School choice scholarship helps Orlando graduate literally soar


As a boy, Orlando Rivera dreamed of being a pilot.

He grew up in the shadow of Orlando International Airport, staring up at planes from his backyard. By age 6 he could pick out airline logos. At 7, he could ID manufacturers and models. He even found an amazing school for pilots just an hour away. But when Orlando learned what it takes to get into the school, his dream took a nosedive.

“I started looking at the financial requirements and grade requirements and I was like, ‘Yeah, I’m not going to make it,’ ” he said. “My mom is disabled. My father was in prison. So I was like, ‘I don’t have any help. This is not going to happen.’ ”

Orlando Rivera flies a Cessna 172 as he trains for his pilot’s license.

Orlando Rivera flies a Cessna 172 as he trains for his pilot’s license.

Years later, though, a scholarship – and a little opportunity – put Orlando’s dream back into flight.

A passion for aviation runs through Orlando’s family. His uncle wanted to be a pilot but didn’t have good-enough vision. His mom wanted to be a flight attendant but didn’t pursue it when she started a family in her early 20s.

Shortly after Orlando was born, a stroke left her disabled. “My dream,” she said, “lives on in my son.”

When Orlando was 7, Uncle Manny gave him Microsoft Flight Simulator 2004. Orlando played every day, sitting at his little computer desk with a joystick and throttle.

“I’d pretend I was flying a Jet Blue plane across the world,” he said.

Around that time his father, Jose, went to prison. Airplanes became a way to escape the feelings of loss. He asked his mom to take him to the airport, where they’d sit by a fence and watch planes for hours.

“He would drive me crazy,” Deborah DeJesus recalled. “I’d say, ‘It’s hot. I’m tired. Let’s go,’ and he would say, ‘One more. Just one more!’ ”

Orlando had his mother, older sister and grandparents at home, but rarely visited his father in prison. His mom didn’t want him exposed to that environment. But at school, Orlando was starting to drift toward trouble.

He found himself slacking off and falling in with a group everyone called “the little hoodlums of the school.” During his junior year of high school, his grades dropped to nearly failing.

He realized he was heading down his father’s path.

“My father told me stories about what he used to do in the hood with his friends,” Orlando said. “The drinking, the partying. You know, once you get into that you never really get out. I never wanted to be that guy, but you can see the little things that lead to someone making the wrong decision or getting arrested one day.”

“That’s when Heritage came along.”

Through an after-school basketball program, Orlando met a teacher at Heritage Christian School named Joseph Nieves. They forged an easy bond, and soon Orlando was confiding his fears he wouldn’t graduate.

“I think he knew my love and my wanting to help him was genuine,” Nieves said. “At this point in his life he was really missing his dad and really, really struggling.”

Nieves offered a way out. Orlando and his mother visited Heritage and came away impressed. With brick facades forming a grand entrance, the school is spacious and clean, across the street from the Osceola campus of Valencia College.

DeJesus, who lives on a fixed income, didn’t think they could afford it. But thanks to a Florida tax credit scholarship, and a little help from Orlando’s grandparents, they could. (Step Up For Students, which publishes this blog, helps administer the tax credit scholarship.)

Going to Heritage, Orlando said, was the way to turn his life around.

From Day One, it was very different. Unlike his neighborhood school, he spent every day with the same classmates. Their closeness, work ethic and maturity impressed and motivated him.

“The teachers cared for me and made sure I stayed on top of my work,” he said. “That was something I was never used to. At (my previous school) I would go to class, not do the homework and not care.”

The academics were more rigorous, with every class at an honors level. And Nieves was there to guide him, becoming the father figure he needed.

Orlando Rivera sees himself piloting passenger jets one day.

The dream began to pulse again, including visions of that school for pilots he discovered as a boy: Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona.

Back then it felt so out of reach. But now …

On a cold evening last February, Orlando went to the mailbox and pulled out a yellow envelope with the Embry-Riddle address on it. He jumped up and down all the way to the dinner table so he could open it with his family.

The letter inside said he had been accepted.

“If it wasn’t for Heritage or Step Up For Students I would not be here,” he said. “Heritage made me into a man. They changed me into someone I never thought I’d become.”

Orlando graduated in May, holding back tears as he stepped onto the stage with his family in the crowd. His father, recently released from prison, had missed 10 years of his life but was there for this.

Today, Orlando is a freshman at Embry-Riddle, studying aeronautical science on the airline pilot specialty track. Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, he flies a four-seat Cessna.

“The dream already came true – I’m here,” he said. “It’s a surreal feeling. I wake up every day and remind myself I go to Embry-Riddle.”

“The sky is the limit is what everybody says. But when you’re a pilot, there is no limit.”

About Heritage Christian School

Opened in 1974, the school is affiliated with Bible Baptist Church of Kissimmee and is accredited by the Florida Coalition of Christian Private Schools Association (FCCPSA) and AdvancED. There are 582 K-12 students, including 419 on Step Up scholarships. Every teacher uses an iPad in the classroom, and students in grades 9-11 have the option to use digital textbooks. The school uses the A Beka Book curriculum and administers the Stanford Achievement Test annually. Tuition is $4,950 annually for K-6 and $5,550 for 7-12 with tuition assistance available.

Jeff Barlis can be reached at

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