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Meet Destinee

Photo by Sasha Maslov, The New York Times 

By Sara Aridi

Destinee Gonzalez Gil was nervous when she sat for the SAT exam last year.

She was allowed extra time to complete it because of a learning disability, and she had already taken the PSAT exam twice. But her nerves got the better of her as the hours flew by, and before she knew it, her time was up.

“I was taking my test one minute,” she said in an interview in her family’s apartment in a public housing complex in the Bronx, “and then it was like, ‘You got five minutes left.’” She scored lower than she had hoped and was crushed. “I thought I would do better,” she said.

Ms. Gonzalez Gil, 18, is now a senior at the High School for Health Careers and Sciences in Manhattan. Taking tests gives her anxiety, she said, and she performs better in school with the help of individual coaching from her teachers. “I could teach myself for weeks,” she said. “Then when I sit in the chair — I’m frozen, I’m scared, I can’t focus. My mind’s in eight different places.”

The anxiety started at an early age. When she was 6, her 2-year-old brother, Devin, died. He had a neurodegenerative disorder that was so rare his doctors could not identify it, his parents said. It stunted his cognitive development and led to regular seizures, leaving him bedbound.

Ms. Gonzalez Gil’s mother and stepfather spent much of Devin’s short life taking him to hospitals and doctor appointments. Because Ms. Gonzalez Gil’s grandparents were not always available to look after her, she often missed school to accompany her family and had to repeat kindergarten.

When she was 8, her teachers advised her parents to request an Individualized Education Program, or I.E.P., a plan that defines specific goals and accommodations for students with special needs.

Over time her mother and stepfather had two more children, Seth, now 8, and Samuel, 4. Both developed the same complications Devin had. They need to be monitored at all times, in case they have seizures or their heart rates fluctuate. Backup oxygen canisters line the hallway in the family’s apartment in case a power failure causes the boys’ ventilators to turn off.

Caring for Seth and Samuel is a full-time job. Ms. Gonzalez Gil’s stepfather, Kevin Gueits, works during the day while her mother, Yvonne Gonzalez Gueits, stays home to look after them. Nurses help out overnight and in the morning.

The family does not know what the boys’ futures will look like. “Every day you wake up and you thank God that they’re here,” Ms. Gonzalez Gueits said.

While Seth and Samuel cannot communicate like most children their age, the family said they have distinct personalities: Seth always has a smile on his face, while Ms. Gonzalez Gueits calls Samuel “Mr. Grump Grump.”

Ms. Gonzalez Gil tends to her brothers regularly — feeding them, talking to them, giving them medication. When she comes home from school, Ms. Gonzalez Gueits said, she drops her things in her room and immediately checks on them. Whenever new nurses work the night shift, she stays up to watch them and ensure they are fit for the job.

She also tries to make time for her own life. Her mother “understands I want to be a kid,” she said. “But I also understand my life is not like other kids’. So we try to work together as a family.”

The stress of succeeding in school and managing her responsibilities at home can be overwhelming. But Ms. Gonzalez said she has learned to speak up about her own needs.

She had been taking a college-readiness class at school, but remained hesitant about retaking the SAT. So she turned to her youth advocate at Alianza Dominicana, a nonprofit organization that supports low-income, at-risk families in northern Manhattan and parts of the Bronx. Alianza, which runs youth-focused programs at Ms. Gonzalez Gil’s school, is a division of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of New York, one of the seven organizations supported by The New York Times Neediest Cases Fund.

In October, Catholic Charities Community Services used $1,100 from The Fund to pay for a specialized SAT course for Ms. Gonzalez Gil. She took her first class in early November and is planning to take the exam in December. She hopes to score high enough to meet the requirements of the College of Mount Saint Vincent in the Bronx. If she is accepted, she may be eligible for a full scholarship because her stepfather works there as a heating, ventilation and air-conditioning service technician.

She has applied to eight colleges and is now working on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. She also plans to find a job after she takes the SAT. Her parents are always there for her, she said, but she would like to lighten their load. “Not to sound selfish, I do want to buy things,” she said. “I do want my own money to go hang out with my friends.”

Her ultimate goal is to become a registered nurse, one who offers emotional support and helps families like hers care for their sick loved ones. She enjoys caring for her brothers, she said, and doing so has given her an idea of what the job entails.

Her brothers’ health issues have undeniably shaped Ms. Gonzalez Gil’s life. “It’s sad to say, but the boys’ situation kind of trumps everything that we want to do,” Ms. Gonzalez Gueits said. “But she never resented them.” In fact, Ms. Gonzalez Gil said Seth and Samuel are her best friends. She looks to them for inspiration as she plans her next steps.

“Even though they can’t really tell what’s going on,” she said, “I like to show them: Your sister did it. She’s going to college. She’s stepping into the big world.”

Read the article from The New York Times

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