It’s Jacob’s mischievous grin and Joshua’s sweet smile that their second grade teacher Julie Molthen first notices when the identical twin brothers come into her Ashburn, Virginia, classroom each morning.
Born in May 2009, the twins were diagnosed with ataxia-telangiectasia, an extremely rare neurodegenerative disease, as toddlers. Within the last few weeks, the boys, now 7, have made the transition to wheelchairs for their own safety as they continue to lose muscle control.
“Both constantly beg to sneak out of the room when the coast is clear and run down the hallway pushing their chairs as fast as we can,” Molthen tells PEOPLE. “We got in trouble once and they thought that was hilarious.”
Recently, however, Molthen had an even bigger surprise for her two students.
“Jacob and Joshua are constantly talking about police officers and checking out books about them at the library,” their mom, Jen Fernando, tells PEOPLE.
Molthen reached out to another student’s father, a police officer in an adjoining county, and asked if he could come into school to show the boys his gear. The officer, however, had bigger plans.
“He asked if he could give them a police escort to school with some of his fellow Fairfax County motorcycle cops,” says Fernando. “They came to the house to meet the boys and give them a gift — handcuffs! They’ve had so much fun cuffing teachers, students, brothers and Mom.”
Flanked by the escort, Fernando drove her sons to school where they were greeted by a cheering crowd of students and teachers.
“I thought it was just going to be their classmates outside,” she says. “It was the most amazing experience for all of us — tears of joy! It was a day they will never forget.”
Fernando and her husband Ben are also parents to sons Levi, 12, and Luke, 8, who was diagnosed with Stage 3 hepatoblastoma cancer and received a liver transplant from his uncle when he was 10 months old. While Luke was undergoing chemotherapy, Fernando discovered she was pregnant with the twins.
“When we went in to find out the sex of the baby, we found out there were two. I think we laughed and cried. Well, I cried as I was already overwhelmed with Luke’s care,” she says. “But those two little buddies stole my heart.”
At the twins’ 15 month check up, the family’s pediatrician recommended physical and occupational therapy due to low muscle tone. But, despite the treatment plans, Fernando knew the doctors were missing something.
“We continued with therapies for a few years, but we just knew there was something else going on. They seemed to be getting worse, rather than getting better,” she says.
After a full work-up with a geneticist, the boys were officially diagnosed with ataxia-telangiectasia. “We went in and sat down with the doctors and I just had this moment where I couldn’t figure out why we were in ‘the chairs’ again. We had been there before with Luke. The sad chairs where people are given bad news and tissues,” Fernando says.
“This diagnosis was especially hard. With Luke we were just in shock, but with this one, I was just angry,” she says. “The ATM genes produce a protein — the more protein they produce, the better your chances of living longer and without severe degeneration. The twins produce no protein … none.”
She continues, “The prognosis delivered to us was wheelchairs by the age of 10. A feeding tube will be required once they start choking on their food and liquids. There is no treatment and there is no cure. There’s virtually nothing they can do for these kids.”
Fernando admits she and Ben take “one day at a time” when it comes to their family. “We think about the future, but don’t look too far ahead,” she says of their changing dynamic.
“We’ve made our peace with this diagnosis. We will continue to fight for a cure, but we know that they are here for a specific purpose. I couldn’t understand it for a long time, but when I see all the lives they touch, I know what that purpose is.”
Says Molthen, “These boys are such a rare gift. I am blessed to be able to witness their strength and determination to keep up with their peers and lead normal lives. They are a daily reminder that my job is much bigger than teaching the standards.”
As for Jacob and Joshua — once voted class comedian and class nurturer respectively — they have big plans for their futures.
“Jacob wants to be a police officer and Joshua wants to be a firefighter,” Fernando says.