Everyone who gets out for an early morning run or to the gym after an exhausting day of work has to have a compelling “why” that motivates them. For 48-year-old Leslie Mouser, that’s her five kids—one of whom needs her more than most.

Gio came into the Mousers’ life seven years ago when he was just six months old.

“Our youngest daughter is adopted from China, so we already had a heart for adoption. We started doing foster care, not planning to adopt again,” Leslie explains. 

The Mousers got a call from their social worker just before Thanksgiving in 2013. “We don’t expect him to live through the weekend, but if he does, he needs somewhere to go,” they were told.

He was a perfectly healthy baby boy before suffering abuse that led to brain surgery, which caused blindness and a multitude of other disabilities. However, it was still an immediate “yes” from Leslie and her husband Kenneth.

The sweet little boy turned their world upside down. It was a two-year journey of surgeries, countless therapy appointments, and a distressing two-week period when Gio went to live with relatives in North Carolina. 

“We didn’t want to keep him from a blood relative if that was going to be best for him,” Leslie recalls. But they got an emergency call from the family, and Kenneth made a 30-hour roundtrip to bring the little one back to safety.

“It really was an answer to a prayer because we said, ‘We have to see. We have to see clearly that we’re doing the right thing by keeping him,’” Leslie says. When they got that phone call, they knew, “He’s ours.”

The Mousers moved to make Gio officially a part of their family. He has two sisters and two brothers: Grant (23), Lydia (22), Will (21), and Ella (16).

Leslie tries to block out a couple hours each day after dropping off Ella and Gio at school to get in a workout (or two).

“I’ve got somebody who is counting on me for the rest of his life, and I don’t want to let him down,” Leslie says. “While I am getting older, my son is only getting bigger, faster, and stronger.”

Jane’s Gym in Olive Branch is like a second home. It’s where she exercises and enjoys much-deserved social time with women who have become some of her best friends. Leslie focuses on high-intensity interval training (HIIT) classes and workouts that incorporate light weights and a high number of reps.

She has a realistic view of things: “I’m in a race against time, and my body needs to carry me through forever.”

By extension, Leslie also makes it a priority to help her kids stay active. It also helps that Leslie’s husband, Kenneth, enjoys working out, too. In fact, some of their best times are spent doing an exercise class together or enjoying each other’s company in the great outdoors. “We’ll have a date day while the kids are at school, and we’ll go to Shelby Farms and walk the trails or mostly just be active together,” she says.

Despite her family’s support, Leslie recognizes that being a mom of a special needs kid can be lonely. She’s a superhero to a young boy, trying to “protect him from a world that doesn’t understand him.”  While extremely rewarding, she says that moms can often feel invisible.

The community at Jane’s Gym has helped her find that extra bit of acceptance and encouragement from other mothers. “There’s no judgment on anyone who’s not doing the high-impact moves. You take the modifications and people cheer you on.”

Leslie brings her deep well of compassion and willingness to be a cheerleader with her. “Everybody has a story and you might not have a clue what they’re dealing with. It doesn’t cost anything to say, ‘You go girl!’”

Leslie’s story is a great reminder to all moms who try to show up as their best selves for their kids every day. “I’ve realized that it’s not just about being physically in shape. You’re going to benefit physically, emotionally, and mentally—and that is something you can take home to your family.”

By Kelsey J. Lawrence
Photo by Tindall Stephens