with spina bifida, this is huge,” Brad Miller said.
The Millers want to share Ryker’s journey to help educate others about spina bifida and provide hope for other families.
Brad and Amy Miller had a 5-year-old daughter when they became pregnant with twin boys, Ryker and Carter. At the twins’ 26-week appointment, they learned Ryker had spina bifida.
“We didn’t know anything about it at the time,” Brad recalled. “We thought it was a death sentence.”
Spina bifida occurs when the spine and spinal cord don’t form properly. Ryker had the most severe type in which the spinal canal is open along the lower back, forming a sac. Additionally, Ryker had hydrocephalus, the buildup of fluid in the brain.
Ryker had surgery to close his spinal canal shortly after birth. He also had a shunt surgically inserted to drain the excess fluid from his brain.
Later, he started having difficulty breathing.
Ryker was transferred to St. Louis Children’s Hospital, where he was diagnosed with Chiari malformation. Chiari malformation is a condition in with brain tissue extends in the spinal canal.
Worried that Ryker would not be able to breathe on his own, doctors performed a tracheostomy.
Ryker also underwent a duraplasty. In this procedure, a surgeon opens the cover of the brain, called a dura, and sews a patch on it to make it bigger. This surgery relieves pressure on the brain.
“They did the surgery but were not optimistic it would help,” Brad recalled. “Lucky for us and for Ryker, it actually did help, and he started to breathe on his own again.”
“A saving grace”
Ryker spent the first three months of his life in the hospital, including 56 days in the pediatric intensive care unit at St. Louis Children’s.
The Millers struggled with how to balance staying with Ryker in the hospital while also caring for another newborn and a 5-year-old daughter at home.
During that time, Brad said the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Division of Specialized Care for Children (DSCC) provided invaluable help.
DSCC covered the cost of the suggested donation for the entire Miller family to stay at the Ronald McDonald House during Ryker’s hospitalization at St. Louis Children’s.
“That was a saving grace for us, so we could actually be together at night as a family of four and spend every other waking minute at the hospital with Ryker,” Brad said. “I don’t know how we would have done it without that (assistance).”
DSCC continued to support the Millers as they navigated Ryker’s homecoming and learning his long-term care needs.
“He’s had a lot of follow-up appointments, and DSCC has been there through all of it,” Brad said.
Many of Ryker’s specialists are based outside of the Miller’s hometown, more than an hour’s drive away.
DSCC has helped arrange hotel stays if the family has an early appointment and has helped coordinate different providers’ schedules to find the best options for Ryker and the Millers.
“DSCC has been a saving grace in just the logistics of trying to do scheduling,” Brad said.
“An amazing team”
With each passing year, Ryker continues to grow stronger and is now preparing to attend preschool.
He also receives therapy to help him become more mobile. He can walk with the assistance of his walker or crutches.
“He’s really determined but lacks confidence in standing and walking,” Brad said. “But when he sets his mind to it, he makes good progress.”
One evening in mid-May 2020, Ryker took several unaided steps to Brad. His mom, Amy, captured the moment on video (see below).
“It was very emotional and basically a long-time coming,” Brad said. “We are well aware of other kids with spina bifida who will never walk, never take a step, even with a walker.”
Still, Brad wants parents to know that spina bifida is manageable and not the “death sentence” he and Amy initially feared.
“He can do a ton of things. He’s always smiling, and he will melt your heart,” Brad said.
The family created a Facebook page called Ryker Miller’s Journey. The page provides regular updates about Ryker’s medical procedures and overall life with spina bifida.
“It sounds like a horrible diagnosis, but it doesn’t have to be,” Brad said. “Use your instincts and don’t let anyone tell you what your child is or isn’t going to do.”
Going forward, Brad said he and Amy want to do whatever they can to help support Ryker’s independence.
“We are so proud of him. For those first three months (of Ryker’s life), it was a blur. I honestly don’t know how we survived it, but we did. It’s made us stronger as a family and as individuals,” Brad said.
“We want to thank everyone at DSCC and give a big shout-out to Ryker’s entire medical team, from the doctors, nurses and therapists. We are lucky to have an amazing team on Ryker’s side.”
The Lyons Family
“(The Division of Specialized Care for Children) has been such a blessing in so many ways... It was really nice to have someone who was on my side looking out for me and helping me. ”
— Christie Lyons, mother of former DSCC participant Natalie
‘Someone who was on my side’
Christie Lyons is the mother of 10 children. She jokes that she and her husband “ended with a bang” with the birth of their twin daughters, Natalie (Tallie) and Patricia (Tricia).
Tallie and Tricia arrived 28 weeks premature. Tallie experienced complications and was later diagnosed with cerebral palsy.
The condition, which affects her mobility, made her eligible to enroll with the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Division of Specialized Care for Children (DSCC).
Watch the video below to learn how DSCC helped the Lyons family through a major surgery for Tallie that greatly improved the muscle tone and tension in her legs.
The Kojro-Badziak Family
“(Our DSCC Care Coordinator Sony) is just phenomenal. He is one of the kindest people I’ve ever known. I know I can turn to him for anything, and he’ll get back to me… it doesn’t go unappreciated.”
— Jennifer Kojro-Badziak, mother of Jakob
“I know I can turn to him for anything.”
Jennifer and Jason Kojro-Badziak first laid eyes on their son in the neonatal intensive care unit of an Indiana hospital.
The couple from Illinois was eager to adopt and start a family after suffering a miscarriage. Jakob was 2 months old at the time. The adoption agency had waited until Jakob was stable to arrange the first meeting with the hopeful parents-to-be.
“We got a call that there was a little boy looking for a forever home,” Jennifer said. “He was on a ventilator, attached to everything, and two nurses had to lift him out of the crib to get him into my arms.”
Jennifer and Jason immediately fell in love and committed to the adoption.
“It was a whirlwind at that point. We became instant caregivers,” Jennifer recalled. “That Tuesday, I got a phone call from one of his doctors that oxygen was not working, so we’d have to put in a trach (tracheostomy). I had no idea about any of this stuff.”
Jennifer said the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Division of Specialized Care for Children (DSCC) has helped her family navigate the world of raising a medically complex child over the last three years.
Jakob was born 10 weeks early during an emergency cesarean section. His lungs hadn’t fully developed. He also experienced a brain bleed and hydrocephalus.
After meeting his parents, Jakob eventually was transferred to Ann and Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago to be closer to home. Jakob then went to a transitional care facility, where Jennifer and Jason learned about DSCC and met their first Care Coordinator.
“She came to Almost Home Kids and met with me and that’s how I learned about everything,” Jennifer said.
Jakob would need in-home nursing to support his medical needs, so he was enrolled in the Home Care Program. DSCC operates this program on behalf of the Illinois Department of Healthcare and Family Services (HFS).
Jakob’s DSCC Care Coordinator worked with Jennifer and Jason to prepare for his transfer home. This process included helping them select a nursing agency of their choice.
The Kojro-Badziaks welcomed Jakob home in November 2016 when he was 7 months old. The first few weeks were intense as they learned to care for his tracheostomy, oxygen needs and gastrostomy tube at home.
“Everything was survival mode,” Jennifer said.
Jakob’s medical equipment raised their utility costs significantly, so their Care Coordinator helped them receive financial aid for their bill.
“Keep pushing forward”
Jakob is now 3 years old and becoming more mobile and independent. The Kojro-Badziaks’ current Care Coordinator, Sony, continues to provide helpful resources and information.
“(Sony) is just phenomenal. He is one of the kindest people I’ve ever known,” Jennifer said. “I know I can turn to him for anything, and he’ll get back to me… it doesn’t go unappreciated.”
This support, along with the home nursing and Jakob’s therapies, has helped him come a long way. Jennifer said Jakob is now a precocious toddler with a sweet, playful sense of humor who started preschool in April 2019.
“He’s not on oxygen anymore, and he’s on real food blends (through his g-tube). My husband and I have learned how to change his trach,” Jennifer said.
“We never knew if he was going to be able to walk. We were told that wasn’t going to be a possibility, but he’s walking.”
Jennifer said she encourages other special needs parents to always ask questions and talk to as many people as possible to get the resources they need.
“It’s going to be difficult but you need to keep pushing forward and take everything day by day.”
As they develop goals for their son’s future, the Kojro-Badziaks go back to their first meeting with Jakob and the hope that filled their hearts.
“What I first told him and what I’ve said from the beginning is I want him to get bigger, stronger, smarter and faster than me,” Jason said. “He’s already faster than me at age 3. He keeps getting stronger and smarter. I’m just enormously proud of him.”