Jose and Irma Cortes

Jose and Irma Cortes, right, with their children, Jecsan, left, and Elennah. The couple have been foster parents to about 50 children, many being children with special needs.

Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

The baby was born with an enlarged head so big that it easily dwarfed the rest of his tiny body.

Doctors said his condition would only get worse and gave the infant two months to live. And if he survived beyond that, they said, he would live life in a vegetative state.

The baby's mother was not prepared to care for her son and the child was placed in the foster care system. Who would take this child that would require very special, time-consuming care?

When foster parents Jose Cortes and Irma Mejia Cortes received a call asking if they would be interested in caring for Antonio, the couple went to the hospital to see the newborn. They were taken aback by the oversized head, a brain condition known as hydrocephalus, commonly referred to as water in the brain.

Were they sure, they were asked, that this baby was someone they wanted to take home and that they could assume the challenges of caring for him?

Instead of focusing on the negatives, the couple saw beauty wrapped in a blanket.

"This child is a miracle from God," said Jose Cortes. "Doctors may know about medicine, but only God has the last word when to take someone."

Baby Antonio went home with the couple.

The child is among the 30 or so foster children that have been placed in the couple's very modest home in southeast Bakersfield. Just like Antonio, about half of those were children with special needs.

Their first foster child, placed in their home in 2009, had epilepsy. Others were diagnosed with schizophrenia, autism, mental retardation, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Many others were neglected or abused by family members.

The couple's only prior experience with special needs children came when they were living in Los Angeles.

By chance, Mejia Cortes was asked at school if she could attend a conference on special needs children and give a report on it to other parents. It was there she learned about attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD. It suddenly dawned on her that her son was exhibiting the behavior being described in a workshop.

Intrigued, she told her husband about it. But he would have none of it.

"I refused to accept it," said Cortes. "My son appeared to be normal. I was wrong."

His son, now 24-years-old, was diagnosed with ADHD. With guidance he went on to graduate from high school and is now taking college course, but college is a challenge as he still battles the condition.

It was by chance — or maybe not — that fate drew this couple to Bakersfield from Los Angeles.

Less than 10 years ago, the couple had a successful photography business they ran out of their L.A. home. Their dream was to own a home of their own there, but they were priced out of anything that suited their family needs.

A family member here convinced them to try their luck in Bakersfield. But opening a photo studio in Bakersfield did not go well and the couple began taking and doing work in other areas.

The couple had been looking for a way to repay the help they had received from others in raising their own special-needs child. They would do that by helping other special-needs children by being foster parents.

The pair have taken in children of all backgrounds: black, white and Hispanic. They have a soft spot, though, for children with special needs.

Not only do they have Antonio in their home, but 6-year-old Elennah. The African-American child weighed 5 pounds and was 6-months-old when the couple received her.

She was a drug-addicted baby who suffers from asthma attacks and is diagnosed with ADHD. The couple did not hesitate when they learned of her history.

"We took her home and I told her, 'You are going to stay here with us,'" said a tearful Mejia Cortes, recalling the child's condition.

Today Elennah is no longer a foster child. The couple adopted her and Elennah is fluent in Spanish.

And if all turns out well, Elennah will have Antonio as a brother, as the couple is in the process of adopting him, too.

To say it takes tremendous patience to care for children with special needs is putting it rather mildly. Saintly qualities are needed, I'd say.

The Corteses are the first ones to tell you they are not perfect parents and are still learning about raising children with special needs. They raised five children of their own and have grandchildren.

But the rewards and satisfaction of caring and raising for the many foster children they have had in their home outweighs everything else, they say.

The couple is particularly grateful they have Elennah and Antonio.

"They make us laugh and they make us cry," said Cortes.

He and his wife tear up when speaking about the little hope they were told both children had when they first received them.

"My greatest reward is having God send them to us," said Mejia Cortes. "And see how much they have improved."

Contributing columnist Jose Gaspar is a reporter for KBAK/KBFX Eyewitness News. Email him at elcompa29@gmail.com. His work appears here every third Monday; the views expressed are his own.

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