Special Olympics
Melissa Isaacson, ESPN.com 246d

Cross-country skier Nikota Easterling is part of a modern family

RAMSAU, Austria -- Nikota Easterling was trying to remember the name of her brother, but it wasn't easy.

"Mom, you remember Batman Boy," she said. "How long did we have him for? We were very young, like 4, and he always dressed like Batman. He made an impact on me."

Easterling, a cross-country skier on the U.S. Special Olympics World Games team, can be forgiven for the brief memory lapse, as her parents, Brenda and Bill, have fostered more than 100 kids, many with cognitive, emotional and physical disabilities, others abused. Sometimes there were as many as seven at the Easterling home at one time.

Some were with them just a day or two, some a week or two, some a year or two.

"It was pretty much the only thing I knew," Easterling said. "We had a ton of different kids, but I never felt crowded and it really made me feel like a lot of these kids were almost family to us."

Easterling, 20, came to Brenda and Bill at 2 days old and was eventually adopted by them, as was her biological sister Sarah, 21, who arrived at 7 months old, and Louis, 29, who came at 7 years old. All three are part-Native American and involved in Special Olympics -- Louis a talented snowboarder and Sarah a figure skater.

Bill Easterling had broached the subject before the couple was married nearly 24 years ago. A member of the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa Chippewa Indians, he asked Brenda, one-quarter Cherokee, if she was interested in being a foster parent, showing her a brochure from the Michigan Native Indian child welfare agency that said they were in need of foster homes. Two years after they were married, they were licensed with the agency.

How have they managed?

"By the grace of God," said Brenda, who is a substitute teacher at a school for special needs children while Bill works the second shift as a toolmaker. "It's a challenging but so rewarding helping kids who need a safe place to stay anywhere from a day or two to several years or in the case of these three, a permanent home."

Nikota Easterling came with a host of challenges -- severe asthma, mild cerebral palsy, serious immune deficiencies and multiple mitochondrial disorders, an underlying cause of many of her intellectual and physical disabilities and a genetic condition her sister shares, Brenda said. Easterling has had multiple small seizures and one grand mal seizure when she was 11 that she still remembers.

"I was in the living room and my parents were just down the hallway, and it was really scary because I couldn't call for them," Easterling said. "It's one of those things that sticks in your brain."

It's one of those things a parent doesn't easily forget either.

"It was a scary experience for her and for us," Brenda said. "[But] my husband has been really good at never letting them use their disabilities as an excuse. We make accommodations when we need to but we expect a lot out of them and they've done very well."

Four and a half years ago, the family took a Make-A-Wish trip for Easterling to Disney World and Sea World in Florida. Her sister Sarah was a Make-A-Wish kid as well.

Through it all, however, there was always Special Olympics. At 9, Easterling tried swimming and bowling and two years ago, after her mother took it up, she tried cross-country skiing. Facilitating that choice was a cross-country ski park two and a half miles from the Easterlings with groomed trails and night skiing.

The training and skiing actually helped her asthma, Easterling said. And she has found a new love in her new sport.

"It really boosted my confidence a lot because when I first started cross-country skiing, I was really bad," she said with a laugh. "With all the training and stuff, it just really made me more confident and made me feel more comfortable. I like that it's not boring. You always go on new trails, it's always something different. Swimming is always the same scenery."

U.S. World Games coach Dave Bregenzer said it was not Easterling's skiing that made her stand out at the U.S. training camp in Killington, Vermont, in December, but rather her positive attitude despite the harsh conditions and her actions after a teammate's injury.

The skier had broken her leg after falling during one training run. "And Nikota really took charge of that, taking care of her and staying by her side the whole time," Bregenzer said. "Nikota is kindhearted and compassionate."

With below-zero wind chill and high winds, Bregenzer also recalled another day when Easterling distinguished herself.

"The last afternoon we were caught in a squall that came in instantly," he said. "We had all these skiers out on the track and basically lost all visibility. It was going to be a nightmare making sure we got everybody off the course, and Nikota helped.

"You can go right down the list and check off everything you want in a teammate and she has all that."

In Schladming this week, Easterling's 4x1K freestyle relay team finished sixth in its division, and she finished sixth in the 1K freestyle.

"She doesn't have killer instincts to win at all costs," her local Special Olympics coach Arlene Salik said. "She's thrilled if she wins, but she's always quick to congratulate somebody else if they beat her."

It might be because Easterling is a good sport. It may also because everything is relative when your parents have provided more than 100 brothers and sisters with a home and you don't look at challenges the way most people do.

"It's just what we do," Brenda said. "We try to normalize all the kids' lives as much as possible. They all have challenges. We just try to face them and keep going and make life as normal as possible."

It is not lost on their youngest daughter.

"I'm really impressed," Easterling said of her parents. "They're people that just will take somebody in their arms and be so loving and they care and do the best they can to care for them. They're great and caring."

"They're just a neat family, they really are," said Mark Dalman, an area director for Special Olympics Michigan. "They just take them all in and they become family."

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