Caring for a foster child simply requires love and understanding. Sometimes the rewards are beyond measure.
When she was only two, Jessica was taken to a place of safety in Pretoria, as she was not able to be properly cared for by her parents. At the time, Erika Geerthsen, a qualified occupational therapist (OT) working for CE Mobility, was doing after hours volunteer work there, helping to care for many small children. Six months later Erika became a foster mom to little Jessica. She was not yet three years old.
Little Jessica was in poor shape. She was born with sacral agenesis, an incomplete sacral section of the spinal column, with some missing vertebrae, and only some tendons and nerves where the spinal cord would be. This left her with both legs stiffly paralysed in right angles at the knees. She also had a slight cleft palate.
Jessica is now seven and has endured numerous surgeries to try to straighten her legs and to correct her cleft palate. The latter has been a reasonable success, although she speaks a little differently than most kids. Her legs are still paralysed. Perhaps when she’s older, something could be done. She has recently undergone stomach surgery for bowel and bladder diversions which will make the necessary management of these easier for her to do herself one day.
In the meantime she certainly gets around. On longish excursions to school or shops, she tootles along in her wheelchair. But as soon as she arrives at her destination, she leaps out of the chair and crawls around on her already muscular arms, not unlike a little gorilla. In fact, at a playground once, a small boy asked if she was a gorilla. “No, I’m a girl. Do you want to play with me?” The boy replied ‘okay’ and off they went. She easily copes with her peers, and Erika doesn’t overdo the sheltering, preferring to expose her to the able-bodied outside world while still young and resilient.
Because her feet tend to drag on the ground, her shoes take a bit of a pounding. She’s equally adept at clambering right back into the wheelchair. Ever the little lady, Jessica will not leave the chair if she’s wearing a dress – she doesn’t want it to get dirty.
Foster mom Erika has begun the process of adopting Jessica and this should be finalised early next year. But Erika has been doing the ‘mom’ thing ever since the little sprite arrived at her door. She’s adamant that Jessica has as normal a life as possible. “When I started fostering her it was to give her a grounding,” says Erika. “I have to remember that it is not about what I want but what she wants.”
Jessica will go to grade one next year, her schooling delayed by a late exodus from the cot, and also by the various surgeries she’s had. And it won’t be a special school either. Erika asked her if she wanted to go to a ‘wheelchair school’, but she was adamant it should be a normal school, as she sees herself as normal, even though she gets around by walking on her slipslop-shod hands most of the time. Accessibility barriers don’t stop Jessica.
Finding a suitable school proved quite a mission, with most private schools reluctant to accept the obvious cost implications of the adaptations required, and also to set such a huge precedent for future admissions. State schools were more open to the idea; their only criterion was whether Jessica lived in their particular area. Erika has finally found a dual medium Gustav Preller school in Roodepoort which is ready to accept Jessica since she has a permanent carer with her. The school will initially rearrange class rotas so that Jessica’s lessons are all in ground floor classrooms. Erika will in due course install a lift at the school funded by medical aid.
In the meantime, little Jessica is a delight to everyone around her, especially her loving mom. They both have much living, loving and growing to do together.