By LISA A. DAVIS
On most Friday mornings 14-year-old Matthew Mezzei springs awake in the 5 o’clock hour, excited to start his school day. It’s the earliest he rises. His inner alarm clock alerts him to a special day in his family’s home in rural Pasco County:
“Fun Friday!” his mother, Lisa Mezzei, said. “It’s a reward at the end of a busy week.”
On this particular Friday, it’s 10 a.m., and Matthew, a bespectacled boy with a bright smile and a love for baseball, excitedly greets a visitor to his home in Zephyrhills. His house is also his classroom. The day’s schedule is laid out on the kitchen counter. It includes several educational centers such as science, math, reading and even an obstacle course for agility exercises. They use much of their home’s shared living space as a classroom, and Fun Friday consists of educational game centers rather than straight curriculum.
“Centers help me to remember,” Matthew said.
Matthew was born with Down syndrome. His education began at his neighborhood school where he had an Individualized Education Program, known as an IEP, which is essentially a guide for children with certain special needs to reach their educational goals more easily. Matthew was in a general classroom and had great support, but by first grade something changed.
“When he was 7, he started not understanding what was being asked of him on tests,” his mother recalled. “He kept saying he felt tricked, and he started withdrawing at school.”
That’s when Mezzei knew she had to do something, because her happy-go-lucky boy was now often sad. She began researching her options and realized private and charter schools were not a good fit for Matthew either. Then she discovered the Gardiner Scholarship for children with certain special needs managed by Step Up For Students. The scholarship program was new at that time. Home school seemed like the best option, and at an average of $10,000 per student annually to pay for curriculum and other approved learning tools, she added full-time teacher to her role. She decided it was best for her son to repeat first grade.
“Because of the Gardiner Scholarship, it wasn’t as daunting (to try home schooling),” she said. “The timing was so fortuitous. We had been wanting to withdraw him from the school, but we had no other options. At least the financial part wasn’t so scary.”
She used the scholarship to purchase learning aids for Matthew from places like Lakeshore Learning and Rainbow Resource. She bought science experiment kits, agility equipment, math games, chapter books, Handwriting Without Tears curriculum and more. They have used the funds for speech and occupational therapy.
Home schooling made all the difference, Mezzei said.
“Within six months, not only was his personality back, his confidence was back, and his love of learning was back,” she said.
He made great strides, and his reading comprehension increased substantially.
His occupational and speech therapists agree that Matthew, now a seventh grader has made great progress since being home-schooled.
“The Mezzei family is a therapist’s dream family,” said Kelly Partain, Matthew’s occupational therapist. “They truly take all recommendations to heart and actually implement them, which makes for excellent outcomes. Matthew continues to exceed his goals as he has an excellent attitude and works hard every day at home while being home-schooled, at therapy, or on the ball field.”
Added his speech therapist, Lindsey Leeson, who works at the same clinic as Partain, “He has a big heart and is always looking to help other kids in our clinic and tells us how much he loves and appreciates us every session. “He’s a gem.”
Like most things, his therapy sessions moved online in March, but he continues to make strides.
Matthew’s speech is often hard to understand for those who first meet him, but his glowing personality and love of learning come shining through.
“This scholarship is life-changing and allows us to educate Matthew to the fullest extent of his abilities,” Mezzei said. “Our biggest hope is for him to be happy and successful in life, and as you know, we believe unequivocally this is his best path. … Matthew is so proud of what he learns and knows.”
Lisa A. Davis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Editor’s note: This story was originally posted on June 28, 2018. We are taking a look back at some of our scholarship stories from the past. Valentina Guerrero continues to thrive using the Gardiner Scholarship. To sign up for our philanthropic newsletter, please click here.
By DAVID HUDSON TUTHILL
Her name means “Brave Warrior” in Spanish.
That might not conjure up the image of a 6-year-old girl with blonde hair, glasses and a smile so bright she became the first person with Down syndrome to become a main model for a major fashion brand.
But, Valentina Guerrero always defies expectations.
The oldest child of Cecilia Elizalde and Juan Fernando Guerrero, Valentina was born Sept. 16, 2011. Her parents didn’t learn Valentina had Down syndrome until after her birth. Each year, roughly 6,000 children in the U.S. are born with the genetic condition according to the Centers for Disease Control.
A Gardiner Scholarship for children with certain special needs has helped Valentina shatter incorrect assumptions many people make about people with Down syndrome. Step Up For Students helps manage the scholarship.
“I realized how incredible individuals with Down syndrome are,” Elizalde said. “They’re so evolved on a spiritual level, and we have so much to learn from them. But we don’t hear enough of that. We hear outdated comments about their potential. I wanted to help change that perception.”
The family, including younger brother Oliver, 3, lives in Miami. Other family members remain in their native Ecuador.
Valentina was a few months old when her parents realized some of the challenges she could face. They soon had her working with occupational, physical and speech therapists.
Adriana Tilley, an occupational therapist with 33 years of experience, has been working with Valentina since she was a baby. Tilley says Elizalde and Guerrero are deeply involved with their daughter’s care, which has had a huge influence on her development. The Gardiner Scholarship helps pay for the care.
“The parents have been incredible and a huge member of the team,” Tilley says. “Valentina is like any other kid, with some limitations. But, we all have limitations.”
Tilley’s six years of work with Valentina have helped the child make tremendous strides in her personality. She constantly is asking how other people are feeling. Tilley marvels at the young woman she’s helped nurture over the past six years.
“She’s met all her milestones and is doing great,” Tilley says. “Now she is learning how to do everything by herself. I’ve loved working with her and learning from her family.”
Even as a baby, Valentina began shattering stereotypes.
She was 9 months old when she began taking the modeling world by storm. Family connections led her to European fashion designer Dolores Cortés. By 2013, she was the main model for the company’s children collection DC Kids USA 2013. In the ensuing years, Valentina has been featured in a plethora of media outlets, including People Magazine, Down Syndrome World and MTV Tres. She also has modeled for brands such as Walmart, GAP, Toys R Us and Carter’s, the children’s clothing company.
Her accomplishments resonated as far away as her family’s native Ecuador – to the extent that the country’s former vice president, Lenin Moreno, wrote Valentina a letter, calling her an inspiration. Moreno is now Ecuador’s President.
“We didn’t take the fame too seriously,” says Elizalde, a former television producer, consultant and music show host on the Spanish-language PBS station V-me. “I saw it as a platform for us to communicate an important message. It was a little hectic having to go from therapies to having cameras all over. It was kind of surreal.”
Social media has played a major role in Valentina’s fame. Thanks to her mother, there are countless photos and videos across Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube, documenting her life and various activities.
Elizalde also recently began a Spanish language parenting channel on YouTube. She hopes to pass on to other families some of the techniques and therapies that have most helped her family.
She is a firm believer in the adage that it takes a village to raise a child such as Valentina, which is why the family feels so fortunate to be able to choose the right educational path for her.
Valentina enrolled in a three-year pre-K class at Morningside K-8 Academy in Miami. By her third year, she was in class with over 20 kids, one teacher, and an aid. Despite the class size, and with Valentina the only child in class with Down syndrome, the school was largely successful in meeting her needs. When Kindergarten rolled around however, the family toured different school options.
Elizalde was worried about finding the right setting to meet Valentina’s needs. A friend recommended the family check out Von Wedel Montessori School in Miami. As soon as the family walked in, they knew they had found the perfect place for Valentina and her brother, Oliver.
At Von Wedel, the family creates an Individualized Education Plan, or IEP, in conjunction with the principal, teachers and with input from Tilley. Valentina thrives in that setting, and Elizalde loves the philosophy of Montessori – to allow children to develop at their own unique pace, to work independently, and embrace the joy of self-discovery.
“None of her peers notice her disability,” Elizalde says. “They acknowledge that we are all different. It’s a really beautiful environment for her.”
A typical week for Valentina is full of activities. On Monday, there’s swimming lessons after school lets out at 3 p.m. She has occupational and speech therapies on Tuesday. On Wednesday, it’s ballet class. By Thursday, she’s back in the pool. Friday is usually a day to relax and spend time with some of her friends or fit in a modeling gig. Valentina loves going to the playground and to different museums. There is also a standing weekly Friday night dinner with family.
Valentina says she wants to be a chef when she grows up. She likes to play with her kitchen set. Her mother sees a different path, however. She thinks Valentina is a natural teacher.
Nearly every day at home, Valentina lines up her stuffed animals and reads to them and leads them in a class. The process goes on for a couple hours. Her younger brother Oliver is the only non-stuffed attendee, and she has helped him learn to speak English.
Six years old and with a life so fast paced, it’s hard to imagine the higher levels Valentina Guerrero will reach. With the help of her school, the boundless energy of her mother, and their family’s mission to spread positivity about individuals with Down syndrome, her capacity is endless.
“She’s a warrior,” Elizalde says. “When she has a goal, she fights for it and achieves it.”
Visit Cecilia Elizalde’s YouTube Channel.
David Hudson Tuthill can be reached at email@example.com.
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