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Brave warrior, inspiring model flourishes with scholarship

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.

Born with Down syndrome, Valentina Guerrero, started modeling at 9 months old.

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 We hear outdated comments about their potential.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.

A Gardiner Scholarship for children with certain special needs has helped Valentina Guerreno shatter incorrect assumptions many people make about people with Down syndrome.

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 dhudson@sufs.org.

Step Up manages 5 education choice scholarships: Which one do you qualify for?

By Roger Mooney

The collapse of the real estate market in 2008 signaled the crumbling of the luxurious lifestyle for Helen and Frank Figueredo, who owned a real estate firm in Miami.

The recession cost them everything: Their business. Their savings. Their house. They filed for bankruptcy twice and ended up in foreclosure. They sold nearly all their possessions to make ends meet.

Jonas and Jack Figueredo

One thing that was nonnegotiable for the Figueredos was a  private education for their two sons: Jonas and Jack.

They needed financial help to make that work, and that’s where Step Up For Students came into play.

Step Up manages five scholarships that provide K through 12 education choices to students from lower-income families, those with certain special needs, students who have been bullied at a public school and struggling readers in public school in grades three through five.

A parent or guardian might ask: What scholarship do I qualify for?

Well, let’s take a look using these examples.

Scholarships for children from lower-income families

The Figueredos were eligible for a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, one of two income-based scholarships managed by Step Up. The other is the Family Empowerment Scholarships. Both scholarships are based on a family’s financial need, and both give families a choice to find a new learning environment for their child.

Parents use a single application for the scholarships and Step Up determines eligibility for either the tax-credit scholarship or the newer Family Empowerment Scholarship.

In the case of the Figueredos, it was the Westwood Christian School, a private pre-K through 12 school near their Miami home. Both boys entered when they were eligible for pre-K. Jonas recently graduated from the private school near the top of his class with a scholarship to the University of Miami. Jack just completed his sophomore year and is following in his brother’s academic footsteps.

Scholarships for children with certain special needs

Phyllis Ratliff worried about her son Nicolas.

Diagnosed with high-functioning autism at age three, Nicholas was nearing the end of the eighth grade. It was time for Phyllis to search for a high school that could accommodate her son’s needs.

Nicolas Ratliff-Batista and Kiwi relaxing at home.

She feared that the large neighborhood high school would present a threatening environment, that Nicholas would be an easy target for bullies. She worried that Nicholas would be intimidated by the large class sizes.

A friend told her about Monsignor Pace High School, located in Miami Lakes, 10 miles from their home. Upon visiting the school, Phyliss learned of the Gardiner Scholarship, which allows parents to personalize the education of their pre-K through 12 children with certain special needs by directing money toward a combination of approved programs and providers. (A list of special needs covered by the Gardiner Scholarship is found here under “eligibility requirements.”)

The Gardiner Scholarship helped cover the tuition at Pace.

Phyllis was relieved.

“That was phenomenal,” Phyllis said. “We were so excited there was something out there for him.”

Nicolas graduated with honors and recently finished his first year at Broward College, where he is studying environmental science.

Scholarship for students who have been bullied

Jordyn Simmons-Outland had been a target of bullies in his public school since the second grade. The physical and emotional toll over the next two years was so intense that Jordyn told his grandparents that he wished he were dead. He began to see a therapist.

Jordyn Simmons-Outland

In 2018, the Florida Legislature created the Hope Scholarship to give relief for K-12 public school children from bullying and violence. The program provides families with financial assistance to send a child to an eligible private school, or to transport him to a public school in another district.

Jordyn was the first-ever recipient of the Hope Scholarship. He began attending Lakeview Christian School in Lake Placid, Florida as a fifth grader in the fall of 2018.

“Hope is the best description (for the scholarship). I keep thinking ‘There is hope, there is hope, there is hope,’” said Cathy Simmons, Jordyn’s grandmother. “I can’t wait to tell everyone what a blessing the Hope Scholarship has been. Now there’s peace.”

Scholarship for students struggling to read

In third grade, Kiersten Covic’s reading score on the Florida Standards Assessments (FSA) was high enough where it signaled that she would likely excel in English Language Arts the following school year.

Instead, her grade plummeted to “below satisfactory.”

It wasn’t the only thing that plunged. So did her confidence.

Kiersten Covic

Fortunately, her mother, Kelly Covic, learned about the Reading Scholarship Accounts managed by Step Up For Students that could help pay for a reading program called ENCORE! Reading at Kiersten’s school, Dayspring Academy.

In 2018, Florida lawmakers created the reading scholarship to help public school students in third through fifth grade who struggle with reading. The program offers parents access to Education Savings Accounts, worth $500 each, to pay for tuition and fees for approved part-time tutoring, summer and after-school literacy programs, instructional materials and curriculum related to reading or literacy.

Third through fifth grade public school students who scored a 1 or 2 on the third or fourth grade English Language Arts (ELA) section of the Florida Standards Assessments in the prior year are eligible. (Due to COVID-19, the reading portion of the test was canceled. The Florida Department of Education is assessing eligibility requirements for the 2020-21 school year.)

With a score of 2 on the English Language Arts section of the test, Kiersten qualified. Her mother applied for the scholarship, was approved and enrolled Kiersten into the program at the A-rated public charter school in New Port Richey during the 2018-19 school year.

The program was enough to boost her reading grade on the state test to a 3, a perfectly acceptable grade to put her back on track for success.

“We were really, really thrilled and relieved,” said her mom.

Again, to learn more about the Step Up scholarships, click here. To read more stories about how those scholarships impact the lives of the
Step Up scholars, click here.

Roger Mooney, marketing communications manager, can be reached at rmooney@sufs.org.

A Virtual Pomp and Circumstance: Step Up celebrates Class of 2020

By LISA A. DAVIS

Hundreds of parents, guardians, students, and teachers joined Step Up For Students online May 21 to recognize the resilient senior Class of 2020 in a time when COVID-19 has added the new term social distancing to everyday vocabulary and canceled in-person milestone events.

The recorded virtual senior celebration can be viewed online here.

In their final two months of their high school careers, students nationwide had to finish their education virtually as stay-at-home orders shuttered school buildings, on March 16 in Florida. High school seniors perhaps felt the impact most, with senior events like prom and graduation being canceled or moved to drive-by parades and virtual celebrations. Soon after typical everyday life came to a halt, Step Up staff began planning the special online event for scholarship seniors.

“High school graduation is a time to celebrate the achievement of Florida’s young men and women and the current pandemic won’t stop us from recognizing the achievements of these special students,” said Doug Tuthill, president of Step Up.

Step Up For Students, a Florida-based nonprofit scholarship funding organization, manages the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship and Family Empower Scholarship for lower-income families, the Gardiner Scholarship for children with certain special needs, the Hope Scholarship for children who are bullied in public schools and the Reading Scholarship Accounts. For the 2019-20 school year, Step Up served more than 130,000 students, including 4,445 seniors.

Florida Tax Credit scholar Gabriella Bueno
of Boca Christian School.

Tuthill, Step Up Founder and Chairman John Kirtley, and corporate donor representatives addressed the Class of 2020 during the event. The Rev. Robert Ward of Mount Moriah Missionary Baptist Church in St. Petersburg gave the invocation.

 State lawmakers congratulated the class of 2020 as well.

“Even though you’ve gone through strange times and faced many obstacles,” Sen. Manny Diaz, who serves as the Senate Committee on Education chair, said to the graduating seniors, “We are here today to give you a graduation message, and that is congratulations for your hard work.”

Added Rep. Susan Valdes, “Best of luck to you and go get them, Class of 2020. I know that our future is much brighter because of you.”

Paul Shoukry, a Step Up advisory board member and CFO for Raymond James Financial, a founding donor of Step Up’s Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program, was one of several donor representatives who spoke during the 30-minute event.

“Continue investing in yourself, as this is an important step in a long and successful journey. Congratulations,” he said.

Step Up selected two scholarship students to address their peers.

Florida Tax Credit scholar Gabriella Bueno, of Boca Christian School, credited her scholarship with helping her get the education she needed to set her on a path to become a pharmacist.

Gardiner scholar Ryan Sleboda of Pace Brantley School in Longwood.

“I have much to be grateful for and I would personally like to thank Step Up, the lawmakers who believe in education choice and the donor who support it. You have all allowed me to attend what I believe has been the best school for me and has helped shaped me into the person I am today.”

Gardiner scholar Ryan Sleboda, also shared his journey with autism, not being able to speak until the age of 7, and with the help of a scholarship graduating as the class valedictorian in unprecedented times.

“Who would have imagined this is the way our senior year would end,” said, Ryan Sleboda, a Gardiner Scholarship student and valedictorian from the Pace Brantley School in Longwood, Fla. “Class of 2020, let’s go forth and resume this incredible journey!”

Kirtley, Step Up’s founder, closed out the event, saying success should not be measured by the norm.

“Be conscious of what scoreboard you are using to measure yourself. I know mine has changed. Pursue those things that can be measured for sure — those grades, that college admission, that job, that raise, that promotion. But don’t forget to measure yourself by things that have no numbers or figures,” he said and continued telling a story about a cab that drove by him in New York City advertising the Broadway musical Rent, with the words “Measure your life in love.”

“Well that sign stopped me in my tracks,” he said. “And I realized right then that I needed to worry less about measuring my life in numbers, in figures, and maybe take the advice on that sign. And it took me a few more years to understand that it’s much more important to measure the love that you give, rather than the love that you receive.

“One of the ways that I measure the love that I give is what I do everyday to empower parents to choose the best education for their kids, and knowing that you are today are graduating is all the love I need in return and knowing that you will put that education to work in these interesting times.”

Lisa A. Davis can be reached at ldavis@sufs.org.

Adopting special needs children turned the Cogan family into a Krewe

By ROGER MOONEY

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – There were more children like Karwen back in her native China, born with clubfoot and unable to walk. Some who would never take a first step.

At the orphanage where she had lived from an infant on, Karwen was surrounded by other children with special needs, covering the spectrum from mild to severe. Most of them did not get the attention they needed and deserved. But Karwen was one of the lucky ones.

In 2012 when she was 8, Karwen was adopted by an American couple, Keely and Nick Cogan. Her new life was transformative. In addition to having loving parents, she now had two sisters and a brother. With their help, she quickly learned to speak English. Her medical needs were promptly addressed. Eventually, she learned to walk.

The transition, said her father, Nick, “was atypically easy for her.”

The Cogan Krewe

But, as Karwen blended into her new family, she couldn’t shake memories of the children left behind, those who were headed for lives as outcasts. In her homeland, those with special needs are alienated.

Orphans may never know the love of a mother’s hug. May never roll their eyes at a dad’s joke. May never share a secret with a sister.

“After I came home it was nice, and I wanted to go and help bring somebody else home,” said Karwen, now 15.

So, while helping with the dishes one night, six months after her adoption, Karwen asked her parents if they could adopt again.

“I think we can be a family for at least one more,” she told her parents.

One more? Keely and Nick knew before they came home with Karwen they would return to China to adopt another child with special needs. But “one more” child became two when the Cogans adopted sons Kai and Kade. Three years later, daughter Kassi joined the family. They also have special needs and all four children use the Gardiner Scholarship, managed by Step Up For Students.

Today, the Cogans are a family of nine that’s soon to be a family of 11 when the adoptions of two children from the Ukraine are completed this spring.

Karwen Cogan

“It’s easier than you would imagine,” Nick said of his growing family.

The daily workings of the Cogan family can be a grind at times, he said, just as they are for any large family. But the emotional part?

“Connecting to them as a family and trying to understand the struggles they have, I found that the easiest part,” Nick said.

Added Keely, “People say, ‘Oh you guys are so great,’ or, ‘What an amazing thing to do.’ The downright truth of it is we probably get the better end of the bargain because we look at the world so much different.

“My kids learned that it doesn’t matter where your brothers and sister come from. Someone can just come into your family and be a brother and sister and the world just got so much smaller.”

How one became four

Keely and Nick had three biological children– daughters Kenley and Kolya and son Kellin – when they decided to adopt. They learned of children in China who were left at orphanages because they were born with a special need.

Love Without Boundaries, an international charity that aids in the adoption of orphans, estimates that 750,000 Chinese children live in orphanages, with 98% of them having a special need.

“In China, physical differences are a major barrier, especially (for) children in orphanages,” Nick said.

Kade and Kai.

“(Special needs are) considered unlucky,” Keely said. “Unlucky to the point of being contagious.”

Keely, a pediatric nurse, said she was not intimidated by the thought of adopting a child with special needs.

“It didn’t worry me,” she said.

Nick, a math professor at Florida State University, and Keely knew their biological children would be accepting and patient with their new siblings.

Karwen was first. She has arthrogryposis, the condition that results in a congenital joint contracture of two joints. She did have surgery in China but used a wheelchair. She had more surgeries after her adoption and can now walk on her own.

“I can do a lot more things now than I would have been able to do (in China),” Karwen said.

And about that request made shortly after joining the family? Keely and Nick already knew about Kai, who has cerebral palsy, and began the adoption process in 2013. That’s when they learned about Kade, who also has arthrogryposis. His condition is limb immobilization. He cannot bend his knees.

So, Keely thought, what’s one more child?

The transition for the boys was not as smooth as it was for their sister.

Kade didn’t know how to be held, because contact with adults in Chinese orphanages is limited to prevent the formation of a bond that might someday be broken if the child is adopted.

Kassi before the procedures to correct her clubfoot.

Kade would stiffen when Keely tried to hold him. He also cried himself to sleep each night, sometimes for as long as five hours. Keely said it took nearly six months for Kade to accept being in his mother’s arms.

It wasn’t long after adopting the first three when Keely and Nick found themselves working as advocates for orphans in China. That’s how they met Kassi in 2016.

Kassi, who has cerebral palsy, was nearing her 14th birthday, the deadline for a child in China to be adopted. Once they turn 14, those who are employable are given jobs. Those who are not, continue to live in institutions, Nick said.

“We felt like we were set up for this need,” Keely said. “It wouldn’t be a hardship for us, so we stepped forward and home she came three days before she aged out. If we got there three days later there would be nothing we could do.”

Kassi, now 17, was also born with clubfoot, which is a complication associated with CP. She actually learned to walk on her ankle bones, though mostly moved around on her knees. After her adoption, she underwent a series of castings that stretched the muscles in her feet and ankles. She walks today with the aid of her forearm crutches. Though she has a walker, she rarely uses it.

The Gardiner Scholarship at work

All the children are currently homeschooled, but over the years some have received physical, occupational and speech therapy, and some have used tuition assistance. Each child had unique needs.

Kai with the cigar box guitar that he built and is learning to play.

For instance, Karwen, her hands are locked in a downward position because of her arthrogryposis, has a custom keyboard for her computer and special grips to hold pencils and pens.

Kade, 8, attended a small private school for two years. He stopped this year because construction at the school made it tough for him to walk around the campus. He plans on returning next year.

The children came to America with not much of a formal education.

That posed a problem. The district schools didn’t know where to place them.

Keely said the district wanted to put Kai in middle school. That would not be fair to a student without the foundation of an elementary school educational who is also trying to learn English.

The answer was homeschooling. This way Keely and Nick could place their children in education-appropriate settings.

An adoption advocate

Kenley, the Cogan’s eldest biological child and a student at Tallahassee Community College who is pursuing a career in art therapy, works for two nonprofits that advocate for international adoption. She has traveled to China and Ukraine to assist families during the adoption process. She is conversational in Mandarin and is learning to speak Russian.

Kade playing his ukulele.

Kenley said it is “agonizing” to visit a Chinese orphanage and see rooms filled with children lying in rows of cribs, devoid of human contact and staring aimlessly.

“It just kills you to look at them and wonder what their potential could be if they had a family,” she said. “You want to hug them and take them home.”

Kenley said she knew when Karwen came home that adoption would be a major part of her life. She expects someday to adopt a child with special needs from China or Ukraine.

“That’s where my heart is,” she said.

Big and getting bigger

They refer to themselves as the Cogan Krewe.

They drive around in a 15-passenger Ford Transit Van, which they have nicknamed “Moby” because it is large and white.

It is a sight to see the family file out of the van.

“Like an airport shuttle bus,” Nick said.

“It’s a spectacle,” Kenley said.

Even when loaded with the full Krewe, there is room for a few more passengers. That’s good, because they expect to soon finalize the adoption of Sasha, 16, and Vova, 14, a brother and sister from Ukraine, who do not have special needs.

What? No ‘K’ names?

They will have that option, Keely said.

What began with the biological children has continued to those who were adopted.

Karwen and Kassi.

When Karwen joined the family, she was given the choice of keeping her Chinese name or choosing and American name. She picked American.

“And she wanted it to begin with K to be inclusive,” Keely said.

The next three were given the same option. Obviously, they opted for a name beginning with the letter K.

The kids joke that Nick should spell his name “Knick.” He even signs Knick on the family Christmas cards.

“Wouldn’t want to leave anyone out,” Keely said.

Roger Mooney, marketing communications manager, can be reached at rmooney@sufs.org.

The many puzzle pieces that tell the story of Ryan Sleboda

By ROGER MOONEY

If it were any other spring but this one, Ryan Sleboda would stand in front of the graduates at the Pace Brantley School and, as valedictorian, would deliver his speech.

Ryan would tell the room filled with students and their families, teachers and administrators about living on the autism spectrum and how it shaped his life.

To illustrate his points, Ryan would hold a piece from a puzzle – the autism symbol.

One puzzle piece for his family. One for his friends. One for his teachers. Put them together and you see a picture forming of Ryan Sleboda.

“It’s going to bring people to tears,” Ryan, 19, said.

Ryan Sleboda breaks three concrete tiles to earn his third-degree black belt in taekwondo.

He hopes the visual has the same impact when viewed remotely. Since this is the age of the coronavirus, Pace Brantley’s 2020 graduation will be held virtually.

Disappointing, for sure, but not enough to damper Ryan’s enthusiasm for his graduation. Nothing really dampers his enthusiasm for anything.

“Ryan simply has a zest for life,” his mother, Susan, said.

That zest began to emerge when Ryan was 13. He joined a taekwondo class and developed self-confidence and a knack for leadership. It exploded two years later when Ryan attended Pace Brantley in Longwood, Florida as a ninth grader with the help of a Gardiner Scholarship managed by Step Up For Students.

The Gardiner Scholarship is for students with certain special needs.

During the 2019-20 school year, 13,035 schoolchildren received a Gardiner Scholarship, including 8,097 who are on the autism spectrum. 

Susan and her husband Bill, who live in nearby Sanford, wanted to send Ryan to Pace Brantley for high school. Brantley is a grade 1 through 12 private school that specializes in teaching students who need individualized attention.

Susan said she knew the school would challenge Ryan both academically and socially. With the Gardiner Scholarship covering most of the cost of tuition, Susan said she and Bill could use other funds to pay for Ryan’s medical expenses and social activities, like taekwondo and a dance program.

Those are also pieces to the Ryan Sleboda puzzle. There are more. Many more.

You can add his attempts at playing soccer, baseball, basketball and swimming as a youngster, because Ryan’s inability to take to those sports is what led him to taekwondo.

And it was in taekwondo where Ryan began to find Ryan.

“It was,” Susan said. “Ryan had had many difficulties behaviorally and socially. Ryan had a lot of difficulty regulating his behavior. He didn’t speak until he was 7.

“He had a very difficult time. Kids could be mean, and some kids knew which buttons to push to get Ryan to explode, and he could be very explosive back then.”

Yet Ryan found a calmness in taekwondo, a martial art that emphasizes jumping, spinning and kicking.

Susan and Bill took him to Breaking Barriers Martial Arts in Sanford, which trains children with special needs.

“It was kids with disabilities helping others with disabilities,” Susan said. “Ryan took to it quickly.”

Why?

“I got more energy,” he said, “being more active and communicating with others, being around other people, and definitely the ability to be a leader.”

And confidence?

“Lots of confidence,” he said.

Ryan has earned a third-degree black belt and is a certified taekwondo instructor, teaching other special needs children on Saturday mornings.

“It makes me feel like a leader when I get that opportunity,” he said.

Ryan holds the trophy he received for being named the University of South Florida’s Arts4AllFlorida program’s Student of the Month for Sept. 2019 for the documentary he made on the Pace Brantley School.

Ryan always wanted to be a leader, even when he was struggling to find himself on the baseball field or a basketball court. Society was telling Ryan what he couldn’t do, as it often does to children on the spectrum. His classmates and teammates were mean, as they often are to classmates and teammates who are perceived to be different. But Ryan felt it didn’t have to be that way, and he said he knew someday it wouldn’t.

He had weaknesses, sure. But Ryan also knew he had strengths.

Those strengths began to surface when Susan and Bill enrolled Ryan in Bridges Academy, a private K-12 school for children with autism and other special needs.

In an instant, Ryan was no longer different from his classmates.

“He was one of the students, and that’s what started him on the path to building self-confidence,” Susan said.

Ryan moved to Pace Brantley as a high school freshman. He was challenged, both inside and outside of the classroom. And he embraced those challenges.

“Ryan has grown up so much and truly wants to make a difference for others,” said Pam Tapley, Pace Brantley principal.

Not only will Ryan graduate as the class valedictorian, he is school president, an anchor of the school’s TV channel and a member of the running club.

He also gave a prerecorded speech online for Step Up For Students Class of 2020 Senior Celebration.

Ryan’s term project for the television class he took as a junior was a documentary on the history of Pace Brantley. He received an A for the assignment, and the video was voted the documentary of the year at the school.

The documentary also earned Ryan the University of South Florida’s Arts4AllFlorida program’s Student of the Month for Sept. 2019.

“The end product was wonderful, and he worked so hard on it to make it represent the history of our wonderful school,” Tapley said.

In collaboration with Chance 2 Dance, a program that works with students of all abilities, Ryan starred in a music video shot in the halls of Pace Brantley.

The song is “Waving Through a Window,” from the Broadway musical, “Dear Evan Hansen.”

“On the outside, always looking in
Will I ever be more than I’ve always been?”

The song symbolizes what children with special abilities go through.

Once, that was Ryan’s life.

Not anymore.

That puzzle piece has been tossed aside by others, including ones that are yet to come.

Through his vocational rehab program, Ryan scored an internship with the Central Florida Zoo’s conservation education department. He is fascinated with wolves and tigers.

“Very unique animals,” Ryan said.

In the fall, he will begin classes at Beacon College in Leesburg, Florida.

The college serves students with learning disabilities. Ryan will major in anthrozoology. He hopes to someday work at an animal shelter or a zoo.

“I’d like to build a really good facility with a lot of animals,” he said. “I could have a training program of some kind.”

That’s another puzzle piece – his future.

Ryan holds his acceptance letter to Beacon College.

Ryan could stand in front of a packed room or stare into his laptop for a virtual graduation ceremony and his message will be the same.

Yes, he is autistic.

No, it does not define him.

The puzzle pieces, they define him.

His family and friends. His school and teachers. Taekwondo. Dance. TV production. His love of animals. His desire for a career working with animals.

“Pretty much all the other stuff I’ve managed and done throughout my life,” he said.

Together, those pieces help build the picture of Ryan Sleboda. But it is far from complete, because there are still more pieces to come.

“I’m going to the next part of life,” Ryan said. “That will be extra hard, but I like challenges, and I am excited to see what comes next.”

Roger Mooney, marketing communications manager, can be reached at rmooney@sufs.org.

Adults on the autism spectrum are asking employers for one thing: A chance

Editor’s note: This is the first in an occasional series exploring career challenges and successes for those individuals on the autism spectrum.

By Roger Mooney

Six years ago, Joseph Show stood in front of then Florida Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Legislature and talked about his life on the autism spectrum. He was not nervous.

Quite the opposite, he said.

Joseph Show before his 2014 speech at the Florida Capitol with lawmakers.

It was March 2014, a little more than a week before the April 1 start of Autism Awareness Month, and Show was eager to create awareness for some of the state’s most influential people.

“Hey,” he told the lawmakers,” we exist.”

That was a great way for Show to begin.

More than 3.5 million people in the United States are on the autism spectrum, and the advocacy organization Autism Speaks estimates 707,000 to 1.1 million teens will age out of school-related services each year during this decade.

The Gardiner Scholarship, managed by Step Up For Students, enables parents to personalize the education for children with certain special needs from age 3 through the 12th grade or age 22, which ever happens first.

During the 2019-20 school year, 13,035 schoolchildren received a Gardiner Scholarship. Of that total, 8,097 (62%) are on the autism spectrum.

What happens to those students after they age out of a school-based service? That’s what Show wanted to discuss at the Capitol with lawmakers.

Wearing a blue suit he bought the week before at Dillard’s for the occasion, Show explained that people with autism can accomplish many wonderful things. Sure, some may need more time or use methods that are different than those in the neurotypical population, but is that so bad?

Show finished with this plea, one made by far too many adults on the spectrum.

“Please,” he said, “don’t be afraid to hire us.”

Exact figures are hard to pin down, but the estimate of adults with autism who are unemployed nationwide is believed to be between 80% and 85%. Certainly, those numbers are even higher with the COVID-19 outbreak.

Show, 29, a web app developer for a software company in Tallahassee, Florida, finds those numbers difficult to digest even prior to the pandemic. He turned his degree in information technology from Florida State University into a career. He knows of others on the spectrum who experienced similar success.

“I have trouble reconciling that with these unemployment rates,” he said. “There are clearly people like me who did get jobs and are doing fairly well at them, so shouldn’t this rate be going down?”

Under-tapped talent pool

A 2018 story in the University of Washington Magazine said studies have found the biggest roadblock to employment among adults with autism who do not have intellectual disabilities is not a lack of ability but a lack of understanding social skills.

Few things derail a job interview quicker than an inability to make eye contact, too much information in answers or an increased anxiety from communicating with strangers in an unfamiliar setting – all traits common among those with autism.

Generally speaking, the traditional interview process is challenging for those on the spectrum.

Then there is the perception that employees with autism are difficult to manage, are prone to angry outbursts and take more sick days than their neurotypical co-workers.

Allison Leatzow, a consultant at the FSU Center for Autism and Related Disabilities (CARD), said the exact opposite is true.

“A lot of them are so into wanting to follow the directions, their work is their social life, that they’re actually more inclined to want to be there and do their best,” she said.

Those adults on the spectrum who are employed are generally found in two areas: the service industry and high-tech companies.

Some possess an extraordinary attention to detail that makes them ideal employees in jobs that require repetitive tasks. For others, their ability to detect patterns and knowledge of computers serves them well at software companies.

SAP, a German software maker, and Microsoft were among the pioneers in the high-tech world in targeting adults on the spectrum. Both created a hiring process to better evaluate autistic talent. The standard interview process was scrapped and replaced with team-building settings, where applicants worked together to accomplish a task. This is a better way to demonstrate an applicant’s talents and thought process.

SAP began this process in 2013. Within five years, it had hired 128 adults on the spectrum to fill roles in graphic design, software testing, data analysis, IT program management, quality assurance, human resources and finance administration.

“We don’t pigeonhole our candidates on the spectrum. We aren’t going to say, ‘Well, you’re only going to be good at certain things,’ because everyone has different interests and unique talents,” Jose Velasco, who oversees the Autism at Works Program at SAP, told CIO.com.

Not a function issue

Rising Tide Car Wash sits on a busy thoroughfare in Parkland, Florida. Purchased in 2013 by the D’Eri family, it is among the growing number of small business designed to employ a family member who is on the spectrum.

Andrew D’Eri vacuums the interior of an SUV at Rising Tide Car Wash in Parkland, Florida.

In this case, it is Andrew, 29. His father, John, looked for a business that he and his son, Tom, could run that would not only employ Andrew but other adults with autism. Tom said they wanted a business that was well-structed, detail-oriented and offered entry-level type work. After a year of research, they settled on a car wash.

“We wanted a business that could employ enough people to create a community and hopefully something that could really have an impact on the perception of adults with autism in the workforce,” Tom D’Eri said. “After preliminary research, it was pretty clear that a lot of people with autism have wonderful skills that are perfect for the workforce, but we, as a society, look at autism as a disability that requires sympathy instead of a really valuable diversity, and that perception issue is really why there is (a high) unemployment among adults with autism.”

Today, Rising Tide has two locations and employs 78 adults with autism, which makes up 80% of the workforce.

Tom D’Eri said the Parkland location averaged 3,000 vehicles a month in the year before his family bought the business. It now averages close to 17,000 a month.

The D’Eris also started Rising Tide U, a program to promote the benefits of hiring autistic workers and provide guidance to those who want to start similar businesses to help cut into that high unemployment rate.

“What is so amazing, sad, interesting – whatever word you want to use – is that this is almost completely a perception issue and not a function issue,” Tom D’Eri said.

Overcoming obstacles

Haley Moss was 3 when she was diagnosed with autism. Her parents were told she might never be able to hold a job or live on her own. A frightening forecast, for sure, but one her parents never believed.

Society placed obstacles in front of Moss, her parents helped her knock them down.

“When everyone else said no, they were the ones who said yes to at least give me the opportunity to try or keep pushing forward when other people didn’t have that faith,” Moss said.

Haley Moss on graduation day from the
University of Miami School of Law.

Moss, 25, is an autism advocate with psychology and criminology degrees from the University of Florida, and a law degree from the University of Miami. She is believed to be the first openly autistic person to pass the Florida bar exam.

Moss has her own apartment. She wrote two books about growing up on the spectrum and has contributed to a number of publications and websites, including the Huffington Post and Teen vogue. She is an artist.

She has not, however, overcome autism.

“That’s something I feel very strongly about, because I haven’t and that’s not something that’s going to exist,” she said. “I’m very proud to be on the spectrum.

“I have overcome the obstacles that society has in my way, the bias, the discrimination. People who don’t believe in you or think that you’re not capable of things, all that I’ve really overcome.”

Moss founded her own company to advocate for neurodiversity in the workplace and consult with companies on the benefits of an inclusive workforce. Her message is adults on the spectrum have strengths and weaknesses just like neurotypical adults. And, like neurotypical adults, those on the spectrum want the same thing: to be treated with respect.

“It’s being treated as a whole person is what we keep fighting for,” Moss said.

While it is encouraging to see companies reach into the autistic population, Moss would like to see more opportunities than those in the retail and STEM fields.

“I like to explain it like a grocery store,” she said. “We all see young adults working as cashiers or the deli counter. You know they probably are people with disabilities, and it makes you feel good. You love it. But are those same companies hiring people like me to work in their general counsel’s office?”

Working through the diagnosis

Mark Fleming believes that if he walked into a gym and applied for a job as a trainer he would not be hired because he is on the spectrum. That is interesting because Fleming has a bachelor’s degree in exercise science and a master’s in human performance from the University of Alabama.

So, Fleming, 31, opened his own gym, Equally Fit, in Tampa that serves clients on the spectrum.

Mark Fleming stretches at Equally Fit, the gym he owns in Tampa that serves clients on the spectrum.

He said some parents first view an autism diagnosis as a death knell for their child’s future. Fleming believes it should be the opposite.

“Once you get a diagnosis, you can understand more about yourself,” he said. “I may not be good at this, but it doesn’t limit me from owning a business or doing whatever I want to do. You might have some limitations, but it should never be, ‘My kid can never do this,’ or, ‘I won’t be able to do this because of this.’ It should be, ‘I’m able to do this because of this. I’m able to do other things, because I know myself more, I know that I might need help and that’s OK.’”

Joseph Show, Tom D’Eri, Haley Moss and Mark Fleming each used some variation of the word “frustrated” when asked about the 80% to 85% unemployment rate among adults on the spectrum.

Each feels that number can and will be lowered with education for the employees, the employers and even neurotypical co-workers.

Stereotypes must be erased.

In some instances, accommodations need to be made for an autistic employee. Yet, D’Eri said, that has a positive ripple effect.

“When we design systems that work for them, they work for everyone,” he said. “So not only do you get access to this wonderful talent pool, they help you build a better organization.”

How low can the unemployment rate go is, ultimately, up to employers.

“It’s good for everybody to have a neurodiverse workforce,” Moss said. “You have innovation. You have people that have different experiences working together. It’s about understanding, accommodating, and being accepted.”

Roger Mooney, marketing communications manager, can be reached at rmooney@sufs.org.

How 9 Gardiner students and their teacher opened the world to Audible

By ROGER MOONEY

Nine Gardiner Scholarship students on the autism spectrum wrote an essay and gave the world a gift in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic: free downloadable children’s books and literary classics from Audible.

“It’s definitely the coolest thing I have ever done, honestly,” said Sheryl Bo, who runs Brain Lab Tutoring in Palm Bay, Florida and worked with her students on the essay.

The students, grades three through six, and includes Bo’s son Ethan, a fourth grader, all use the Gardiner Scholarship through Step Up For Students.

Sheryl and Ethan Bo

The students’ essay (read it here) was emailed on March 13 to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos asking that Audible books be made available to everyone while schools are closed during the pandemic. It was forwarded to Don Katz, founder of Audible.

After a few emails between Katz’s assistant and Bo, Audible created stories.audible.com, where hundreds of books in six languages are available for streaming worldwide.

“They really stepped up. This was definitely way more than I asked for,” said Bo, who originally asked for credits for those who couldn’t afford the service.

With schools and libraries closed indefinitely, Bo knows many schoolchildren are without access to free books.

“What are these kids going to do? Where are they going to get books? How are they going to keep their reading skills up?” she asked.

She had an idea.

“I’m teaching (my students) the persuasive essay with the punch at the end,” she said. “We have to challenge them. We need a call to action at the end. Will you step up? Will you be a positive influence to other corporations in this crises?”

Her students brainstormed and wrote the essay on Friday, March 13, the first day schools were closed.

The essay began: “Did you know that students with disabilities, like us, need audiobooks for most subjects? It’s true. We are a group of high-functioning autistic students in Florida. We have a private tutor that helps us learn. A lot of us learn best when we can hear the book read aloud because some of us have dyslexia as well.”

It concluded with, “Students like us need Audible to help us learn. … Students who miss reading for weeks at a time will lose out on learning.”

They attached the essay to this email to Bezos:

“Dear Mr. Bezos,

We are practicing writing an essay today with our teacher. We hope that you will read it, because we think that you could really help teachers and kids during this crisis. It’s five paragraphs, so please don’t skip anything. We hope you like our essay!”

On the subject line, Bo wrote, “Will you help kids and schools during this pandemic?”

“I honestly didn’t think I would get a reply,” Bo said. “We were just doing it as a cool assignment.”

But on Monday, Bo got a reply:  an email from Maureen Muenster, Katz’s assistant.

“Happy to help!” she wrote.

Bo was thrilled.

Bo wrote back saying the request was for students who are now home, teachers who are planning assignments and curriculum, and parents who need a break during this trying time.

A day later, a new email from Muenster came with a link to Audible’s new free streaming website.

 “I hope this helps,” Muenster wrote.

“With all the chaos, we felt we made a difference,” Bo said.

“Our intent,” Katz explained in the companywide email, “is that Stories will offer parents, educators, and caregivers – anyone helping kids as daily routines are disrupted – a screen-free experience to look forward to each day, while keeping young minds engaged.”

Bo taught at both private and district schools for eight years before beginning Brain Lab Tutoring in 2017 to help Ethan become acclimated to being around other students. The class usually meets at Bo’s house. Right now, she reaches her students through Zoom, a virtual meeting service.

The students used the new Audible site they helped spur to download Jack London’s “White Fang.”

At first, Bo said, her students weren’t thrilled with the essay writing assignments. Now, they want to know who they will write to next.

“You have to know how to write, and you have to know how to compose something so that people will listen to you and have reasons and have details to back up what you’re saying,” Bo said. “Have that call to action. Ask something. Ask for something to change. Ask them to provide something. I think it was a good lesson for them.”

Roger Mooney, marketing communications manager, can be reached at rmooney@sufs.org.

Supporters to rally in Tallahassee for Gardiner Scholarship

Step Up For Students scholarship supporters and recipients have rallied several times before in Tallahassee. Back in 2010 the rally was in support of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program for low-income children. Today, we rally for the Gardiner Scholarship for children with certain special needs.

By LISA A. DAVIS

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – This morning, the buses will roll into the same parking lot at Florida State University – some after driving more than seven hours from Miami. It will not be an easy journey for some who traveled on the motor coaches from all over Florida. They will come from other bus stops, too, in Jacksonville, Tampa, Orlando and Pensacola. Some will drive up in their personal vehicles.

The destination is the same: Waller Park at the Florida State Capitol for the Gardiner Celebration Rally organized by Step Up For Students and its advocacy arm, Florida Voices For Choices.

The mission: to thank Florida legislators and Gov. Ron DeSantis for supporting the Gardiner Scholarship for children with certain special needs. Additionally, we are asking for $42 million more in funding for the 2020-21 school year so 4,000 more children with unique abilities can receive the same help as the other children who use the scholarship now.

This year, more than 13,000 students have been funded for the Gardiner Scholarship through Step Up For Students.

Still, it’s not enough.

“Every student with special needs in Florida who would be better served academically through education options deserves this scholarship,” said Doug Tuthill, Step Up’s president. “We are so grateful for the support we have had from lawmakers. We applaud them and the work we have done together, but we want to help more children.”

The scholarship is for Florida students 3 years old through 12th grade or age 22, whichever comes first, who have the following diagnoses: autism spectrum disorder, muscular dystrophy, Cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, Phelan McDermid syndrome, Prader-Willi syndrome, spina bifida, Williams syndrome, intellectual disability (severe cognitive impairment), rare diseases as defined by the National Organization for Rare Disorders, anaphylaxis, deaf, visually impaired, dual sensory impaired, traumatic brain injured, hospital or homebound, or three, four or five year-olds who are deemed high-risk due to developmental delays.

It’s children with these challenges– and their parents, educators and other advocates– who made the trek to Tallahassee today. So, yes, it wasn’t easy for many of them. But it was important. That’s why they are here and will let their voices be heard during the rally.

If you’re in the area, join us. It begins at noon. If not, follow us on social media using the hashtag #GardinerCelebrationRally. Also be sure to check out other rally coverage on our sister blog www.redefinedonline.org.

During the rally, parents like Katie Swingle, whose son Gregory is on the autism spectrum and has thrived using the Gardiner Scholarship, will talk about how she is #GratefulForGardiner.

Other parents will share their stories as well. Their stories are so moving that Step Up For Students is kicking off an ongoing social media campaign so families can regularly share their stories. We will tell these stories on our social media channels beginning today, using the hashtag #GratefulForGardiner.

This scholarship is changing lives. Learn how by following us on social media Facebook, Twitter, Instagram. You may also share your story with us by sending your story and contact information to social@sufs.org. Please use #GratefulForGardiner in the subject line.

Lisa A. Davis can be reached at ldavis@sufs.org.

Time to nominate students, teachers, parents for Step Up’s Rising Stars Awards

By ROGER MOONEY

It is time to recognize outstanding members of the Step Up For Students family – students, teachers and parents – for their efforts this school year during our annual Rising Stars Awards program.

Each school can nominate up to six individuals, and the first person nominated must be a student.

Those selected will be honored in March and April during ceremonies held in one of 16 locations around the state.

School principals can nominate students for one of the following:

  • High Achieving Student Award. Students who excel in academics, arts or athletics.
  • Turnaround Student Award. A student who struggled when they first attended your school and has since made dramatic improvements.
  • Outstanding Student Character Award. A student who demonstrates outstanding compassion, perseverance, courage, initiative, respect, fairness, integrity, responsibility, honesty or optimism.

Teachers who push students to succeed, who truly represent the power of parent partnerships and focus on building relationships for success or who embrace the importance of continuous improvement and professional development can be nominated for the Exceptional Teacher Award.

Parents or guardians who actively support your school and the education of his or her child are eligible for the Phenomenal Family Member Award.

Deadline for nominations is Jan. 31, 2020 and can be made here.

Before making nominations, please have all necessary information available, including school name, school Florida Department of Education (DOE) number, each nominee’s contact information (name, phone number, email address). Please include a short description of why each person is being nominated.

The Rising Star Award ceremonies are scheduled for the following cities.

  • Miami-Dade North: Monday, March 16
  • Miami-Dade South: Tuesday, March 17
  • Palm Beach: Thursday, March 19
  • Broward: Monday, March 23
  • Leon: Tuesday, March 24
  • Lee: Tuesday, March 24
  • Brevard: Wednesday, March 25
  • Hillsborough: Wednesday, March 25
  • Duval East: Thursday, March 26
  • Pinellas: Thursday, March 26
  • Duval Central: Monday, March 30
  • Volusia: Tuesday, March 31
  • Marion: Tuesday, March 31
  • Escambia: Wednesday, April 1
  • Orange East: Thursday, April 2
  • Orange West: Thursday, April 2

Event locations will be announced at a later date.

Roger Mooney, marketing communications manager, can be reached at rmooney@sufs.org.

A different way of learning gives Gardiner scholar the academic LIFT he needs

By ROGER MOONEY

MIAMI LAKES, Fla. – Joshua Sandoval sat at a table inside the LIFT Educational Academy and, with a laser-like focus, wrote in his journal. The topic: What was special about the classroom?

He was on his third sentence.

His mother, Nilsa Roberts, sat two rooms away, watching Joshua on one of four monitors hanging from a wall in the office of Dr. Fabian Redler, the school’s director and founder.

Roberts was, in a word, amazed.

She did not see a child with behavioral issues, as one school labeled her son. She did not see a child who struggled to complete assignments, as some of Joshua’s former teachers complained. Instead, she saw a student quietly going about his task.

“This is amazing,” Roberts said as she stared at her son’s image on the screen. “I’ve never seen him like this. He’s so focused.”

Yes, Joshua, 12, comes with learning challenges.

Joshua and his mom, Nilsa Roberts.

At three months, he was diagnosed with tuberous sclerosis complex, a genetic disorder where the body produces benign tumors. It is a rare disease as defined by the National Organization of Rare Diseases and qualifies Joshua for a Gardiner Scholarship, which is run by Step Up For Students.

Joshua’s tumors are in his brain. They cause daily seizures. The medication he takes makes him fidgety. Staying focused can be a struggle.

But, Roberts said, her son does not have behavioral issues, and he is not, as one teacher told her, unteachable.

Joshua speaks two languages – English and Spanish. He is an avid reader and uses an extensive vocabulary for his age. He knows all the words to all his favorite songs. He interacts well with other children.

He plays right field on his Little League team.

“What I know with Joshua is he’s very smart, and he learns different from other kids,” Roberts said.

She knew if she could find the right school, the right setting, Joshua would thrive. She spent a lot of time looking.

Joshua is in the sixth grade. LIFT is his seventh school.

“Finally,” Roberts said, “we found the place.”

No holding back
The LIFT Educational Academy is part of What’s On Your Mind, a psychology, tutoring and brain fitness center that has three south Florida locations, including one in Miami Lakes, Florida, the same town where Roberts and her family live.

Established by Redler, 20 years ago as a psychology and brain fitness center for children, What’s On Your Mind is well-known for aiding children in developing the brain skills essential for learning and surpassing their abilities through their trademarked programs.

The two decades of consistent progress has resulted in the establishment of LIFT Educational Academy four years ago, after parents urged Redler to start a much-needed unconventional school.

LIFT has 12 students ranging from first to 12th grade. Redler said the school could expand to 24 students.

New students obtain a psychoeducational evaluation to determine cognitive deficiencies in the skills involved in learning – attention, memory, visual processing and processing speed. They receive brain-based exercises to strengthen those areas.

The exercises are tailored to each student and integrated in their English Language Arts and Mathematics curriculum.

“The school itself is a perfect scenario for a child that is really behind and can use every single day to catch up both academically and deal with the issues that have been holding him back, which are all those cognitive areas,” Redler said.

Maritza Perera, school counselor, Joshua, Nilsa and Dr. Fabian Redler, director and founder of LIFT Educational Academy in Miami Lakes, Florida.

Roberts found What’s On Your Mind two years ago while researching education options for Joshua. She brought him in for an evaluation, signed him up for the summer program then enrolled him in LIFT.

“But what was unique with Joshua was the seizures. We didn’t know what to expect in terms of whether the brain training would stick, because of all his seizures,” Redler said. “We had to work as much as we could to just develop his ability. Whatever stays, stays. Whatever doesn’t, doesn’t. At the end of the day, it’s given him the best interventions that he can have. So far, it’s been awesome.”

‘Kind of like a miracle’

Joshua has had three brain surgeries, the first when he was 3. He still has tumors in his brain, including one in his right eye.

While Joshua can have as many as three seizures a day, he senses when one is coming on and he can usually go to a quiet place.

His body stiffens and his breathing increases. He feels a pounding inside his head. His eyes open wide and his right hand goes straight up. He can hear people talk, and it helps if someone is telling him he will be OK. The seizures last between 90 seconds and 3 minutes and occur mostly in the morning or when he’s going to bed.

“He’s embarrassed by it, but he does a good job of hiding it,” Roberts said.

Except when he can’t, which happened often at his prior schools. Some classmates made fun of him, which made him angry. The fact that he was behind his classmates in learning – reading at a grade level or two below them – also made him angry. He felt like an outsider and started acting up, so it became a behavioral thing,” Roberts said.

In the fourth grade, Joshua was placed in a class for students with behavioral issues. Roberts said it was a lost year in terms of academic growth.

“He learned literally nothing that year,” Roberts said, “because in the first week of school, they gave up on my child.”

She said finding Redler and his program has been “kind of like a miracle.”

“Before it was, ‘He’s on medicine so he can’t focus. He’s had seizures and he can’t focus,’” Roberts said. “He’s able to do it now, and I think those exercises have helped a lot. I think it’s meant for his way of learning.”

“Joshua is going to do amazing’

Maritza Perera, the school counselor at LIFT, interrupted Joshua while he was writing in his journal. His presence was requested in Redler’s office, so he could talk about his school for this story.

Joshua was not happy. He was only two sentences into his journal assignment.

He was shy, unusually so, according to his mom.

Do you like going to school here, he was asked.

Joshua in his Little League uniform.

He nodded.

Why?

“It’s fun.”

What makes it fun?

“I’m learning.”

Do you want to share what you were writing in your journal?

Joshua shook his head no.

Do you like brain training?

A nod.

What exercise do you like best?

“Mental Treasure Box.”

Redler found the answer interesting.

“Mental Treasure Box is for when thoughts come in that have nothing to do with what your focused on,” Redler explained. “You’re trained to take those thoughts and put them in your mental treasure box and go back to them later.”

After a few questions about baseball – Joshua likes the Miami Marlins and bats right-handed even though he’s a natural lefty – he returned to his classroom and his journal.

Roberts watched her son on the wall monitor. School has been a struggle for Joshua, but she’s confident he is finally in the right setting.

Now that he is no longer a lost student, Roberts sees a brighter picture when she thinks about Joshua’s future.

“I’m very positive about Joshua. Joshua is going to do amazing,” she said. “I see him continuing to grow in education. I can see Joshua going to college. I can see him having a job, a very good job somewhere and being independent. I can see him doing that.”

Roger Mooney, marketing communications manager, can be reached at rmooney@sufs.org.

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