Gina LeBlanc has lost count of her tears. Besides a total hip replacement, LeBlanc has lupus, an incurable autoimmune disease, and blood deficiencies that weaken her bones.
A mass on her spine is causing it to crumble. But LeBlanc is still walking, and most of all, still talking to her teenage daughters, Kayo and Aliko.
The girls went with her on numerous medical visits and researched the big words from the doctors. They also took mom's constant message to heart.
“I told them don't play sports,” said LeBlanc, who lives in Cecilia. “It was so far for me to go back and forth, I told them they had to concentrate on their academics.
“That's why I sacrificed. I said if I pay now, I won't have to pay later.
“We cried at night. It was tough. But we really believed in God.”
The prayers and sacrifice have turned into full, academic scholarships to prestigious universities. Kayo, 18, just finished her first semester at St. John's University in New York City, a private, Catholic school consistently ranked as one of the nation's best colleges.
Aliko, 17, is a graduating junior who starts next fall at Brown University, an Ivy League research university in Providence, Rhode Island.
The sisters are both products of T. M. Landry, a small, 12-year-old school in Breaux Bridge. Landry recently enjoyed international notoriety when a dramatic video of student Ayrton Little learning of his acceptance into Harvard went viral.
Little and the LeBlancs are among the latest fruits from the school's tree of success. All Landry graduates attend four-year colleges, many on full scholarships. Student ACT scores are in the high 20s and 30s.
Kayo and Aliko credit Landry's non-traditional, student-helping-student atmosphere with their success. But the inspiration started at home.
After her daughters were born, Gina LeBlanc worked for five years at the Evangeline Maid bakery. But the job's long hours left no family time.
After staying home for two years, Gina started volunteering at a local head start and returned to school to become a teacher. But hip replacement left her disabled, causing her to move back in with her parents, Anna and Linton LeBlanc.
LeBlanc's daughters, who earlier attended Immaculate Heart of Mary School, were introduced to T. M. Landry through free tutoring that the school offered. But their mom was also bringing the girls to banquets and other community events, where they learned to interact with adults.
Kayo and Aliko sometimes cared for their mom when her illnesses flared. But those moments also inspired them.
“She was sick, but she would always have a smile on her face,” said Kayo, who's studying film and television at St. John's. “That's what pushed us to do well.
“Every day, she was going through pain. But she still had that smile to keep her going. It just made us strive more and more to get where we are right now.”
"She kept going, even though she had all this on her plate,” said Aliko, a neuroscience major with plans to be a doctor. “It would break my heart sometimes.
“She would cry and a lot of people wouldn't know. But we knew — and that was our drive. Everyone had a different drive. This was me and my sister's drive. Whatever we do, we do it for her. We do it for our grandparents. We thank them so much.”
Gina Leblanc struggles to contain the pride she has in her daughters. But the prayers and encouragement have not stopped.
“I'm asking God to please keep me here on this Earth until they graduate. 'Can you spare me a little while longer?' It almost came close for me a lot of times.
“But I have two praying children. I thank God for that, my parents, the whole Immaculate Heart of Mary community.
“I'm so happy on the inside. For them, but I feel that way for every child.”