The Competitor and the Advocate

Jake Branan was diagnosed with cerebral palsy at birth. It has not stopped the Eastside High School graduate from pursuing his dreams and living his life to the fullest.

by Avril Occilien-Similien

Jake Branan is a kind, intelligent, sensitive, compassionate and tenacious 18-year-old who was diagnosed with cerebral palsy at birth due to complications during pregnancy. He uses a wheelchair for mobility and does not have full use of his right arm, but those physical limitations have not stopped him from living his life to the fullest. In fact, his disabilities have fueled his drive to succeed at everything he sets out to accomplish.

His mother, Debbie, believes his competitive “I can do anything” spirit was paramount to his overcoming the many obstacles he has faced. 

“It is also this tenacity that has allowed him to perform so well academically and graduate with honors from Eastside High School,” she said before listing the many accolades he had earned, from the Hope, Zell Miller and Georgia Commitment scholarships to the Georgia Outstanding Achievement Award. With that academic excellence as his backdrop, Branan recently started his freshman year as a journalism major at the University of Georgia. He plans to focus on sports writing and reporting. 

“My dream career,” he said, “is to work for one of the large sports networks such as ESPN or [the] NFL Network or Fox Sports.” 

“I’ve been proving people wrong my whole life, and I want others with disabilities to know they can prove others wrong, as well.”

Jake Branan

Branan’s resolute approach shines through in his love of sports. He grew up playing baseball in the Miracle League and was invited to compete in the Special Olympics. 

“I love sports,” he said. “Sports is my thing. I started out with a love for baseball, football and, most recently, soccer. Now that I am older, 95% of what I do during my free time is watching sports and trying my best to analyze the plays, so I can stay as engaged as much as I possibly can. I’m also involved with different sports analysis groups and keep up with sports blogs to stay connected to people with the same sports craze.”

His journey to college has not been without its struggles. 

“Along with helping Jake navigate the stigma of a disability, the social isolation and the heartbreaking invisibility, I have made it my mission in life to get this child to where he is today,” his mother said. “I have had to fight for everything he needs. It has been a constant battle to get the necessary resources through the major systems, whether educational, environmental access or healthcare.”

In anticipation of college living expenses, Branan’s parents applied for the NOW/Comp waiver through the state of Georgia when he was in ninth grade. The Medicaid waiver provides money that may be used to pay for services for a person with intellectual, developmental or physical disabilities. These services can occur in the person’s home or community. It has been four years, and the Branans still have not received the funds for which they have been approved. Thankfully, State Sen. Brian Strickland has been an enormous help in navigating some procedural hurdles. Strickland was also instrumental in helping the family secure a two-bedroom apartment in graduate housing for Branan. Currently, he only lacks funding for a full-time personal care assistant. To temporarily meet the costs of the PCA until funding is secured through the NOW/Comp waiver, Branan’s mother has established a GoFundMe account.

Due to their personal struggles with receiving necessary resources, the Branans want to teach others how to advocate for children with disabilities. 

“We aren’t rich, but I consider us middle-class with some connections in the community,” his mother said. “I can’t imagine what it’s like for those with less financial resources or knowledge of how the system should work. This is why I am so passionate about ensuring others know that there is a way for them to get their child with disabilities the services and resources they need.” 

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“They need to be relentless and courageous in advocating for their child,” she added. “My proudest accomplishment is sending a perfectly capable 18-year-old to college who is ready and able to advocate for himself.” 

Branan’s father, Chris, always encouraged him to buck whatever boundaries were being placed on him.

“I’ve been telling Jake all his life to be the best at what he can do and show everyone that a wheelchair does not prevent you from doing whatever you set your mind to,” he said. “Prove them wrong.” 

That message drives Branan’s advocacy for others.

“I see the struggles that other individuals with disabilities go through,” he said. “I want to demonstrate that things and life can be different and better. I’ve been proving people wrong my whole life, and I want others with disabilities to know they can prove others wrong, as well.” 

His ultimate message for all who will listen: “I’m human. Get to know me. You would be surprised at how much I can do and how much you would learn.” 

Click here to read more stories by Avril Occilien-Similien.

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