Tag Archives forGardiner Scholarship

Against all odds, the Famianos persevere

By DAVID TUTHILL

When others looked at Danielle and Nicholas as young children, they only saw their special challenges. But Dorothy Famiano was blinded by love.

Nicholas was born with spina bifida and must use a wheelchair. Danielle was diagnosed at age 2 with autism and cerebral palsy. Few people believed in the pair who were in foster care at the time. But Famiano, a former foster care volunteer, saw something special.

Nicholas competes in the Special Olympics and is an avid power lifter, bowler and swimmer, recently winning an assisted-swimming competition in Crystal River. He dreams of one day becoming a police officer.

Nicholas competes in the Special Olympics and is an avid power lifter, bowler and swimmer, recently winning an assisted-swimming competition in Crystal River. He dreams of one day becoming a police officer.

“Everyone told me I was wearing rose-colored glasses with these kids,” says Famiano, 56. “They talked about giving me my own psych examination, because no one else could even begin to see what I saw and feel what I felt for these kids.”

Faminano, a freelance photojournalist who lives in Spring Hill, tuned out the noise and followed her heart. She adopted Nicholas and Danielle, now 16 and 14, respectively, as toddlers. A single mother of two grown biological children, she now spends her days homeschooling Nicholas and Danielle, as well as a third adopted son with severe dyslexia.

Their journey has been marked by difficulty, patience, love and triumph. Nicholas and Danielle both spent years in public school, which was not ideal for them.

“Public school did not work for my children. There was no place to put them,” said Famiano, also a grandmother of five.

Nicholas was placed in secured classrooms full of students with severe behavioral issues. It was not a practical solution.

“Nicholas never met a person he didn’t like. He gets along with everyone,” Famiano says. “They put him in these environments for kids with behavioral issues when he didn’t have any. What he needs is one-on-one instruction at all times. He wasn’t getting that in public school.”

Blessed with an inquisitive nature, Danielle is known to rattle off one question after another – but not always in a predictable direction. The fast-paced rhythm and chaos of a traditional classroom wreaked havoc on her mental health.

Famiano’s voice trembles as she reminisces about her daughter’s intense struggles.

Danielle shows off some of her creative mixed media artwork.

Danielle shows off some of her creative mixed media artwork.

“The structure of the classroom drove Danielle crazy – charts, colors, people talking all over the place,” she said. “The lunchroom would really drive her nuts. She would hold it in all day and as soon as she got in the car she would explode. Screaming, crying, ripping at her clothes.”

Children on the autism spectrum often can have sensory issues and act out when overstimulated.

A few years ago, a public school teacher told Famiano about the Gardiner Scholarship for children with certain special needs. She applied through Step Up For Students and Nicholas and Danielle were accepted. The scholarships have given new hope to a mother who saw great potential in her children.

The ability to teach her children at a speed they were comfortable with has resulted in great academic progress.

“They have gifts that aren’t necessarily discovered in a classroom setting. I saw that potential in them from the first time I met them,” Famiano says. “The success my children are enjoying is due to the fact the Gardiner Scholarship is geared towards each child’s strength. It’s the personalized learning experience that has made it so successful. A lot of people don’t understand this.”

Christina Cancel, a teacher and home-school evaluator with Central Florida Home Education Services, currently works with Nicholas and Danielle. She has been impressed with the children’s progress in the three years she has known them.

“Both their worlds have blown wide open through the resources and opportunities now available to them,” Cancel says. “They’ve really come out of their shells.”

Those resources include working with blocks for Nicholas, which has led to a boost in his confidence and a blossoming of his social ability. For Danielle, greater access to technology, such as cameras, has helped improve her studies as well.

“Both will always struggle, but (Gardiner) has been life-changing for them,” Cancel says.

Stories like theirs emphasize the importance of dynamic and flexible educational plans for children based on their individual needs.

As Famiano likes to tell it, some of the days Nicholas and Danielle learn best are when she “tricks” them into thinking they aren’t having school that day.

“You can’t believe what these kids can do,” Famiano says. “They just do it differently.”

Nicholas has discovered an ability to build things. He puts together gear systems with Lego sets, and is learning to calculate numbers in his head from using computers.

Danielle has made a leap in her reading through her work with video production and photography. The Famianos continue their journey on the Gardiner Scholarship, armed with a level of parental empowerment that helps maximize the children’s abilities.

That empowerment extends to Danielle and Nicholas.

With an eye to their futures, the siblings written off by so many are filled with wide-eyed optimism.

Nicholas competes in the Special Olympics. He is an avid power lifter, bowler and swimmer, recently winning an assisted-swimming competition in Crystal River. He dreams of one day becoming a police officer.

Danielle wants to follow in her mother’s footsteps and become a photographer. Famiano says her mastery of their Cannon Mark 3 camera is a sight to behold.

One thing is certain:  The progress Nicholas and Danielle have made since their adoption has been staggering. Famiano is grateful.

“The biggest thing for me is they have a goal,” she says. “I was always told they wouldn’t have them, that they wouldn’t be able to form them. That’s the most exciting thing for me.”

 

Step Up For Students launches alumni network  

 

By LISA A. DAVIS

Step Up For Students is excited to announce the creation of the Step Up For Students Alumni Network, bringing former scholars who have graduated from high school together to advocate for the advancement of all Florida schoolchildren.

Natasha Infante, now a University of South Florida Student, is one of the first members of the Network.

The network’s mission is to strengthen the relationship between schoolchildren in underserved communities and the educational-choice community. Alumni members will work toward educating and informing their community members at large, including lawmakers and donors, about school choice and its benefits. Step Up is a nonprofit organization in Florida that manages two scholarship programs for the state’s most underprivileged children,: The Florida Tax Credit Scholarship for lower-income students and the Gardiner Scholarship for children with certain special needs.

“Our scholars’ stories – past and present – are the best way to understand the impact school choice has on the children we serve,” said Step Up For Students President Doug Tuthill. “Their backgrounds and challenges are compelling and tug at your heartstrings. We can tell you these stories ourselves, but they are the best narrators for educational options.”

Natasha Infante, a 2014 Tampa Catholic High School graduate said she joined the network because the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship through Step Up For Students opened a world of possibilities for her.

“Step Up For Students allowed me to go to the high school I wanted to go to,” said Infante, who is now pre-veterinary major at the University of South Florida in Tampa. “I feel like it’s a pay-it-forward thing. If Step Up helped me, then I feel like I should help them.  It’s been such a positive thing in my life, I feel like I need to share my experience so others can benefit from it in the future.”

Infante was one of the first alumni to sign on to the Alumni Network and has been involved since it was only an idea, advising Step Up staff how to proceed. She has already written letters to lawmakers in support of Step Up and school choice in general.

“I’m open to more advocating for school choice because it’s so important,” she said, noting a recent lawsuit that sought to shut down the tax credit scholarship program. “We almost lost Step Up once and we can’t ever let that happen because it helps so many students like me have a better future.“

The membership roster already has 160 registered members, but Step Up For Students is seeking many more alumni to make it successful.

“Obviously, the more graduates we have, the more ground we can cover in advocating for Florida’s youth,” Tuthill said. “And the members will certainly reap the benefits of being involved too. For one, they will have an impact on the educational landscape of Florida for future generations. That’s rewarding for sure, but they will also have personal benefits as well with networking opportunities and more.”

Membership benefits include access to online professional development courses, exclusive discounts to retail stores, vacation packages, movie tickets, and the opportunity to network with decision-makers, donors, potential employers and other alumni through various events and social media.

Membership to the Step Up alumni network is free.

To join the Step Up For Students Alumni Network or to learn more, click here.

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

 

School Spotlight: The Broach School Tampa Campus

By GEOFF FOX

Classes were changing at The Broach School Tampa Campus and veteran teacher Susan Gettys was busy steering students to their proper classrooms.

With only a few weeks before the end of the school year, the notorious “spring fever” had set in for some students who lingered in the hallway.

“Come on, let’s go gentlemen and ladies!” Gettys called.

She looked into a classroom.

“OK, who else is in there?” she said. “Let’s go.”

Seventeen-year-old Enmanuel Gonzalez moved to Tampa from Cuba several years ago and struggled to fit in at a large neighborhood school. He has attended Broach School Tampa Campus since 2012.

Within moments the students were in the right classrooms and Gettys relaxed with a grin.

Of the 90 or so students at Broach Tampa this year, 18 were on the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program for lower-income families and four were on the Gardiner Scholarship for students with certain special needs; Step Up For Students helps manage both scholarships.

The K-12 school has been in Tampa since 2000 and at its current location on Linebaugh Avenue since 2013, according to Principal Sonia Anderson. She said word-of-mouth advertising has been responsible for the school’s growth. This year’s enrollment was more than double its 2015-16 numbers.

“I think it’s the love and commitment we have with our families,” Anderson said. “We do more than just teach. We feed them if they’re hungry, clothe them if they need it. My staff does it from the heart, not just for a paycheck. Some of our current students have cousins and other family members that went here 15 years ago.”

Besides having an inclusive environment with small class sizes that offer students more individual attention, Broach Tampa has graduated many students who go on to college.

“We have children with autism who have gone onto college,” said Gettys, who taught in Tampa public schools before coming to Broach Tampa 12 years ago. “We have (former students in college) all over the place. One young man couldn’t read a lick when he got here; he was in ninth grade and could not read. But we have an American history book in graphic novel form and that’s when he got it. He’s in college now.

“Stories like that are why I love this school so much. Once a kid finds reading, there’s no stopping them.”

Many students at Broach Tampa have previously attended public schools, where they either got lost in a sea of other students, didn’t perform well or sometimes got bullied.

Seventeen-year-old Enmanuel Gonzalez moved to Tampa from Cuba several years ago with his mother. Naturally quiet, he struggled to fit in at a large neighborhood school.

His mother learned about and applied for the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program, and Enmanuel was accepted. He has attended Broach Tampa since 2012.

“The people around me (at school) are much better to be around,” Enmanuel said. “I like that the classes are smaller and if you ask the teacher a question, they try and work with you.”

Enmanuel said he most enjoys English, history and American government but is considering a career in computer programming.

Amani Santana, a 17-year-old 10th-grader, has attended the school for about a year. She previously attended an overcrowded public high school in Tampa, where she struggled academically and socially.

Amani Santana, who hopes to someday open a bakery in New York, has thrived since she started attending The Broach School Tampa Campus in 2016.

Amani said she is relieved that her primary guardian Jenny Fillmore learned about the tax-credit scholarship.

“A lot of the teachers here are more hands-on and they really take the time to help you,” Amani said, adding that she most enjoys cooking, sewing and science classes.

“I want to go to go into a culinary school that also teaches business so I can open a bakery in New York,” she said. “When I went to New York, I didn’t see a whole lot of bakeries and a lot of people like pastries.”

Gettys has confidence the school can help turn Enmanuel’s and Amani’s aspirations into realities. She and the school’s other teachers understand their students well enough to know when they need to be pushed academically and when to ease up – but always in a positive manner.

Once a straight-F student in middle school, Gettys said she remembers the commitment shown her by teachers at a small school in rural Florida. Broach Tampa reminds her of that school.

“We have a family atmosphere here,” she said. “All of our parents know first-hand what’s going on and we do several events each year for the families.”

Fillmore, Amani’s guardian, is thankful for the opportunities Amani has enjoyed at Broach Tampa.

“She’s having no struggles now, none,” she said. “They’ve both been doing great. It’s the best school they’ve ever been in. I could go on and on about it. That school has been a Godsend.”

Geoff Fox can be reached at gfox@sufs.org.

 

 

 

Step Up For Students named education nonprofit of 2017 by Tampa Bay Business Journal

By GEOFF FOX 

Step Up For Students Director of Advancement Amanda Lopez, center, accepted Nonprofit of the Year in the education category from the Tampa Bay Business Journal on June 8 during a ceremony held at the Bryan Glazer Family JCC in Tampa.

CLEARWATER The Tampa Bay Business Journal on June 8 named Step Up For Students Nonprofit of the Year in the education category.

Step Up For Students helps manage both the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program for students from lower-income families and the Gardiner Scholarship Program for students with certain special needs. The statewide organization has offices in Clearwater and Jacksonville.

Other organizations considered for the honor include Early Learning Coalition of Manatee County; Frameworks of Tampa Bay Inc; Girl Scouts of West Central Florida; and R’Club Child Care Inc.

“This is further validation of the great work our staff, board and donors are doing to serve our families,” said Doug Tuthill, president of Step Up For Students.

Step Up is allotted a 3 percent operating allowance, far less than most other nonprofits. Based on its record of fiscal responsibility, accountability and transparency, Step Up For Students has earned Charity Navigator’s four-star rating –the highest possible – for six consecutive years.

Through the close of the 2016-17 school year, Step Up For Students has awarded nearly 580,000 tax credit scholarships to disadvantaged Florida students since its inception in 2001. And another nearly 13,500 Gardiner Scholarships have been awarded since that program began in 2014.

Also, on May 23, Step Up’s Jacksonville office was selected by the Jacksonville Business Journal as one of the best places to work in Jacksonville for a company between 100 and 245 employees.

Step Up is in good company in that size category with companies such as the Jacksonville Jaguars, Florida Capital Bang and Omni Hotels Jacksonville, among others.

“All of the work that each of you has done to strengthen our culture and enhance our workplace has led us to this recognition this year,” Step Up COO Anne White told staff during the announcement of the recognition. “I am very proud to work among such a fantastic group of professionals.”

 

 

Former lawmaker joins Step Up For Students board

Editor’s note: This story originally appeared on the redefinED blog on April 26, 2017.  The blog is hosted by Step Up For Students and is an education blog dedicated to recasting the way we perceive public education.

Sen. John Legg

A former state lawmaker who helped shape Florida education in policy for more than a decade will join the board of Step Up For Students, the nonprofit that helps administer two major school choice programs.

State Sen. John Legg served in the Florida House from 2004 to 2012. He was elected to the state Senate in 2012, and served as chairman of the Education Committee for four years before leaving the Legislature in 2016.

Before he supported the school choice movement as a legislator, Legg supported it as an educator. In 2000, he helped found Dayspring Academy, a high-performing Pasco County charter school where he serves as an administrator.

Step Up’s board unanimously elected Legg to the unpaid position this week. He will join another former state lawmaker, Democratic Congressman Al Lawson.

“John Legg is an innovative and successful educator, as well as a gifted legislator and a great person,” said Step Up President Doug Tuthill. “John is committed to serving disadvantaged youth, and will be a wonderful addition to our organization.”

“It’s humbling to be a part of such an amazing team that has made such a dramatic impact in the lives of young people and families,” Legg wrote in an email.

Step Up helps administer the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program, which helps more than 98,000 low-income and working class students afford private school tuition. It also helps administer the Gardiner Scholarships, which provide education savings accounts to more than 7,000 students with cetain special needs.

Travis Pillow can be reached at tpillow@sufs.org.

School Spotlight: Hope Ranch Learning Academy

By GEOFF FOX

Nataleigh Monterio put on her pink riding helmet and light-up cowboy boots.

Smiling wide, she stepped onto a mounting block, threw her leg over a 1,000-pound Appendix Quarter Horse named Georgie and began riding her around an outdoor arena at HOPE Ranch Learning Academy.

“I’ve been riding horses my entire life,” said Nataleigh, 9. “Sometimes they answer questions. Miss Patty will ask them yes or no questions and they shake their head yes.”

Nataleigh Monterio

Nataleigh Monterio, who is on the autism spectrum, enjoys equine therapy at HOPE Ranch Learning Academy in Pasco County.

Nearby, her classmate, Xavier Cebollero, 8, watched with envy. With a cast covering his left forearm after a tumbling accident, he was unable to ride that day.

“Some of the horses are a pain, because they don’t listen to me,” he said. “They speak horse.”

Nataleigh and Xavier, both third-graders, are two of HOPE Ranch’s 125 students. About 60 percent of the students are on the Gardiner Scholarship for students with certain special needs; Natalie and Xavier have diagnoses on the autism spectrum. The scholarship is managed by Step Up For Students.

Equine therapy is one aspect of a typical school week at HOPE Ranch, which operates three campuses – two in rural Hudson in northeast Pasco County and one in Zephyrhills on the county’s east side.

“Some of these kids have been bullied and abused,” said Jose Suarez, who has run the school since 2005 with Ampy, his wife of 34 years. “They don’t trust people and adults.”

The school’s horsemanship classes are taught by Patty Anderton – known to the students as “Miss Patty.” Anderton used to run a business in Odessa, Florida, where she taught clients the finer points of horse riding. About six years ago, Jose Suarez asked her to help out at the school temporarily. It turned into a full-time job and Anderton hasn’t looked back.

“I love it here,” she said. “It’s much different. My clients before were usually adults and I wanted something different.”

As Anderton spoke, Nataleigh navigated Georgie around a figure eight pattern and had her trot at different speeds.

Anderton smiled.

“The horses help bring them out of their shell,” she said. “A lot of them haven’t had the greatest life in school. They don’t trust a whole lot and the horses help bring that trust out.”

While horse riding is a popular activity, none of the students automatically get to ride every week.

“Horsemanship is a class, but riding is a privilege,” Jose Suarez said. “They have to have their grades and behavior under control. They have to earn it.”

The Suarezes opened the ranch in 2005, originally for troubled children. By then the couple, who have two adult children, had been caring for foster children for two years. Not long after opening the ranch, the mother of an autistic child approached them about expanding the program.

Ampy Suarez couldn’t say no.

“We want to give them opportunities that they never would have had otherwise,” she said.

Xavier-Cebollero-2

Xavier Cebollero, says riding a horse can be a challenge. “Some of the horses are a pain, because they don’t listen to me,” he said. “They speak horse.”

It seems to be working. A discussion Nataleigh and Xavier had in the horse arena demonstrated genuine enthusiasm among the students.

“I just love this school, in general,” Nataleigh said. “When I was five or six, I went to a completely different school. When I was really young, I was really picky, though. They didn’t have a barn; they didn’t have any animals.”

“In Miss Patty’s class, we get to go on field trips. We went to We Rock the Spectrum in Pinellas County,” Xavier said, referring to the Clearwater gym with equipment designed to help children with sensory processing disorders. “We also went to The Brick University (an art school for children). We got to make a plane and a cupcake out of LEGOs.”

Xavier wasn’t done talking, but Natalie’s excitement prevented her from staying quiet.

“One week every year, we have Spirit Week,” she said.

Xavier started to speak again.

“Xavier, calm yourself,” she said. “Then, on a specific day, we have Character Day.”

“That’s when we get to dress up like any character,” he said.

“Yes, thank you, Xavier,” she said. “I went as a HOPE Ranch Learning Academy fairy. I had a little skirt and fairy wings, and it was really cute.”

“I was a mixture of super heroes,” he said. “I had a Captain America mask and a Superman cape.”

“He was Super Ultra Xavier!” she said.

As the school continues to grow, Jose Suarez said it will expand. He expects 200 students next year.

“We’ll need to beef up our infrastructure and maybe open another campus,” he said.

Suarez attributed the school’s growth to word-of-mouth advertising among parents of children with special needs, as well as a Google arrangement that drives Internet browsers to HOPE Ranch’s website.

“I’m starting to get requests from across the nation,” he said. “I recently got a call from Wisconsin. They said, ‘If that’s the right school, we’ll move.’”

Reach Geoff Fox at gfox@sufs.org.

 

Meet Ben Zanca, Gardiner scholar

By GEOFF FOX

Student-Spotlight_blog REseizedDoctors didn’t expect Ben Zanca to live very long. Even before his birth, fluid was drained from his lungs every week for eight weeks until he was delivered.

Ben’s parents, Ann and Tony Zanca, were told Ben may need a chest tube after his birth and possibly surgery.

“But, when they put the (chest) tube in all the blood vessels shut down,” Ann Zanca said. “It’s called persistent pulmonary hypertension, which not many people survive at that age. He was transferred to Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children (in Orlando) where there is a heart-lung bypass machine.” Ben Z

Things looked bleak.

“They told us he was going to die,” Tony Zanca said. “They called in a priest and everything.”

Fortunately, a nitric oxide treatment worked and Ben did not have to go on the lung-heart bypass machine.

“They said they’d never seen a baby as sick as Ben pull through,” Ann Zanca said.

Unfortunately, Ben’s medical struggles and the family’s worries were only beginning. Problems with his blood vessels went misdiagnosed for more than 12 years.

About 18 months ago, Ben, now an outgoing 14-year-old who loves camping, was finally diagnosed with CLOVES syndrome, an extremely rare disorder characterized by tissue overgrowth and complex vascular malformations. Worldwide, less than 200 cases of CLOVES syndrome have ever been identified, according to information from Boston Children’s Hospital.

Because of CLOVES, Ben is at risk for developing blood clots and has regular doctor visits to monitor his vascular health.

That’s not his only issue. Shortly after he was born, Ben was diagnosed with cerebral palsy. He also has been diagnosed on the autism spectrum and deals with epilepsy and asthma.

Until the current school year, he attended public school in Altamonte Springs, Florida, where he lives with his family, including 9-year-old sister Megan. Tony Zanca works in the parts department of a local auto dealer and Ann works part-time jobs as a computer programmer analyst and as an advocate for parents with children who have an Individualized Educational Plan.

Ben was not thriving at the public school.

“It’s not that they didn’t care, but he wasn’t going anywhere; he was going backward,” Tony Zanca said. “Teachers have their hands tied with all the new testing and all they did was quizzing for the test. There was no hands-on learning, which is what Ben thrives on.”

For years, Ann Zanca wanted to enroll Ben in the nearby Pace Brantley School in Longwood, but the family couldn’t afford it. Established in 1971, the school has always been geared toward students with learning issues. It is situated on nine wooded acres that offer a serene setting.

Eventually, a friend told Ann Zanca about the Gardiner Scholarship for children with certain special needs; the scholarship is managed by Step Up For Students. In 2016, the Zancas applied for the scholarship – which can help families pay for tuition at partner schools,  approved therapists, specialists, curriculum, technology or even a college savings account – and Ben was accepted.

“Ben is very social and I don’t want him to miss out on the experience of school,” Ann Zanca said. “They have a well-rounded curriculum and lots of extra-curricular activities. They even have a prom. I was also concerned if it would be academic enough. Of all the places I knew of or visited, it seemed to be up to standards.

“It seems to challenge him but he doesn’t seem overwhelmed. There are people there to help him. We do have a private tutor for math. His teacher tells me he’s definitely challenged in pre-algebra, but he’s doing well. That makes me happy. The goal is that he’ll be able to get a regular diploma and either go to vocational school or college afterward.”

Now in eighth grade, Ben enjoys going to school. Due to his medical issues, he often has doctor’s appointments during the school day. Before, his mother said, he would sometimes call from school to see if she could pick him up early. Now, he doesn’t want to leave Pace Brantley’s campus.

While he has historically struggled with reading, English is now one of his favorite subjects, along with math.

“We were learning substitution, the three ways of substitution in math,” Ben said after a recent day at school. “That’s in algebra; it’s coming along.”

Of his favorite times of day is FLEX (Focused Learning Experience) Time, when students can choose a subject of their own to explore after lunch. Activities can include arts and crafts, learning a foreign language, tennis, yoga, tai chi or taking virtual field trips on a Smartphone.

On this particular day, Ben chose art.

“We were drawing different types of flags and what they look like,” he said. “I drew the Florida flag.”

Jennifer Portilla, Ben’s reading and language arts teacher, said she has seen him flourish since the school year began.

“He seems really comfortable and he’s willing to take risks. He’s not afraid to not be successful” in class, she said. “Academically, he’s making strides. He’s a pretty good writer for his age. He is able to write an essay and he doesn’t seem to struggle as much as at the beginning of the year.”

One of Ben’s other interests is the Boy Scouts. Despite his son’s many medical obstacles, Tony Zanca said he tries to treat him “like any other boy would be treated.” On a recent Boy Scout camping trip, he allowed Ben to paddle on a canoe with another scout.

“Years ago, I would never let him out in canoes down the river without me,” Tony Zanca said. “But it’s like I told him, ‘I’m going to have to start letting you do things by yourself, make your decisions and not do things wrong’. Someday soon, I’ll let him go on a (Boy Scout) camping trip by himself.”

The Zancas say that while Ben is obviously aware that he has medical issues, he doesn’t dwell on them. Because CLOVES can cause blood clots (Ben has had a few), they constantly monitor how he’s feeling. Now that he’s at Pace Brantley, which has a nurse on campus, his parents are more at ease.

“The scholarship was huge, like the answer to our prayers,” Ann Zanca said. “His self-confidence has increased tremendously. It’s a lot of hands-on learning. He made a car out of a Coke bottle and started telling me about Newton’s Laws of Motion. His self-confidence has increased tremendously.”

Reach Geoff Fox at Gfox@sufs.org

Students, parents and educators recognized during Step Up’s Rising Stars Awards

By LISA A. DAVIS

Isis Severe, 8, a third grader from Masters Preparatory School, is presented with a scholarship during Step Up For Students' Rising Star Awards at Christopher Columbus High School in Miami, Florida on Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2017.

Isis Severe, 8, a third grader from Masters Preparatory School, is presented with a medal during Step Up For Students’ Rising Star Awards at Christopher Columbus High School in Miami, Florida on Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2017.

For two weeks in February Step Up For Students shined the spotlight on scholars, parents and educators who this school year have gone above and beyond while participating in at least one of two scholarship programs for schoolchildren in Florida.

The Rising Stars Awards ceremony was held at nine different locations across the state, recognizing those outstanding individuals involved with either Step Up’s Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program for lower-income students, or the state-funded Gardiner Program for children with certain special needs. This year, Step Up received more than 650 nominations for the Rising Stars Awards.

Teachers, students, and scholars’ family members were nominated by teachers and school administrators for exceptional work throughout the school year at their respective Step Up partner schools.

Step Up For Students present students with scholarships during their Rising Star Awards at Christopher Columbus High School in Miami, Florida on Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2017.

Step Up For Students present students with medals during their Rising Star Awards at Christopher Columbus High School in Miami, Florida on Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2017.

This year, nearly 98,000 K-12 students are using the tax-credit scholarship statewide for tuition assistance at the private school of their choice, or on a transportation scholarship to offset the cost to an out-of-district public school. Another nearly 8,000 more scholars, ages 3 to 22, use the Gardiner Scholarship to customize their education by attending participating schools or by using approved, therapists, specialists, curriculum, technology – even a college savings account.

Ken Jerry Synvrit, from Schoolhouse Preparatory, is presented with a scholarship during Step Up For Students' Rising Star Awards at Christopher Columbus High School in Miami, Florida on Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2017.

Ken Jerry Synvrit, from Schoolhouse Preparatory, is presented with a medal during Step Up For Students’ Rising Star Awards at Christopher Columbus High School in Miami, Florida on Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2017.

“We are so proud of our scholars and those who help them realize their dreams and academic success,” Step Up President Doug Tuthill said before the event.  “It’s important to recognize all of those who make this program a success, and that includes the teachers who educate these kids, the parents who wanted more for their children, the kids who work hard toward their futures, and of course, our generous donors, which without them we would not exist.”

Corporate donors who help fund the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program attended each of the Rising Star Awards events and were also recognized for their support, and had a chance to meet the families they help through their donations. In 2016, the corporate community contributed a total $552 million to Step Up for these scholarships.

 

 

By GEOFF FOX

Ampy Suarez laughed heartily, while her husband Jose raised his eyebrows with a sigh. VDay2017

The couple, who run Hope Ranch Learning Academy in Hudson, Florida, have been married 34 years. The children of Cuban immigrants who came to Miami in the mid-1960s were asked about their first date, which involved an unfortunate rollercoaster ride at a fair in Miami. Rollercoasters did not agree with Jose, but he didn’t want to disappoint the girl who would become his bride.

So, he got on. He was woozy when the ride ended. So woozy, that, well … Somehow, the poise Jose showed in the aftermath forever warmed Ampy’s heart.

Nowadays, the Suarezes love their work as much as they love each other. The couple, who has three adult daughters and five grandchildren, serve 120 special needs students at Hope Ranch campuses in Hudson and Zephyrhills. About half of the students are on the Gardiner Scholarship for students with certain special needs; a scholarship managed by Step Up For Students.

One aspect of the academy’s curriculum includes equine interactions, which uses activities with horses to promote physical, occupational and emotional growth. Annually, the ranch
hosts a Horse Jamboree, and parents often get teary-eyed as they watch their child lead a 1,000-pound animal around the arena.

“ We just want to give them opportunities they never would have had otherwise,” Ampy Suarez said with a loving smile. And Jose beamed, too.

Reach Geoff Fox at gfox@sufs.org. 

Student Spotlight: Kamelia Martin was a girl without hope

Student-Spotlight_blog REseizedBY GEOFF FOX

Kamelia "Kami" Martin pictured here the day she left the orphanage in Bulgaria in 2014.

Kamelia “Kami” Martin pictured here the day she left the orphanage in Bulgaria in 2014.

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.

Kamelia "Kami" Martin was adopted by Mason and Christen Martin two years ago and now lives in Orlando. She is making great strides as part of their family and a Gardiner scholar.

Kamelia “Kami” Martin was adopted by Mason and Christen Martin two years ago and now lives in Orlando. She is making great strides as part of their family and as a Gardiner scholar.

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.”
 

 

 

 

 

 

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