By ROGER MOONEY
Nicolas Ratliff-Batista is a senior at Monsignor Pace High School in Miami Gardens with a 4.5 GPA and an armful of academic awards. He’s a member of the National Honor Society and is headed to Broward College to study environmental science.
He recently played Sigmund Freud in the school’s production of “The Last Days of Judas Iscariot.” He has participated in other plays and also dressed as a cheerleader for the Girls Powder Puff football game during Homecoming week. You will find him at all the school dances.
“I (am) part of all sorts of things,” Nicolas said. “It’s a great high school experience.”
A parent’s dream, right?
“Exactly,” said Phyllis Ratliff, Nicolas’ mom. “The same as every parent would want for their child whether they have learning differences or not, and we are blessed to have found it at Pace and to be a recipient of the Gardiner Scholarship.”
Four years ago, thoughts of Nicolas attending high school was a nightmare for Phyllis.
Diagnosed as high-functioning autism at age 3, Nicolas was able to navigate his way from kindergarten through eighth grade in a familiar setting. Same school. Same classmates. Same teachers. Same administrators.
Because the school near their Miami Lakes home was only K-8, Phyllis had to find a high school for her son.
“I stressed more that year than I ever had,” Phyllis said. “Trying to find a high school for him that we could afford and offered academic options. A high school that would tell a child with learning differences that we can work with you.”
There are two public schools near their home, but Phyllis did not view either as viable options for her son.
She thought he would be overwhelmed by the large class sizes and an easy target for bullies.
Phyllis, a single mother, looked into several private schools. They were either too expensive or she did not see them as a good fit for Nicolas.
Several of her friends mentioned Monsignor Edward Pace High School (Pace) which is located less than 10 miles away in Miami Gardens. At first, Phyllis was not interested, because she and Nicolas are not Catholic. She was told that would not be an issue.
So, Phyllis met with Pace administrators and that is where she learned about the Gardiner Scholarship provided by Step Up For Students for children with certain special needs.
She liked everything about the school and it’s a 1-to-14 teacher-student ratio. Nicolas would be placed in mainstream classes and the teachers would work with him as needed to ensure he would not fall behind.
Nicolas qualified for the Gardiner Scholarship and was accepted to Pace.
“That was phenomenal,” Phyllis said. “We were so excited there was something out there for him.”
Phyllis, like most parents, was a little apprehensive about her only child beginning high school.
Nicolas? He strode right in.
“The first time I felt so excited, but also a tiny bit nervous,” Nicolas said. “But after a few days I got used to it.”
It helped, Nicolas said, that he had Dr. Enrique Dominguez for freshman science.
Known as “Poppa D” to his students, Dominguez has a special skill for connecting with students. He and Nicolas connected instantly.
“I saw that beauty inside of him of being absolutely lovable, absolutely showing you that in the face of adversity he was going to do what he needed to do without any complaints,” Dominguez said.
Nicolas aced the class, and Poppa D nominated him for Student of the Year in Science.
“Dr. Dominguez always tells Nicolas how great he can be, and Nicolas comes home every day saying how great he feels,” Phyllis said. “As a mother, you’re grasping at straws to find the right school and then you find one, and we truly are blessed.”
There was never a question Nicolas would excel in the classroom. His grades were always above average. He has an insatiable thirst for knowledge with interests ranging from animals to cars to music and composers to anything to do with history.
His favorite composers are Mozart and Tchaikovsky. His favorite ballet is “The Nutcracker.”
He can play guitar and the keyboard, the banjo and the bongos. He loves to play Elvis Presley songs on the ukulele with “Hound Dog” and “Blue Suede Shoes” among his favorites.
He has a pet parrotlet named Kiwi that likes to sit on his shoulder.
He attends operas with his mom.
On most Saturdays, you can find Nicolas at the local library, where he feeds his curiosities by reading books for as long as six hours.
Whenever English teacher Jorge Rodriguez-Miralles sees Nicolas walking down the hall, he says, “Here comes literature’s greatest fan.”
“Nicolas,” Rodriguez-Miralles said, “is the only student I think I’ve ever had in a class who taught me something about literature, and I have an advanced degree in literature.”
It happened in freshman year when Rodriguez was teaching Greek and Roman mythology. Nicolas knew the backstory to the battle between Poseidon and Athena. Rodriguez-Miralles had not delved that far into the story. Nicolas had.
During Black History Month that same year, Rodriguez-Miralles was showing the movie “Selma” to the class. Music was playing in the background of one scene. Rodriguez-Miralles said it was hardly audible.
Nicolas heard it and said, “Beethoven, 5th Symphony, 3rd movement.”
Rodriguez-Miralles picked up his iPad and searched for Beethoven’s 5th Symphony, 3rd movement. What do you know?
“How many freshmen do you know that can spot correctly the third movement of the fifth symphony of Beethoven? Nic can,” Rodriguez-Miralles said.
The teacher went home, flipped through his music collection and found box set of Beethoven’s symphonies. He gave it to Nicolas the next day.
“Apparently, you’re Beethoven’s greatest fan, so now you can enjoy the symphonies complete,” Rodriguez-Miralles said.
It is easy for someone like Nicolas to remain inside his comfort zone, to save his bold moments for the classroom where learning is what he has mastered.
But to the surprise and delight of his mom and teachers, Nicolas slowly began to dip his toes in Pace’s social scene.
He joined the drama club and has appeared in a number of productions, including a few musicals that required him to sing in front of an auditorium filled with strangers. Not an easy task for most high school students.
His recent role of Sigmund Freud required him to speak with an Austrian accent, which, he nailed.
Homecoming is a big event at Pace with students coming to school dressed as that year’s theme. One year the theme was board games. Nicolas went to school dressed as the Monopoly Man, a picture of which appeared in the yearbook.
“Popular kids get to do that,” Phyllis said. “(At Pace) you are popular because you are a student.”
Nicolas saved his biggest breakout moment for this year’s Powder Puff game when he joined the fellas on the sidelined dressed as a cheerleader while the girls played football.
“He’s doing things that make him a little uncomfortable,” Principal Ana Garcia said, “but he’s not afraid to try, which is a wonderful thing.”
Nicolas had been asked in past years if he wanted to be a cheerleader. He did not.
“Before I thought I would feel all embarrassed inside,” Nicolas said.
Why this year?
“So, I realized I got to take action,” he said. “It’s now or never. I feel like inside I have to do it.”
And now …?
“It was pretty good, like great,” he said.
Phyllis believes her son’s growth scholastically and socially stems directly from Mrs. Garcia’s leadership.
“It has to be from her,” Phyllis said. “She has to say to her faculty, ‘This is something we believe in. We believe in our students.’ They really do.”
Mrs. Garcia, who said she is “humbled” to hear that, adding, “Here at the school the general population is very acceptant of kids with differences, and so it’s a great environment for kids who are a little bit different. Somehow, they all find a place where they are accepted, where they can excel, where they can grow and develop.”
Each day, after finishing his lunch, Nicolas walks over to the table where the teachers sit and says hello to each.
“Sometimes I feel like it makes them happy,” Nicolas said.
And he writes Christmas cards to his teachers.
Each year, Phyllis writes a letter to Mrs. Garcia thanking her for the work she and her staff do with Nicolas. Mrs. Garcia shares the letters with her staff and faculty at the beginning of each year.
“It’s very inspiring and very inspirational to start the year that way, because you start on a high,” Mrs. Garcia said.
It is Mrs. Garcia’s way of telling everyone that they do make a difference in the lives of each student.
“And we need to continue to do this,” Mrs. Garcia said, “because if we impact one or two kids like this, for heaven sakes, this is what we need to be doing.”
Nicolas had a recent homework assignment where he had to list some of the struggles in his life. He told his mom he could not think of any.
Phyllis reminded him that he falls under the Autism spectrum, that he has trouble making friends, that he was a late talker and that he had difficulty learning to write because he had difficulty learning to hold a pencil.
“He doesn’t see it as a negative or a struggle,” Phyllis said. “He struggled trying to find out what his challenges were.”
Dominguez said he often sees what he called “the courage of a lion” in his students who have Autism.
“He knows what he’s got, but to him, he’s not like, ‘Oh, I’m carrying this cross.’ No, no. he works through it,” Dominguez said. “He’s not oblivious to it, but to him it’s not a reason to stumble and to cry.
“He lives in such a beautiful world. I talk about Nic and I start getting a lump in my throat because I’m going to miss him a lot. He’s that special of a child.”
About Monsignor Edward Pace High
Opened in 1961, Monsignor Pace High or “Pace” is part of the Archdiocese of Miami. It serves 885 students, including more than 500 on Step Up For Student Scholarships. Pace is recognized as a National Blue Ribbon School of Excellence by the U.S. Department of Education. It was selected by the Catholic High School Honor Roll as one of the top 50 Catholic Schools in the nation. Pace students take the PSAT/ASPIRE in ninth and 10th grade, the PSAT/ACT in 11th and the AP test all four years. Annual tuition and fees for grades nine to 11 is $12,050 and $12,300 for grade 12.
Marketing Communications Manager Roger Mooney can be reached at email@example.com.
By JEFF BARLIS
TAMPA, Fla. – Two months after her son was diagnosed with autism, Laurie Guzman felt broken and defeated, exhausted from searching for the right school.
A scholarship made her whole, if only for a short time.
Ezra was a tall, slender 4-year-old when he and his mom took a tour of LiFT Academy, a private school in Seminole that serves children with special needs.
Meeting the school’s executive director, Ezra furrowed his brow and narrowed his deep brown eyes.
“I’m a bad boy,” he stated as a matter of fact, “so I know you won’t let me come here.”
Kim Kuruzovich, equal parts caring mother and wizened educator, was stunned.
“There are no bad children,” she said, her voice raising an octave. “What are you talking about?”
“Oh, no,” Ezra said, “my teacher told me that. I’m a bad boy. That’s why I got kicked out of school.”
Kuruzovich knelt down to meet Ezra’s gaze and put her hands on his shoulders.
“You are not a bad boy,” she said. “You’re a great boy.”
She turned to Laurie and insisted Ezra enroll, if for no other reason than to learn he’s not bad.
Instantly, Laurie felt a great dam of tension burst with relief. She knew LiFT was where Ezra needed to be.
“I cried on the way home,” Laurie said. “It was heartbreaking. That was the first time I had heard him say he was a bad boy. We don’t use that in our house, so I knew where it was coming from.”
Ezra was 2 when his father, Air Force Sgt. Luis Guzman-Castillo, got orders to move to MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa. Two years later, Ezra’s explosive meltdowns had left whole classrooms trembling in his wake. Laurie was told to find a new preschool.
The diagnosis followed, but it didn’t bring clarity or relief. Instead, raw fear galloped through every synapse of Laurie’s mind as she drove home from the doctor’s office in a daze.
“I knew nothing about anything with autism,” she said. “I didn’t know what to do, where to go, nothing.”
She knew that Ezra was bright and verbal at an early age. She and Luis taught him with flash cards when he was 6 months old.
Ezra was so sweet and charming. Laurie could get lost in his eyes in one moment and then watch storm clouds gather in another.
The meltdowns were devastating. Kicking, screaming, crying, and sometimes running.
“They’re about 45 minutes,” Laurie explained, “and I’d be melting down with him by the end.”
She quit her job as a bank branch manager to stay home with Ezra and his little brother, Elijah. Laurie’s sister, who had two sons with autism back in their home state of Alabama was helpful. But there was so much to learn, it was easy to feel overwhelmed and lonely.
LiFT Academy broke the spell.
One of the tenets of the school is that parents are the experts on their children, so engagement is high. Kuruzovich, who has a daughter with autism, has an inviting way of sharing 20-plus years of experience with parents who are just learning how to navigate this world.
She told Laurie about the Gardiner Scholarship, a state program that allows families with children who have special needs to pay for therapy, tuition and other education-related services of their choice.
“The Gardiner Scholarship literally changed our lives,” Laurie said. “It made it so we are actually able to breathe. It gave me hope that my son can get help and learn like every other kid. I didn’t know that was going to be possible.”
Ezra felt more comfortable right away. He made friends. One teacher wondered if he really had autism.
Just wait, Kuruzovich said.
“When we saw it, it was pretty big,” she said of the inevitable first meltdown. “But it’s not a negative.”
That was the biggest relief to Laurie, who used to lose sleep worrying Ezra would get kicked out the next time he knocked over a desk. But at LiFT, the teachers, administrators and his therapists all know how to avoid and defuse meltdowns.
One year later, Ezra is in first grade, studying at a second-grade level. He even represented the school recently when some business people came to visit, telling them: “I love this school because I’m really safe. I can be who I am. People like me here.”
With structures in place at school and a home, everything was going well. Laurie had a plan to go back to work.
Then Luis’ new orders came. They’re moving to Alabama in January.
“Ezra is about to experience the biggest transition of his life,” Laurie said. “And he doesn’t do well with transition anyway. His school is going to change. His friends are going to change. His support is going to change. All of that keeps me up at night.”
Laurie has family in Alabama, but there is no special needs scholarship. The school she found charges $8,000 for tuition – paid up front. It’s a price tag that would make any working-class family swoon.
A proposal in the U.S. House of Representatives to create education spending accounts for some military families would have helped the Guzmans, but the House Rules Committee did not include it for a vote in May.
Rather than panicking, Laurie feels herself rising to the challenge of helping to create a scholarship.
Now, she’s the one with marching orders.
“We were meant to come to Tampa,” she said. “We were meant to get the diagnosis. We were meant to come to LiFT. And I am meant to go to Alabama and make the difference I can make.”
“That’s my mission, to talk to people eye to eye and say what we need, what would help. I’ll say, ‘Look at a mother and a father who got a diagnosis that was completely devastating, thinking our lives were over. And they’re not.’ ”
Jeff Barlis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By GEOFF FOX
A three-classroom school tucked inside a church in south St. Petersburg, Florida, is proving that a learning institution doesn’t need a sprawling campus to become a beacon for families seeking educational options.
Mt. Moriah Christian Fundamental Academy was founded in 2011 by Pastor Robert Ward of Mt. Moriah Baptist Church.
That first year, there were only three sixth-grade students and one teacher, but it has grown steadily. It now serves sixth- through eighth-graders, and the staff has grown to three full-time teachers, three teacher’s assistants and Principal Shannon Dolly.
Because of our supporters, those students now have hope for a brighter future.
Dolly attributed Mt. Moriah’s growth to word-of-mouth testimonials among parents in the area.
“We also put up a sign out front a couple of years ago,” she said. “That alone has helped us a lot.”
Most students are from the south St. Petersburg area, although some travel from nearby Largo and Pinellas Park.
Dolly is happy that enrollment is increasing and ecstatic with how well her students are performing.
During the 2016-17 school year, the school opted into Step Up’s Measures of Academic Progress® (MAP®) assessment. With multiple tests a year, MAP® provides teachers with almost immediate results, allowing them to adjust their instruction to the needs of each student.
Dolly said the program has worked well and that reading scores at Mt.Moriah have significantly increased. Mt. Moriah graduates either attend a public school or transfer to a private high school.
Without our supporters, crucial innovations like MAP would not be possible.
“I work diligently with the eighth-grade parents to get their kids in the right school,” Dolly said. “We make sure they’re on a rigorous academic program. They don’t know it, but they work a grade ahead. When they go to high school, they already have an Algebra 1 or Spanish 1 credit, as long as they pass it here.”
Students like Tahjai Lassiter, 14, have thrived at Mt. Moriah. A student on the tax-credit scholarship program, Tahjai graduated from the school in June as its valedictorian with a 3.8 grade-point average. In 2017-18, she plans to attend Gibbs High School, a local public school, where she will be enrolled in the Beta program.
The Beta program blends business and technological skills into students’ academic courses. The program includes a “real world simulated business class where students use their critical thinking skills and hands-on curriculum to operate a business within the school,” according to the school’s website.
The program should offer plenty of challenges, but they are ones Tahjai has been well-prepared for at Mt. Moriah. In fact, the program should be an especially good fit for her.
“I want to own a couple of businesses locally,” she said of her future aspirations.
Zharia Stephens, 12, a rising eighth-grader, said she is also happy at Mt. Moriah. She is also a tax-credit scholar and previously attended a private elementary school.
Although she said science is her favorite subject, “because it’s easier,” Zharia aspires to someday become an attorney.
“Sometimes I like to argue,” she said.
Dolly nodded in agreement, saying, “She’s a great debater.”
Zharia added that television shows like “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” have helped stoke her passion for issues pertaining to crime and punishment.
Asked what she liked most about Mt. Moriah, Zharia didn’t hesitate to mention the staff.
“Because they love me,” she said with a grin.
Without our supporters, Zharia might have been lost in a sea of other students.
By GEOFF FOX
Missy Futrell and her husband Carl wanted nothing more than to raise a family of their own.
When they were still childless after 13 years of marriage, the Futrells began exploring adoption. It wasn’t a quick process. For a few years, the Jacksonville, Florida, couple viewed scores of profiles of children up for adoption and were interested in many. Every time, though, adoption coordinators didn’t think the match was right.
But the Futrells were persistent. Eventually, Missy Futrell saw a picture of an 18-month-old boy named Treston.
He wasn’t an “ordinary” baby. Besides being born with fetal alcohol syndrome, Treston – or “Trey” – was diagnosed with mosaic Down syndrome, a type of Down syndrome in which a percentage of a person’s cells have an extra copy of the 21st chromosome. Mosaic Down syndrome is extremely rare, affecting 2 to 4 percent of Down syndrome cases; about one in 27,000 people are diagnosed with it, according to the International Mosaic Down Syndrome Association.
Trey also has autistic tendencies, but none of that mattered to the Futrells.
“The adoption workers made it seem so bad; they said he may never walk, read or speak – and he would need lifelong care,” Missy Futrell said. “That seemed odd to me. They had nothing really positive to say about this child. We had had several miscarriages and if I was having a baby, I wouldn’t care (about the diagnoses). That’s my child.”
Carl, who helps manage a local funeral home, said the couple was equally resolute.
“They told us, ‘He’s not normal, do you still want him?’” he said. “Well, how do they know if we’re the ones who aren’t normal? What’s normal? The way somebody acts? Everybody acts differently. When you love somebody, you see them in a different way. If you love something, it’s 100 percent perfect for you.”
The Futrells adopted Trey in 2008 and despite Trey’s challenges, he thrived. The family was happy and Trey was growing up in a loving environment. The Futrells, who have been married 21 years, also recently adopted a 2-year-old girl, MaryBelle. They have also provided foster care for other children.
When it was time for Trey to begin school, Missy Futrell, who had worked in the recruiting and staffing field, decided to homeschool him through kindergarten and first grade.
A couple of years ago, the Futrells learned about the Gardiner Scholarship managed by Step Up For Students. The scholarship helps parents individualize the educational plans for their children with certain special needs, including autism, spina bifida, cerebral palsy and Down syndrome.
With the scholarship, parents can direct funds toward a combination of programs and approved providers, which may include schools, therapists, specialists, curriculum, technology and a college savings account. The average scholarship is worth $10,000. The Futrells applied for the scholarship and Trey was accepted.
Last year, Trey, who recently turned 10, went to second grade at a private school for children with learning disabilities or emotional issues.
It didn’t go well.
“Trey is an extremely trusting and sweet child,” Missy Futrell said. “He’s very quiet in public, and he is nervous around large crowds, new people and children. At home, he’s a lot more talkative, but he doesn’t talk much in social situations and can be awkward socially as well. He went (to the private school) all last year and made little progress academically. He also doesn’t interact with the others and was bullied. It just wasn’t a good fit for him.”
Thanks to the scholarship’s flexibility, Missy Futrell home-schooled him last year, as she was able to give him an environment that puts him at ease and the one-on-one attention he needs. Much of the scholarship money now goes toward curriculum, including online courses, and various technology, as Trey works much better with computers than pen and paper.
The family has used Step Up’s Purchase Assistance with Best Buy Education program, a partnership that allows Gardiner Scholarship parents to easily purchase items, many of which are pre-approved. Best Buy Education bills Step Up, which pays through the student’s scholarship account. Parents praise the program because many struggle to pay for all the care that comes with raising a child with special needs, so it can be tough to wait for reimbursements out of the scholarship account for big-ticket items.
“When I heard about Step Up’s Purchase Assistance with the Best Buy Education program, I jumped on it,” Missy Futrell said. “He really does so much better with technology. When he has to write, it could take him 45 minutes to an hour to do a 10-question worksheet, because he has to make each letter perfectly or he (gets frustrated). Through use of an iPad or computer, I can see more of what he’s able to do. With the technology, he clicks it or touches it and he just likes it so much better. I’ve heard that a lot of kids with special needs are like that.
“We use Time4Learning online courses that has all different subjects. We use it on his computer and his confidence is really growing. When he does something right, it tells him, ‘Wonderful!’ Or, if he’s wrong, it tells him in ways that don’t upset him. I can gauge where he is and what he knows. And there are so many apps on the iPad. I can take a picture of his worksheets and it converts them to where he can type in the letters rather than write them.”
Among other things, the family has also purchased a Phillips Hue Table Lamp and color ambiance kits. Whenever Trey starts getting overwhelmed by something, they switch the light on to a color that helps calm him.
Thanks to the Amazon Echo, which uses the voice-controlled service, Alexa, Trey can also listen to relaxing music when he needs to. Because the device is compatible with the Phillips Hue Lamp, it helps him understand his moods.
“If he’s upset, we tell (Alexa) to make the light angry and it turns red,” Missy Futrell said. “He can see in color what his current mood is. It makes him understand more what he’s feeling and if he’s mad, then he needs to relax. It helps identify his behavior and also helps the people around him.”
Carl Futrell described Step Up’s Purchase Assistance with the Best Buy Education program as blessings for which his family is grateful.
“In order to raise children with special needs, you have to have those who are willing to help,” he said. “These things we can outsource, it helps our family. It’s hard to make ends meet. You keep working and working and you get that income, but you miss that time being with your family.
“Now, he can call me on Facetime on his iPad and just say, ‘Dad, what are you doing?’ And I ask him how his day is going and if he’s being good for his mom. He’s usually playing with his stuffed animals – he loves monkeys. He pretends they’re the Ninja Turtles.”
For the Futrell family, this is their normal. And it’s the family they always dreamed about having, one connected by unconditional love.
Step Up For Students, a Florida-based nonprofit, empowers parents to pursue and engage in the most appropriate learning options for their children, with an emphasis on families who lack the financial resources to access these options. By pursuing this mission, Step Up For Students helps public education fulfill the promise of equal opportunity. In addition to the Gardiner Scholarship Program which helps parents customize the education of their children, ages 3 to 22, with certain special needs, Step Up For Students also administers the income-based Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program (FTC). With the FTC scholarship, economically disadvantaged parents of children in grades kindergarten through 12 are empowered to find the school – private or out-of-district public – that meets their child’s learning needs. Step Up For Students’ dedication, however, doesn’t end when students are awarded one of these scholarships. Through its Innovation Fund, Step Up helps maximize the impact of the scholarships by creating and enhancing education-based innovations that propel children toward a brighter future. To learn more about Step Up For Students, or to find out how you can help, please visit www.StepUpForStudents.org.
A COPY OF THE OFFICIAL REGISTRATION (CH-14609) AND FINANCIAL INFORMATION MAY BE OBTAINED FROM THE DIVISION OF CONSUMER SERVICES BY CALLING TOLL-FREE 1-800-435-7352 WITHIN THE STATE OR ON THEIR WEBSITE WWW.800HELPFLA.COM. REGISTRATION DOES NOT IMPLY ENDORSEMENT, APPROVAL, OR RECOMMENDATION BY THE STATE.
Geoff Fox can be reached at email@example.com.
BY GEOFF FOX
Nine years ago, Kamelia Martin was born perfectly healthy in Bulgaria. Yet, her adoptive mother, Christen Martin, said for years she was given a regimen of anti-seizure medication, tranquilizers and sedatives.
The circumstances made for a tough, turbulent adjustment after Martin and her husband, Mason Martin, adopted Kamelia two years ago.
“When an infant comes into the orphanage, they’re put in an isolation room where they learn their cries won’t get any attention,” Christen Martin said. “After they don’t cry, they get to come in the room with other children.
“They are treated like animals. They never experience the love of a father or mother. They’re put into a (drug-induced) stupor so they’ll be quiet and compliant.”
For Kamelia, the results were horrific.
By the time Martin and her husband, Mason Martin, adopted her from the orphange, she was diagnosed with institutional autism and her IQ was measured at 35, the low threshold for moderate intellectual disability.
Because she had been malnourished for so long, Kamelia’s head was too small for her body and her ankles were weak and misshapen; she could not walk until she was 3. When the Martins brought her home to Louisiana, where Mason Martin was stationed with the U.S. Air Force, she could hardly communicate or speak, even in Bulgarian.
None of that deterred the Martins, who had three young children of their own when they decided to adopt Kamelia, who they often call “Kami.” Christen Martin said the couple knew since they got married that “God was calling us to adopt.”
“It was a divine sequence of events,” Christen Martin said. “The Lord just weighed Bulgaria on my heart.”
When the Martins first saw a photo of Kamelia, they saw a small, scared, lonely-looking girl. The photo weighed on them. They knew they wanted to help.
“When we pulled her file to find out more about her, we discovered she was born on Mason’s birthday the year of our marriage,” Christen Martin said. “Many little details like this worked together to encourage us each step of the way that our family was right for Kami.”
After an adoption process that took the Martins several months and a couple of trips to Bulgaria, Kami came to live with them in 2014. The transition from living in a cold, unloving Bulgarian orphanage to life in an American home with parents and siblings was turbulent for both Kami and her new family, including brothers Ezekiel, 7, and Isaiah, 3, and sister Eden, 5.
At the time, Kami was 7. She didn’t know how to play and could barely communicate. And, after years of being administered unneeded medication, she endured withdrawal from the drugs when she came to live with the Martins.
“The Bulgarian orphanage staff gave us prescriptions for medications they truly believed she needed,” Christen Martin said. “We consulted with a Bulgarian psychiatrist and she encouraged us to get her off them gradually. The withdrawal was definitely intense. There was so much outrageous behavior already that we didn’t know what were withdrawal symptoms.
“There was a lot of screaming, thrashing, rolling, clawing and biting. She wasn’t given any tools for healthy or normal communication. If she was disappointed, she’d drop to the ground and roll, scream and writhe. She was definitely just driven by instincts every moment and ruled by them without self-control. What happens to a person when they’re never given any love is tragic.”
The Martins tried to brace their biological children for the ordeal.
“They responded amazingly. We prayed for her together,” Christen Martin said. “When the other kids witnessed the screaming and scary behavior, they were nervous and afraid and it was hard, but the other children learned from an early age about loving others and how truly ugly child abandonment is; it’s one of the worst things in the world. They realize this is why you have a family. We all need it. I think they’ve taught Kami more than Mason and I could. They taught her how to play and be a child.”
In 2015, the Martins moved to Orlando. By then, Mason Martin was out of the Air Force and working for Wycliffe Bible Translators, which focuses on translating the Bible into hundreds of languages.
Christen Martin homeschools her children, but she needed help with Kami. In Orlando, the family learned about the Gardiner Scholarship managed by Step Up For Students.
The Martins applied for the scholarship and Kami was accepted, due to her intellectual disability. They used the scholarship to hire Kathy Wood, an occupational therapist who has worked with Kami twice a week for about a year.
It was slow going, at first.
“I do in-home therapy and I met her with her family around her,” Wood said. “It’s nice to have that advantage because sometimes a clinic can add a whole level of distance. That said, Kami was very difficult to engage. I hate to say she was a feral child, but that’s a clear view of what it felt like. She had not had a lot of human contact.
“When she first arrived, there was still a lot of no eye contact and she would not tolerate being touched at all. She would not engage me in any way. She would turn her back on me and would not include me in her space – like an animal might do to protect itself or home.”
But Wood showed up consistently and slowly earned Kami’s trust. After a few weeks, Kami allowed Wood to perform reflex techniques that help train her body to adjust to life outside of a crib.
“We do basic exercises,” Wood said. “On her feet, I stimulate the tendons to increase walking ability, coordination and balance, even her emotions. I do cross-body reflexes, where you stimulate the bottom left foot and raise the right leg, cross it over the body and back down. Then, we do the other leg. You work both halves of the brain that way. It increases coordination and motor control.”
Kami has been speaking more lately, but there is much progress yet to be made. The family uses most of the scholarship money for occupational therapy, but it has also covered a trip to a pediatric eye doctor.
“She’s probably not very clear if you don’t know what she’s trying to say. Her thoughts are jumbled and she’s trying to figure out how to say things,” Wood said. “I’ve learned her language a little bit. The other day, she was telling me about a trip to the playground. She said, ‘Miss Kathy, swing at the playground, tic-tack, tic-tack, tic-tack.’ She was telling me about the trip to the playground and how she heard the swing going up and down.
“She’s wired differently than you and I; she is very in tune to sounds. She learned in that crib what was safe and not safe by sound. Her senses of sound, hearing and touch are all heightened because she didn’t get proper development.”
Simply being around the Martins has been crucial to Kami’s development, Wood said.
“Four or five months ago, I saw her imitating and playing pretend for the first time. She put a baby doll to bed with a blanket – it was appropriate play,” Wood said. “She had been playing with her sister and her sister taught her that. She wasn’t hitting the baby against the wall, it was very appropriate. She could mimic a loving gesture. She has the ability to understand sequence. That shows me she has tremendous ability to grow and thrive in many ways.
“I’m really excited for her potential. Last week, she looked at me, smiled warmly and said ‘Miss Kathy.’ We were playing a silly little game, but she connected with me in a genuine way.”
Mason Martin said he is encouraged by the progress Kami has made since she joined the family two years ago, but he understands there is still a lot of work to do. Like most parents, he wants his children to become happy, productive, self-sufficient adults.
“It’s been a lot of work for her and she’s never really been made to do that work before,” he said. “She needs somebody to spend time with her. It’s been exciting and a lot of difficult challenges on the way – some days more than others. The best way to describe it is she’s very resilient. As long as we don’t give up on her, she won’t give up. … She really needed somebody who wouldn’t give up on her. It’s been amazing to see.”
Christen Martin said Kami is on about the same social level as a preschooler, but is learning how to act appropriately around people. Academically, she has progressed a bit further.
“She longs for connection, but it takes time to understand how to relate to others in proper ways,” Christen Martin said. “She is in the pre-writing stage; she knows her colors, shapes, some animals and everyday objects. She’s working on forming letters and learning their sounds, and we do believe she will learn to read and write. We just don’t know what the timetable will look like.”
A licensed speech therapist, Stacey Thomas interned as a University of South Florida graduate student at Morning Star School, a small Catholic school in Pinellas Park serving students with special needs.
“When I was there, I knew that school was special,’’ Thomas said.
Years later, the wife and mother of three returned to Morning Star, but this time as a parent. Thomas’ eldest child, Liam, has Down syndrome. He longed to attend a school where he could do the things other kids did like sit at their own desk and eat lunch in the cafeteria with friends. But Liam needed special services like one-on-one instruction and speech therapy. Thomas, featured recently with Liam in our student spotlight, immediately thought of Morning Star.
She just wasn’t sure her family could afford tuition until Liam qualified for the Gardiner Scholarship, formerly Personal Learning Scholarship Accounts, through Step Up For Students. The annual scholarship, on average about $10,000 per student, is awarded to families based on their children’s certain disabilities and can help cover costs for tuition, curriculum, therapies and other education needs.
“It literally has been the hugest blessing,’’ said Thomas, who lives in Tampa with her husband, Trey, Liam, 9, and his two siblings, Sydney, 8, and Laine, 3.
With Liam making huge learning gains during his third-grade year at Morning Star, Thomas agreed to share with us her strategy on finding the school that worked best for him:
Do you have some words of wisdom to share with other parents and caregivers, or do you have an idea for a story? Please contact Sherri Ackerman, public relations manager, at sackerman@StepUpForStudents.org
By TRAVIS PILLOW, redefinED
Editor’s note: This story originally appeared on the redefinED blog on Jan. 21. The blog is hosted by Step Up For Students, and is an education blog dedicated to recasting the way we perceive public education.
With Gov. Rick Scott’s signature, Florida’s newest educational choice program has a new name, and will be able to serve more students.
Legislative leaders joined Gov. Rick Scott after he approved legislation aimed at helping people with special needs.
Flanked by Senate President Andy Gardiner and his family, House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, and the lawmakers who sponsored the legislation, Scott approved SB 672 on Jan. 21 during a ceremony in the governor’s office.
The new law increases funding for the Gardiner Scholarship program by roughly a third, to $71.2 million. It also allows more 3- and 4-year-olds to use the education savings accounts for students with special needs, and makes them available to children with muscular dystrophy and a wider range of students with autism.
The scholarships, previously known as Personal Learning Scholarship Accounts, allow families to pay for school tuition, therapy, curriculum and other education-related services of their choice. Step Up For Students, which hosts this blog, helps administer them.
Earlier in the day, Gardiner, whose family provides the namesake for the scholarships, praised another aspect of the law, which expands programs for special needs students at state universities. Scott also approved HB 7003, aimed at helping more special-needs students join the workforce.
In a statement, Gardiner said the new laws will help make Florida “the state where all people have access to an education suited to their own unique needs and the opportunity to achieve their career goals.”
“The complete cradle-to-career pathway to economic independence will make a significant impact on the lives of individuals with unique abilities and their families for generations to come,” he said.
Patricia Levesque, the executive director of the Foundation for Florida’s Future, said in a statement that the new laws never would have come about without advocacy from parents. (Gardiner has a son with Down syndrome.)
“It wasn’t all that long ago when students with disabilities were shunned in classrooms; their needs ignored and their abilities dismissed,” Levesque said. “Every time I see a child with unique abilities, behind him or her I see a parent with unique passion and commitment.”