When Sara Hankins, 36, was diagnosed with ALS — a debilitating neurodegenerative disease with no cure — a year and a half ago, she worried about the future of her four children: Who would take care of them? Where would they live? Could they stay together?
And in the last few months — in the final stages of her terminal diagnosis — Hankins wasn’t thinking about herself, only about what would happen to her kids, Alexis, 18, Cayden, 11, Micah, 9, and Amara, 8, when she was gone.
“The thought of where they would go was killing her more than the ALS was,” Sara’s best friend, Missy Armstrong, tells PEOPLE. “It consumed her everyday thoughts, because none of her family members were able to take in all four kids together.
“So I decided to step in. I knew in my heart this was the right thing to do, that this was how it was meant to be.”
Armstrong and Hankins first met at La’ James cosmetology school in the town of East Moline, Illinois, in 1999 and “were best friends instantly.”
“The very first day of school, my car broke down and I had to walk to school,” says Armstrong, 42. “I planned on walking back because it wasn’t far, but I looked over at Sara and asked if I could get a ride for whatever reason! When she dropped me off, she was like ‘I’ll pick you up in the morning!’ And that’s the kind of person she was.
“From then on we became inseparable.”
The best friends worked all of their jobs together (at a gas station, a casino and a mall). They were also present at the hospital when their respective children were born and were always hanging out at each other’s houses.
“But when she got that ALS diagnosis, she pushed me away and I knew something was seriously wrong,” says Armstrong. “She never really told me directly, but I knew it was terminal and she wasn’t going to live. But that just made me want to be there for her even more. She needed me.”
As her condition worsened and anxiety over what would happen to her children increased (the children’s father is “not in the picture,” according to Armstrong), Armstrong knew “in her heart” that she was meant to adopt her friend’s children.
“So I offered and she burst into tears and said, ‘Oh my! You are my angel’ ” recalls Armstrong, who has two children of her own — Kairee, 14, and Alexa, 22. “And now we sit together every night and she tells me little things about each of them that I should know, she says she pictures all of the good times and bad times I’ll have with her kids.”
Armstrong is now looking to gain full guardianship of Alexis, Cayden, Micah and Amara and eventually to adopt them.
Armstrong says she isn’t sure if Hankins, who “can’t move her head and can barely talk,” will make it to Christmas, but “prays every day” for a miracle. The kids have been told that Armstrong will take care of them once Hankins is gone.
“They have counseling and we’ve been very honest with them, they know their mom will get sicker and eventually not be here anymore,” she says. “Sara told them I am the one she chose to take over being their mom. She told them she would love to continue being their mom, but just can’t and she’ll be the first one to find out why it wasn’t supposed to be that way.”
Adds Armstrong ,”I hug Sara’s babies extra tight because she can’t hold them.”
After searching for a larger house for Armstrong and the kids, the best friends found “a perfect five-bedroom” and will close on the new home after Christmas.
And with help from a GoFundMe page and donations from neighbors and friends, they will celebrate Christmas with plenty of toys and decorations.
“I want them to have a little bit of joy this holiday season, it’s been so hard on them,” says Armstrong. “But I’ll be here for the kids forever, now. They’re family.”