Idaho College Students Rally to Help Their Disabled Roommate Live a Full Life: 'We're Friends for Life'
07/24/2015 AT 03:30 PM EDT
But there is one constant that won't change in Off-Campus Group House No. 149: Care and companionship for Cesar Ibanez, a 30-year-old biology student who suffers from spinal muscular atrophy, a genetic disease that is steadily destroying his ability to breathe, walk, move his head and swallow.
Since Ibanez arrived on campus in 2012, a revolving group of six roommates, nicknamed "The Little Brotherhood," have voluntarily done everything for him, from cooking his meals, helping him to shower and shave and turning him onto his side in the middle of the night so he can sleep comfortably.
"They're my brothers," says Ibanez, who wants to work as a biophysicist one day and help find a cure for his disease. "Without them, I wouldn't be able to attend college and fulfill my dream."
"Helping him is the right thing to do," says economics student Cody Allen, 22, from Victorville, California. "Helping Cesar helps me to be humble. He's a great friend because in spite of his disabilities, he is so positive and confident. I've never heard one word of complaint from him."
Born in Oaxaca, Mexico, Ibanez, who is one of two children raised by a single mom, was never able to walk on his own. When he grew older and became weaker, his mother decided to move him and his younger brother to Kennewick, Washington, where Ibanez was diagnosed with the devastating muscle disease at age 10.
Twice he was told by doctors that he wouldn't live to adulthood, "but I was determined to beat the odds," he says. "Some days, it's a struggle. But I'm not going to give up. I'm not a quitter."
After graduating from high school in 2006, Ibanez dreamed of going to college, but he couldn't afford it until three years ago. Currently a tutor for the university's biology department, "it's taken me a little longer than most to get to college," he admits. "But I'm enjoying every minute thanks to my great roommates."
Ibanez met his dedicated friends at the local Mormon church he attended shortly after arriving in Rexburg.
"They invited me to move in and were willing to make sacrifices to help me with day-to-day tasks that were difficult for me," he says. "I was touched by their generosity. My hands are getting weaker and it is getting harder for me to type. So these guys help me with my assignments. They get me in and out of my wheelchair, help me get dressed. They go beyond the call every day. I like to call them 'Cesar's Army.' "
Kyson Kidd, 24, a communications student from Rexburg, says that he was initially hesitant about moving in with Cesar three months ago, but he clicked with his new roommate immediately.
"There is such a unique environment in the house – we're closer as roommates than I've ever been with my past roommates," he says. "Helping Cesar isn't just one-sided. We all get so much out of living with him, whether it's playing video games, going out to eat or long-boarding with Cesar. He has two straps on the back of his wheelchair so he can pull us by our long boards. It's fun to see people react. We call it 'Ceezing the Night.' "
With several of his roommates recently graduated and new ones moving in, there is a melancholy feeling this month in the house of "The Little Brotherhood."
"I'll miss the guys who are leaving – I've been blessed to know them," says Ibanez. "But no matter where they end up, I do know one thing: We're friends for life."