Difficult start, promising future for twins headed to Howard University from Brooks-DeBartolo High

The call came on Dec. 20, 1992. Identical twin girls born with an addiction to cocaine needed someone to care for them because their birth mother couldn't. Collectively, the premature babies weighed less than 5 pounds, and doctors predicted they would be blind. Patricia Jackson, a foster mother, didn't hesitate to accept. She had waited three months for such a call — ever since, she says, God gave her a vision that twins would one day call her Mom. She named them Alexis and Alesia.

Those first weeks, they experienced drug withdrawals, shaking and crying.

One needed a heart monitor. They were 2 months old when the hospital released them.

Now 18, the twins are honor students at Brooks-DeBartolo Collegiate High School.

They say their mother never allowed them to use their history as an excuse to give up — ever.

That may be why, in two months' time, the girls who doctors said would never see will watch the landscape shift from palm trees to cherry blossoms aboard a train to Howard University in Washington, D.C.

More challenges await them. The fact is, they must rely heavily on financial aid to attend a private school 900 miles from home. But they look back on how far they've come and are certain of one thing: They will find a way.

• • •

Meet the twins today and they give no hint of their early struggles.

Alexis, the oldest by one minute, is a girly-girl who wears sparkly headbands.

Because Brooks-DeBartolo didn't have a cheerleading team, school officials allowed her to join the squad at Hillsborough High School near her home in Seminole Heights. She became team captain.

When Alexis ran for prom queen, Alesia designed all the campaign material using computer programs she taught herself how to use.

Despite their petite 5-foot-2 frames, Alesia played on the basketball team for Brooks-DeBartolo, in North Tampa. She wears black nail polish and likes to playfully boss her sister around.

They know exactly what they want to be when they grow up.

Alexis will study administrative justice at Howard and hopes to become a crime scene investigator for the FBI.

Alesia will major in computer science. "My dream is to go to Hollywood and be able to create trailers for the biggest movies," she said.

Jackson, who adopted the twins at birth, made sure they were well rounded. She packed their schedules with community service groups, job training classes and academic support programs. She also insisted they attend Brooks-DeBartolo four years ago.

Phildra Swagger was the charter school's newly appointed principal and convinced Jackson it was where the girls needed to be. The building was still under construction when they toured, and they begged for other options.

"We cried and cried and cried," Alexis said.

"We weren't open-minded at all," Alesia added.

Four years later, they admit that mama knows best. About 280 students attend the school, and its smaller environment kept them focused and out of trouble.

Both of their grade point averages surpass 5.0, and each girl has racked up college credit through the school's dual enrollment program. Swagger packed their schedules with Advanced Placement courses and didn't let them slack off during senior year.

"She's like our second mother," Alexis said. "My mom's on us really hard at home, and Dr. Swagger is on us at school."

• • •

The twins are proud of their achievements, but growing up has been tough.

Curious friends and strangers ask the raven-haired and freckled twins questions they can't answer.

"We don't even know our ethnicity," Alesia said. "It hurts when people ask and we can't say. Sometimes I just say, 'We're a story.' "

They know that their birth mother is African-American, but they've never met her. They know nothing of their biological father, not even his race.

Money is also a concern. Jackson is generous with what she has, but it isn't much.

Once the girls turned 18 last winter, the adoption subsidies Jackson received stopped. A difficult pregnancy 12 years ago left her unable to work as a women's health counselor.

Today, the family uses Social Security checks to pay the bills.

Jackson always opened her home to children in need, however. In 30 years, she and her mother fostered more than 50 children, nearly all of them born addicted to cocaine. She adopted five: the twins and an older sister with the same biological mother, as well as two others who no longer live with Jackson.

Her biological son, Patrick, 12, has cerebral palsy and requires special attention.

The family lives in a home Jackson won in 1987 after buying a $1 raffle ticket. She remembers the day that then-Tampa City Council member Perry Harvey pulled her name out of a fishbowl. God gave her the house to allow her to care for more children, she said.

When the girls set their hearts on Howard University, Jackson had them fill out a slew of scholarship applications. They earned about a dozen awards between them and got about $5,000 each.

Howard, one of the top historically black universities in the nation, was their first choice because of its reputation. Alesia's financial aid package ensures that her first year's expenses of about $38,000 are covered. Alexis hasn't learned what financial aid will cover for her yet, but is hoping for the same result.

The train to D.C. isn't leaving on Aug. 11 without them, they said. Instead of worrying about what they don't have, they are thankful for what they do.

"We don't like people to pity us or feel bad for us …," Alexis said. Her sister finished the sentence: "… because look at us now."

Tia Mitchell can be reached at tmitchell@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3405.

Difficult start, promising future for twins headed to Howard University from Brooks-DeBartolo High 06/02/11 [Last modified: Thursday, June 2, 2011 5:30am]

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