Tracy Balnis instinctively jumps out of her chair when her
13-year-old daughter, Gianna, stumbles while walking through the
front door of the family's candy store.
Balnis, however, returns to her chair within a second's time
when she watches her daughter correct herself. On her own. With no
help from her mother, even though the girl was born with Spina
Bifida and uses braces to walk.
In many ways, this not-so-uncommon scene reflects how the Berwyn
mother of nine children-four of them with disabilities-goes about
parenting on a daily basis.
"I want them to always know I'm here for them, but they need to
do things on their own, too," says Balnis, who owns Rissi's Old
Time Candy & Toys in Berwyn.
On this day, during a snowstorm, Balnis' family swirled around
the old-fashioned candy store, named after her 3-year-old daughter,
Rissi. They arrived in a 15-passenger van, the family car so to
speak, after a well-choreographed routine to get them all ready for
a road trip.
"It may look like crazy chaos, but it works for us," says
Balnis, whose upbeat, hopeful disposition has anchored her more
than any parenting book.
All nine of her children, ages 3 to 24, have delivered their own
challenges, though her four with special needs have also delivered
unexpected surprises. Gianna uses a wheelchair, 10-year-old Michael
Jr. is mute with severe autism, 9-year-old Gabriel has
high-functioning autism, and 5-year-old Dominic has mid-range
"He doesn't talk much and he isn't potty trained yet, which is
the hardest part of dealing with the disabilities," Balnis says
while her son quietly stands next to her.
Just before Gianna was born, doctors gave Balnis a box of
Kleenex and told her to brace herself for news of the baby's
expected lifespan: "You'll be lucky if she lives three days."
Balnis was in shock, not remembering anything else from that
Today, Gianna is strolling along just fine, albeit for a brief
scare here and there.
"Doctors don't know everything," Balnis says flatly. "Remember,
they're only practicing medicine. My daughter proves this."
Was Balnis ever worried of having more children with similar
disabilities, especially because autism runs in her extended
family? Not at all, she replies.
"Every time I was pregnant after Gianna, I told God whatever he
gives me, I'll take it," Balnis says cheerfully as her husband,
Michael Sr., helps corral the kids for a rare family photo.
"OK, say cheese, everyone," he says while making sure they're
all facing the camera.
Michael was an orphan as a child, and Tracy's father was not in
her young life, so parenting comes with extra significance to both
of them. They have been together for 25 years and appear to work
seamlessly together while raising their brimming brood, including
All the children attend Chicago public schools, though Michael
Jr. gets outside therapy. Their oldest daughter, 24-year-old Anita,
helps immensely with the younger children, including overcoming
nightly homework and daily obstacles.
"Our two older children were the ones who told us years ago to
not give up hope," Balnis says. "We've never forgotten that. Hope,
faith and prayers go a long way."
One Sunday many years ago, Balnis went to church early and
joined a special prayer session for a struggling family in the
parish. It was only later that she realized the family was
"I had no idea they were always praying for us," she says with a
Over the past 13 years, the couple has had to learn the ropes
regarding how to find proper services, treatments and therapies for
their kids with special needs. It's meant countless doctor
appointments, therapy sessions and meetings with teachers, aides
and insurance agents.
"It can be a nightmare to navigate the system, especially when
it comes to healthcare and special needs services," Balnis says.
"It's really a full-time job on its own."
Balnis may write a book on how to steer around such systemic
speed bumps, including school-related challenges involving five
different schools and four buses for seven of her kids.
"My first piece of advice to other parents in a similar
situation is to create an assembly line, starting in the morning,"
she says as Michael Jr. makes a silent motion asking for gum.
Balnis' day starts before sunrise, getting her kids up, cleaned,
dressed, fed and ready for another school day. Dominic is high
functioning but has issues with certain food textures. Gabriel also
has special dietary needs. Gianna needs help with her socks, shoes,
braces or power wheelchair. And one morning, Michael Jr. shoved a
breakfast ham down the toilet, followed by soap, forks and
"I'll bet I'm the only Chicago parent who has Googled how to get
different items out of your own toilet," she says.
Still, Balnis lovingly calls it "controlled chaos,"
acknowledging how it could look like bedlam to other parents.
"You wouldn't believe the joy we felt when our one son became
potty trained," Balnis says proudly. "If you told me I could have a
million dollars or he could be potty trained, I'd say keep your
Michael Sr., a Chicago firefighter, works long shifts, so it's
feast or famine in their home depending on his work schedule. He
also does most of the cooking (just like at his firehouse),
insisting that certain foods interact better with his children.
"Healthy diets, without so many empty calories, really make a
difference," he says while gently stroking his youngest son's hair.
"Sometimes I'll sneak vegetables into my meals to make sure they
get healthy ingredients. Processed foods are only a treat."
He also enjoys playing traditional board games with the kids,
like Monopoly, Uno and Twister. It helps his boys stay involved in
the family's world, not only their inner world.
"There also is an early learning facility by our home. It's been
a godsend," he says.
These unique challenges haven't stopped the family from doing
what other families do, such as long-distance family vacations,
including to zoos, museums, Great America and even Universal
Studios in Florida. Still, some public places are still off-limits
for the family when it's at full force, such as libraries.
"They kind of kicked us out-twice," Balnis says sheepishly.
"Boys can be monkeys, you know."
Balnis' other piece of advice is to be as direct as possible
with school administrators and other personnel, starting with bus
"Get their cellphone number first thing so you can talk to them
directly, or to the aides, not through the schools," Balnis says
squarely. "This has saved me a lot of headaches. The first school
bus comes at 6:40 a.m. and the last one at 7:30 a.m. That's a lot
of looking outside the front window each morning."
After the school-aged kids leave, she savors her secret
joy-spending the rest of the morning with Rissi. No special needs.
No therapy. No doctor appointments. Just good old-fashioned,
one-on-one parenting time.
"When we're all together, you just have to go with the flow,
like a surfer riding a wave," Balnis advises. "Some days we ride
the big waves, other days we feel like we're drowning. But we're
always back on our surfboards the next day, and that's all that
Jerry Davich is a freelance writer and father of two living in the Chicago area.
See more of Jerry's stories here.
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