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Adopted siblings thrive in private school after severe neglect in early childhood

Sobel family.

Editor’s note: To mark National Adoption Awareness Month, we highlight the tax credit scholarship that serves children who are or were in Florida’s foster care system.

By JEFF BARLIS

INVERNESS, Fla. – There is no hiding from the nightmarish stories of his early childhood, but Diego Cornelius is grateful to have forgotten most of the details.

Some things he can’t forget, like the time he smelled smoke in their mobile home and woke everyone, saving them, before all of their possessions burned. Or the time he fell from a boat without a life vest, and nearly drowned before his mom jumped in.

Most of the time, he and his sisters were left alone. Their father was gone, their mother addicted to a variety of drugs. Her extended family and boyfriend had lengthy criminal records.

“He always had a struggle to survive,” his adoptive mother said.

These days, 13-year-old Diego is grateful for a lot of things: his younger sisters, Alyssa and Bianca, who look to him as a role model; his former foster parents, who adopted them; and the school choice scholarship that’s allowed them to attend the Catholic school that has embraced them all as family.

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As a foster mom to more than 100 children over the last 22 years, Patricia Sobel knows something about the importance of a caring, structured environment.

That’s why she lit up when she learned about the Step Up For Students scholarship that empowers low-income families to send their kids to the private school of their choice. The scholarship also serves foster children and adopted children who were in Florida’s foster care system.

“I was in shock,” she recalled. “Shock, for two days. I couldn’t believe they were actually eligible for this free education. What a gift!”

When Diego, Alyssa, and Bianca entered Patricia’s life, she realized they were special. Six years ago, they were rescued from a life of severe neglect.

“They were living in a drug house,” Patricia said, her low, soft voice punctuated with warm emotion. “They were in a garage with no running water or electricity. Their teeth were blackened. Their heads were filled with lice. They were so filthy, they had to be bathed at the police station.”

Diego remembers the lice crawling under the tight waves of his reddish-blond hair.

“We had to put mayonnaise in our hair and wear caps over it,” he said. “I still think about that. It means someone is there to care for you and make sure you’re healthy.”

That was just the start. Diego needed a surgical procedure on his eye, and all three children needed counseling and dental work.

For kids who had so little growing up, even small gestures made a big impression.

“If I’m hungry, I just go ask and they ask me what I want,” Diego said. “They make sure we don’t starve. They make sure to protect us. My mom likes to lock the doors each night and make sure the windows are closed.”

“They love us.”

It took time for Diego and his sisters to go from “Pat” and “Chuck” to “Mom” and “Dad,” but now the love is mutual.

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The children have gotten used to the same love and care at Saint John Paul II Catholic School in nearby Lecanto.

“I like the teachers, all of them,” said Alyssa, 11. “They’re kind and they help us.”

Bianca, 10, enjoys learning about religion, something else that was missing in their early years.

None of the siblings attended preschool, and Diego still feels the effects of being behind academically. His biological mother took him to kindergarten for the first week but never brought him back. He doesn’t know why.

When Pat and Chuck sent him to their neighborhood school, Diego was a 6-year-old in kindergarten alongside 5-year-old Alyssa. They remain classmates today.

After a couple of years living in the Sobels’ four-bedroom foster home in Tampa, everything fell into place for adoption. The children’s biological parents no longer had rights to custody. Despite their troubled past, the siblings were vibrant, compassionate, and healthy.

A few months later, Patricia and Charles moved everyone north from bustling Tampa to the rural rolling hills of Inverness to start Don Bosco’s Children’s Home, named after John Bosco, a Catholic saint who dedicated his life to helping disadvantaged youth. The nonprofit had purchased three houses and the lush, tranquil land they sat on. It needed a lot of work – a new roof here, a new air conditioning system there, paint and landscaping everywhere.

Patricia Sobel is executive director of Don Bosco’s Children’s Home in Inverness, Fla.

The Sobels know how to rehabilitate.

Their organization is still getting off the ground. Their goal is to find foster parents to live in the other two houses, to use their home as a blueprint. The need is large and growing.

“I get calls every day to place kids in foster care,” Patricia said.

The number of children entering Florida’s foster care system has risen sharply, and a recent study by the University of South Florida showed a tie to the opioid crisis.

“I’m going to continue taking more children,” Patricia said. “One thing I try to do is get them all in the Step Up For Students program.”

In the three years they’ve lived in Inverness, they’ve sent all 13 of their children to Saint John Paul II. Patricia has fond memories of her biological daughter, Adrienne, attending Catholic schools. More importantly, she feels a small school with a more individually tailored environment is best for her foster and adopted children.

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Earlier this year as a sixth-grader at SJP2, Diego got in trouble for plagiarizing a paper. His teacher was ready to give him an F. The principal intervened.

“He wasn’t trying to do it on purpose, he just had never been taught the proper way,” said Lee Sayago, himself an energetic newcomer at the school.

Diego was upset. Getting all A’s and making the Principal’s List was a borderline obsession from the time he first attended an assembly and saw his high-achieving classmates receive special recognition.

Bianca, Alyssa, and Diego Cornelius are all smiles at Saint John Paul II Catholic School in Lecanto, Fla.

He got a second chance and beamed with confidence when he pulled Sayago aside to show him his new grade – 97, the highest score of anyone in Grades 6-8.

“It could have been a negative experience,” Sayago said, the corners of his eyes creased with pride. “But the way he handled it was amazing.”

Diego is in the midst of a growth spurt. He loves sports that involve running and lifts weights regularly in hopes of getting “six-pack” abs. After a couple of years of falling just short, he’s made all A’s.

“It’s amazing what a little nourishment and love can do,” Patricia said. “It comes from the home and the school, and then they just grow and blossom.”

About Saint John Paul II Catholic School

Opened in 1985 as part of the Archdiocese of St. Petersburg, St. John Paul II is the only Catholic school in rural Citrus County. The school serves 205 K-8 students, including 81 on Step Up For Students scholarships. SJP2 is a candidate school for the International Baccalaureate Middle Years Programme and is pursuing authorization as an IB World School. The school administers the MAP Growth test three times a year as well as the Terra Nova Spring test. Annual tuition is $6,645 for K-5 and $6,945 for 6-8.

Jeff Barlis can be reached at jbarlis@sufs.org.

School choice scholarship was her ticket out of extreme poverty

By JEFF BARLIS

At Seven Rivers Christian School in Lecanto, there’s a list of core values for students. Among them: Do hard things.

Maloni Lewis knows it. She’s lived it.

Maloni Lewis, a Step Up For Students graduate, now attends College of Central Florida in Ocala.

With two disabled parents and three older brothers in and out of jail, Maloni grew up in extreme poverty. Their community in nearby Crystal River, with its run-down homes and overgrown yards, was full of hopeless people.

Devastated by the path her sons had taken, mom Renée had an unyielding determination to chart a different course for Maloni. A tall, broad-shouldered woman, she made a school-choice scholarship the ticket to a better life.

“We went through a lot of trauma,” Renée said after a pause, her eyes welled up with tears. “But I told Maloni, it doesn’t matter where you come from, it’s where you’re at.”

Like her brothers, Maloni struggled in third grade at her neighborhood school. Her reading, writing and math grades were poor. Other than her trademark mane of meticulous braids, she wasn’t herself. The playful smile, the one mom said “has diamonds in it,” was missing.

Renée had seen this before. Her boys were bright and talented, but they came home from school explaining how it wasn’t cool to be smart. They were made fun of for speaking proper English. Bad friends led to bad choices. Going to jail, Renée said, was a virus that tore through the family.

Maloni would be different.

Through a local nonprofit organization, Renée found out about Seven Rivers and the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program that would make paying the tuition possible. She applied through Step Up For Students.

Formerly a certified nursing assistant who worked late hours and double shifts to make ends meet, Renée went on disability after she was injured in a fall. She also has kidney and heart problems that cause frequent hospitalizations.

After her injury, husband Donald went on partial disability due to worsening asthma. Money became a problem. Power and water were hard to keep on.

It was all a blur to Maloni. Until Seven Rivers.

Her first memory of the school is from age 9, when teachers, staff and parents came to help her family move. The Lewis home had been deemed uninhabitable, and they needed help moving to Maloni’s grandparents’ house.

“They’ve always been family to us,” Maloni said of the school.

Nestled along a rolling hillside dotted with oaks and pines, the school’s rusticated concrete-block buildings are modern and clean. For Maloni, the people inside made all the difference.

Chief among them was resource coordinator Donna Nelson, a wiry, fiery, caring woman who is now the school’s director of admissions. She became a mentor to Maloni and a close friend of the family.

“My secret angel,” Renée said.

Nelson’s job was to work with struggling kids, and she spoke frequently with Renée about Maloni’s strengths, weaknesses and direction. They plotted a course to help Maloni catch up in an academic environment that was far more rigorous than her previous school.

“At first I thought she was mean,” Maloni said. “But she wasn’t. She’s just passionate. She wants people to learn. She wants to help you.”

Maloni turned to Nelson in and out of school. If she needed tutoring or was hungry, Nelson was there. Sometimes when Renée was in the hospital, it was Nelson who broke the news to Maloni and offered rides and a place to stay.

“She loves her,” Renée said. “And I just wish for other families to have that. It’s so huge.”

Even with Nelson and Renée pushing, it took years to get Maloni on track in the classroom. Math was a stubborn nemesis, and she was plagued by doubts. I shouldn’t be here. Maybe college isn’t for me.

But her teachers never gave up. Maloni’s support structures grew to include year-round sports – volleyball, basketball and track.

Renée Lewis, left, and Donna Nelson forged a strong bond in raising Maloni together.

After being a student who put forth a minimal effort, Maloni found a passion for learning and hit her stride in high school. Her GPA went from 2.4 as a freshman to 3.8 as a senior. She even conquered math.

With graduation looming in the spring of 2017, Maloni applied and got accepted to a small college in Pennsylvania.

“She wanted to go as far away from her community as possible,” Nelson said.

The school offered some scholarship money. But it wasn’t enough, so Maloni decided to go to the College of Central Florida in Ocala.

She recently finished her first semester with mostly A’s. Her plan is to get an associate’s degree, then transfer to Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va. The dream is to become a nurse like her mom and travel the world.

So much of her success is owed to Seven Rivers.

“I’m overly prepared,” she said. “Freshman year is supposed to be hard, but it’s really easy. It makes me realize I’ve been educated properly.”

From the moment her daughter graduated high school, Renée was “on a cloud.” She felt a sense of peace, perspective, and gratitude for the scholarship that made Seven Rivers possible.

“Step Up For Students is a lifeline,” she said. “It allows kids and families to dream. What they thought was so far out of reach is possible.”

Maloni knows. She’s lived it.

About Seven Rivers Christian School

Founded in 1988, the school is affiliated with Seven Rivers Presbyterian Church. It is accredited by Christian Schools of Florida, the National Council for Private School Accreditation, and AdvancEd. The school serves 502 K-12 students, including 126 on Step Up For Students scholarships. The curriculum has an emphasis on college prep and includes honors, Advanced Placement, and dual enrollment courses in high school. The school administers the Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) test three times a year. Tuition rang

Reach Jeff Barlis at jbarlis@sufs.org.