- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 3, 2004

When Brielle Hacker was born, she was so weak she couldn’t even smile.

The future looked so bleak for the Rockville infant suffering from mitochondrial myopathy that doctors had given her only two years to live. And even if she did survive, they said, she wouldn’t be able to walk or talk or understand her surroundings.

Brielle proved everyone wrong.

Tomorrow, she will celebrate her 10th birthday, and earlier this week the third-grader at College Gardens Elementary School played soccer, basketball, volleyball and competed against her classmates in a tug of war and the potato sack race.

“Doctors told me that my daughter would never walk or talk,” said Julie Venners Yannes, Brielle’s mother. “Now she has a vocabulary of 150 words and plays outside with the rest of her classmates on the playground.”

A year ago, Brielle wore leg braces. “She reminded me of Forrest Gump because the leg braces were really holding her back and she virtually ran out of them,” Mrs. Yannes said.

Brielle was born with the metabolic condition that, among other symptoms, can cause mental retardation, learning delays, severe muscle weakness, fatigue, inability to swallow food and gastrointestinal problems.

Brielle weighed 9 pounds when she was born and within a year she had gained less than 6 pounds. She was too weak to walk or crawl or stand. When she was 3, she could only lie on her back.

Mrs. Yannes attributes her daughter’s improvements to her inclusion in a general education environment at College Gardens. Inclusion involves taking children with disabilities and immersing them into a regular education environment.

“There is a federal mandate to extend appropriate services to students with disabilities,” said Kate Harrison, a spokeswoman for Montgomery County Public Schools.

Jim Bradshaw, a spokesman with the U.S. Department of Education, said almost half of the country’s 6.8 million students with disabilities are taught in a regular classroom with students at least 80 percent of the day.

At College Gardens, Brielle interacts with her classmates 93 percent of the time. The rest of the time she attends a 45-minute physical therapy session and meets for an hour with a speech pathologist and an occupational therapist each week.

Mrs. Yannes said her daughter’s speech improvement has a lot to do with the children Brielle sees every day at school. “She doesn’t feel pressure to talk to them, she just has a strong desire to communicate with them.”

Mrs. Yannes urges other parents who have children with disabilities to support inclusion. “I don’t think that there is any disability out there too severe to try this,” she said. “Brielle is at the cognitive level of a 3-year-old.”

Brielle began her inclusive education at Bethesda Elementary School in January 2000 when she was almost 6. She later transferred to College Gardens after her parents moved to Rockville. Brielle has been at College Gardens for almost three years.

Mrs. Yannes said her daughter’s life has changed over the past four years.

“Once Brielle started going to school all day with children who were speaking and playing outside during recess, she started mimicking them within the first six months,” Mrs. Yannes said.

Sherry Liebes, principal of College Gardens, agreed. “It has been a very seamless transition and I know this experience has done a lot for Brielle.”

The school Brielle had previously attended in Bergen County, N.J., was geared for children with disabilities, but didn’t have playground time.

Mrs. Yannes said the playground time at Bethesda Elementary School was Brielle’s first chance to learn how to play with other children.

“And the verbal communication followed in that the next skill she developed was mimicking children’s words and that’s when she started making sounds and putting words together,” Mrs. Yannes said.

Brielle has not only learned from the children in her regular education classrooms, but she has taught her teachers and her classmates about acceptance and friendship.

“Brielle is a real asset to our classroom,” said Shelly Rueda, Brielle’s teacher said. “The kids have learned a lot of positive characteristics, as far as social skills go, by treating everyone fairly and as part of a team no matter what we do.”

Taylor Long, 9, said she is happy that Brielle is in her class. Taylor has invited Brielle to her past two birthday parties.

“Brielle is very smart and she likes to read books and run a lot,” she said. “I enjoy having Brielle in class because it’s a learning experience and because it feels good making people’s lives better.”

Graham Kindermann, 9, agreed: “I like having Brielle in class because she is real nice to me. It is always good to have a friend around.”

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