Meeting all challenges In Jacob's way, 'Yes I Can!' beats handicaps


The first time Bonnie Halberstam met her son Jacob, she learned never to underestimate him.

While Mrs. Halberstam spoke with the Russian orphanage director, the 4-year-old boy introduced as Ygor sat on the floor. He had stumps for arms and his right leg was half the length of his left one.

Within a minute, Mrs. Halberstam heard a familiar "ka-ching ka-ching ka-ching."

"He went to my pocketbook, unzipped it, took the camera out, took it out of its case, and was snapping pictures," she said.

Now, Jacob Ygor Halberstam is almost 7 and attends first grade at Carroll County's Hampstead Elementary School. He spoke excellent Russian at 4 and mastered English within six weeks of coming to the United States.

He doesn't have hands, but he can use his arms, chin or mouth to draw a picture, snap open his lunch box, climb a ladder in gym class, or accept a trophy: Jacob is one of 35 youths, among more than 1,000 nominees, who won the international "Yes I Can!" award from the Foundation for Exceptional Children.

He was nominated by Hampstead Elementary's occupational therapist, Donna Langmead, and physical therapist, Annette Snyder.

"He is creative; he is determined," Ms. Langmead said. "When we read about the award, we thought, 'That's Jacob.' "

At a reception in Indianapolis Saturday, Jacob received his statuette from Kansas City Chiefs defensive end Neil Smith.

"It's just natural for him to be doing things," Ms. Langmead said of Jacob. "He doesn't like not to be doing what the rest of the children are doing."

When a new challenge arises, Jacob just keeps trying until he finds a way to meet it.

"I said, 'How are you going to play hockey?' He said, 'Like this.' And he just picked up the stick" by pressing his arms together around it, Ms. Langmead said.

Jacob carries his own cafeteria tray balanced across his outstretched arms.

He writes and draws using a cuff strapped to his arm to hold the pencil or crayon.

He has a small bud of a finger at the end of his right arm that he uses to pick up small objects, such as coins.

When he drops something into the rolling cart of supplies next to his desk, he fishes it out, even if he has to dive in headfirst to reach it. The rounded ends of his arms are always stained with ink.

"I always get marker on it," Jacob said of his left arm.

As he drew a lion to illustrate his journal, Jacob glanced back and forth from his drawing to a photograph, carefully duplicating the curve of the animal's profile.

Ms. Langmead adapted Jacob's desk with a slanted top so he doesn't strain his back reaching the surface.

In physical education class, when students run laps around the gym, Jacob joins the crowd with a fast, springy walk.

In February, when the letter arrived from the Foundation for Exceptional Children informing Jacob of his award in the category of independent living skills, his mother tried to explain it to him.

"I said, 'Well, you learned to go to the bathroom by yourself at school and all sorts of things that are difficult for you but easier for other children.'

"He looked really perplexed and said, 'I didn't know they gave awards for going to the bathroom.' "

At home in Millers, a small village north of Hampstead, he keeps up with his four brothers, ages 1 through 8.

Even before they were married, Jacob's parents had talked of having a big family of natural and adopted children.

By the time they went to an agency, they already had three sons born to them, but wanted to give a home to a child who was hard to place because of age or disability. While talking to an official at one agency in Washington, they browsed through a photo album of children waiting for adoption, seeing many expressionless faces.

"We turned the page and here was Jacob with an ear-to-ear smile and sparkling eyes," Mrs. Halberstam said. "He just looked like he had so much enthusiasm."

Before a word was spoken between them, they knew they had found another son, she said.

"He looked like he belonged in our family," she said. "We both felt that very deeply." They still have the photograph.

Jacob's mother had died the day after she gave birth to him in Siberia. Medical records called it "after-birth trauma," with little other explanation of her death and no cause given for Jacob's birth defects.

He was taken as an infant to the St. Petersburg orphanage where he lived until the Halberstams adopted him.

When the Halberstams brought Jacob to the United States, they explored ways to help him walk.

The first two specialists they saw said he would need a wheelchair because of his unstable joints and bone structure.

"He has such exuberance and spirit and energy, we didn't think it was the right thing," Mrs. Halberstam said.

Jacob eventually was fitted with a prosthesis on one leg and a brace on the other.

His exuberance and spirit apparently influence his classmates.

"In that class last year, it just seemed like the kids tried harder," said his kindergarten teacher, Constance Zumbrun. "They didn't say, 'I can't.' "

Jean Abbey, his teacher now, said other students at first tried to do things for Jacob, but most of the time he politely would decline their offers.

"Jacob is a risk-taker," Ms. Abbey said. "Because of that, I think the other children take more risks, too."

Outside of school, Jacob is a Tiger Cub Scout and has discovered horseback riding through Carroll County's Therapeutic Recreation Council.

"He loves water," Mrs. Halberstam said, "We want to get him some [swimming] lessons. I think he could learn. I'm not sure how, but he's figured out everything else."

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