BY ROGER MOONEY
SEMINOLE, Florida – Dylan Quessenberry was 15 when he walked up a flight of stairs for the first time.
It was 20 steps, linking two floors at his school. But for Dylan, who has cerebral palsy, that staircase was more than just a route to the cafeteria at Learning Independence For Tomorrow (LiFT) Academy, a private K-12 school that serves neurodiverse students.
Those 20 steps were part of his journey to what he called “independence,” something he sought when he joined the school in the fifth grade on a Family Empowerment Scholarship for Students with Unique Abilities (formerly the Gardiner Scholarship).
“It was a defining moment in his life,” LiFT Principal Holly Andrade said. “A massive milestone.”
Dylan, now 18 and a senior at LiFT, recently recalled that day as if he were still standing at the summit, sweaty and spent and filled with a sense of accomplishment that few can understand.
Like a marathoner on race day, Dylan woke that morning knowing the years of work he put in with his physical therapist, Valerie, were about to pay off.
“Those stairs,” he thought, “are mine!”
And they were, one arduous step at a time.
Leaving his walker at the bottom and cheered on by students who were involved in afterschool programs, the school staff still on campus and Valerie, Dylan made the ascent. He pumped his fists in the air when he finished.
It took nearly half an hour.
“It was amazing,” he said. “I was like, glorified.”
Andrade arrived on the scene in time to see Dylan reach the second-floor landing.
“I cried like a baby,” she said. “Oh my gosh! I’ll never forget his face.”
It’s hard to imagine a bigger smile.
LiFT is not far from Dylan’s home in Seminole, where he lives with his mother, Marlena, and his twin brother, Ryan. The school includes LiFT University Transition Program, a four-year, post-high school program that Dylan will attend after he graduates this spring.
The program is for neurodiverse young adults who won’t follow the typical path for secondary education. It teaches employability skills, independent living skills and social skills. Community partners offer internships, which often lead to fulltime jobs.
“This school has been amazing for him,” Marlena said. “I don’t know where we would be if we didn’t have LiFT Academy.
“He’s so fortunate to have this school. I’m so fortunate to have this school, because I can send him here and not have to worry about a thing.”
The Family Empowerment Scholarship for Students with Unique Abilities, managed by Step Up For Students, is an education savings account (ESA). ESAs allow parents to spend their children’s education dollars on a variety of educational purposes. Marlena uses it to cover Dylan’s tuition.
“If he didn’t have Step Up, he wouldn’t have accomplished what he has today,” Marlena said.
When Dylan arrived in the fifth grade, he couldn’t button his shirt or zip his jacket. He couldn’t open a bag of snacks or put a straw in his drink. He couldn’t open a door. Or walk up a flight of stairs.
In seven years, he changed those can’ts into cans.
“I gained a lot of independence,” Dylan said.
A lot of those gains were accomplished because of hours spent in physical and occupational therapy. Some were the product of surgeries.
“We’ve been through some surgeries,” Marlena said.
How many? Dylan and his mom both answer the question with a groan.
“About seven,” he said.
Dylan was born with scoliosis, reactive airway disease, a Grade IV brain bleed, Hydrocephalus and a congenital heart defect. He’s had surgeries to lengthen his hamstrings, heel cords and hip adductors.
On three occasions, Dylan spent six weeks in a cast that began at his chest and ran to the bottom of both feet.
What is remarkable about Dylan, Andrade said, is that in the seven years she has known him, she has never heard him complain about his surgeries or the obstacles placed in his life.
“Not once,” she said. “It’s that kind of positive attitude that has gotten him to where he is.”
Could you blame Dylan if he did? Especially when his twin brother does not have cerebral palsy.
“It was hard, at first,” Dylan admitted, “but I overcame the hardships of life and moved on. It’s still in the back of my mind.”
Dylan’s legs are not strong enough to support him on their own, so he uses a walker. He is working toward walking with canes.
The walker doesn’t slow him down. With it, Dylan is one of the fastest students in LiFT’s running club. Assistant Principal Darrin Karuzas never fails to offer this warning when he sees Dylan zip down a hallway:
“Slow down or you’ll get a ticket!”
Marlena has taught Dylan to embrace being neurodiverse. She was adopted by her parents and vividly recalled the day in the first grade when she mentioned that in class. Her teacher scolded her for talking about it.
“I was proud of being adopted,” Marlena said. “My parents taught me to be proud of it, and that’s what I tell Dylan, ‘Be proud of who you are.’ We don’t refer to it as a disability.”
Marlena has always been up front with her son about his physical limitations. There are some things Dylan can do and some he can’t, and Marlena has helped him deal with both sides. It’s that honesty that has allowed Dylan to overcome so much.
“One hundred percent,” he said.
Dylan endured the surgeries because he knew each would help bring him closer to the independence he craved.
“I hated it,” he said, “but I had to do it. It helped me walk. It helped me get up in the car and everything I needed to do.”
Dylan wants to get his driver’s license. He wants to get married someday and start a family.
“That’s my ultimate dream,” he said.
He’s hoping to land a job at a local Winn-Dixie, beginning first as a bagger then, hopefully, as a stock clerk.
“I can easily stock shelves,” he said.
A lover of all things cars and trucks, Dylan would ultimately like to work in an auto shop, fixing cars. Maybe own a garage.
He also wants a Chevy Silverado.
“There is a lot he wants to do in life,” Marlena said. “That’s one thing about him, he is driven.”
Roger Mooney, manager, communications, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By ROGER MOONEY
An email arrived in Michele Hopstetter’s inbox on July 16 that made her cry.
“Happy tears,” she said.
The notification came from Step Up For Students and informed Michele and her husband, Dan, that despite the recent increase in their annual income because Michele landed a full-time job, their daughter, Evelyn, will remain eligible for a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship until she graduates high school.
The “once in, always in” rule was part of HB7067, signed into law in late June by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. The bill expands the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship and Family Empowerment Scholarship, two income-based programs managed by Step Up. (Parents will need to complete an online application each year to indicate that their children will continue using the scholarship.)
Evelyn used the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship to attend Keswick Christian School in St. Petersburg, Florida, where she excelled last year as a first grader.
“Now she can stay (at Keswick) and continue to do well,” Michele said. “I was ecstatic. I really was. I cried because I was so excited.”
Michele and Dan live in St. Petersburg and have two children. Both attend school with the help of scholarships managed by Step Up.
Michele called the scholarships a “godsend.”
“It has helped us tremendously, because both our children are extremely bright,” Michele said, “I’m not just saying that because I’m their mom. I’m saying that because I’ve seen what they’ve done.”
Triston, who turns 12 this month, was 8 when diagnosed with autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), severe anxiety and depression.
“It’s been a very challenging time with him,” Michele said. “He’s very high-functioning. Very intelligent. But emotionally and socially he is so far behind.”
Prone to angry outburst, Triston struggled at his neighborhood school. Michele said it was because he had yet to receive his diagnoses and the school’s staff really didn’t know what they were dealing with. She learned of the Gardiner Scholarship from a neighbor and after researching schools, settled on LIFT, a private K-12 school that accepts all students but specializes in those with neurodiversity. Triston began attending the school in the second grade.
“I love everything about LIFT,” Michele said. “I would not take him anywhere else. He is thriving there.”
The Hopstetters learned of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship as Evelyn was getting ready to enter first grade.
Dan works in the deli department at Publix. Michele said it was a struggle to make ends meet, but they were living in her dad’s house, and he was helping with some of the bills.
Michele was not working at the time. She was finishing her bachelor’s degrees in business management and human resources from the University of Phoenix with a full-time course load from the online university.
She began work on her college degrees in 2009 when the family lived in Chauncey, Ohio.
They moved to St. Petersburg in 2015, and Michele home-schooled Triston until he was diagnosed, and they learned of the Gardiner Scholarship and LIFT.
Having qualified for the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, Michele began researching private schools in the St. Petersburg area. She settled on Keswick, because she liked the faith-based education and felt Evelyn would be challenged academically.
Turns out it was a perfect fit. Evelyn made the honor roll all four quarters as a first grader.
“That’s why she’s going to a school that’s way beyond our (financial) reach,” Michele said. “I know she’ll excel there.”
Diana Dumais, Keswick’s lower school principal, described Evelyn as an enthusiastic student who loves school and arrives each day with a smile on her face.
“She’s a real blessing in the classroom,” Diana said. “The teachers enjoy her little sense of humor. She’s just a great kid all around. She really works hard and wants to do better. She’s just precious.”
While Evelyn was enjoying her first year at Keswick, Michele received her degrees from the University of Phoenix and started working full-time in the human resource department at the Children’s Home Network in Tampa. Her salary raised the family’s income above the income ceiling for a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship. So, when she applied earlier this year for renewal, her application was denied.
“We were worried about what we were going to do,” Michele said. “We were going to have to move her, because we couldn’t afford (Keswick).”
The tuition for second through fourth grade at Keswick is $11,150 a year. Without the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, Michele and Dan would have to pay more than $900 a month. That meant they were looking for another school. But that email on July 16 from Step Up changed everything.
Plus, Keswick informed Michele that Evelyn was eligible for some financial aid. That plus the scholarship reduced the tuition to $280 a month plus expenses.
“We would do what we could to help them, to keep Evelyn here,” Diana said.
Life, Michele said, has often gotten in the way for the Hopstetters. But Michele has her degree and a career that she expects to build upon, and Dan is up for a promotion at work. And, because of education choice, their children are thriving in their scholastic settings.
“Having the Step Up For Students’ scholarships has improved (our lives) to where my children are going to make it,” Michele said. “Especially my son.”
Roger Mooney, marketing communications manager, can be reached at email@example.com.
By JEFF BARLIS
TAMPA, Fla. – Two months after her son was diagnosed with autism, Laurie Guzman felt broken and defeated, exhausted from searching for the right school.
A scholarship made her whole, if only for a short time.
Ezra was a tall, slender 4-year-old when he and his mom took a tour of LiFT Academy, a private school in Seminole that serves children with special needs.
Meeting the school’s executive director, Ezra furrowed his brow and narrowed his deep brown eyes.
“I’m a bad boy,” he stated as a matter of fact, “so I know you won’t let me come here.”
Kim Kuruzovich, equal parts caring mother and wizened educator, was stunned.
“There are no bad children,” she said, her voice raising an octave. “What are you talking about?”
“Oh, no,” Ezra said, “my teacher told me that. I’m a bad boy. That’s why I got kicked out of school.”
Kuruzovich knelt down to meet Ezra’s gaze and put her hands on his shoulders.
“You are not a bad boy,” she said. “You’re a great boy.”
She turned to Laurie and insisted Ezra enroll, if for no other reason than to learn he’s not bad.
Instantly, Laurie felt a great dam of tension burst with relief. She knew LiFT was where Ezra needed to be.
“I cried on the way home,” Laurie said. “It was heartbreaking. That was the first time I had heard him say he was a bad boy. We don’t use that in our house, so I knew where it was coming from.”
Ezra was 2 when his father, Air Force Sgt. Luis Guzman-Castillo, got orders to move to MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa. Two years later, Ezra’s explosive meltdowns had left whole classrooms trembling in his wake. Laurie was told to find a new preschool.
The diagnosis followed, but it didn’t bring clarity or relief. Instead, raw fear galloped through every synapse of Laurie’s mind as she drove home from the doctor’s office in a daze.
“I knew nothing about anything with autism,” she said. “I didn’t know what to do, where to go, nothing.”
She knew that Ezra was bright and verbal at an early age. She and Luis taught him with flash cards when he was 6 months old.
Ezra was so sweet and charming. Laurie could get lost in his eyes in one moment and then watch storm clouds gather in another.
The meltdowns were devastating. Kicking, screaming, crying, and sometimes running.
“They’re about 45 minutes,” Laurie explained, “and I’d be melting down with him by the end.”
She quit her job as a bank branch manager to stay home with Ezra and his little brother, Elijah. Laurie’s sister, who had two sons with autism back in their home state of Alabama was helpful. But there was so much to learn, it was easy to feel overwhelmed and lonely.
LiFT Academy broke the spell.
One of the tenets of the school is that parents are the experts on their children, so engagement is high. Kuruzovich, who has a daughter with autism, has an inviting way of sharing 20-plus years of experience with parents who are just learning how to navigate this world.
She told Laurie about the Gardiner Scholarship, a state program that allows families with children who have special needs to pay for therapy, tuition and other education-related services of their choice.
“The Gardiner Scholarship literally changed our lives,” Laurie said. “It made it so we are actually able to breathe. It gave me hope that my son can get help and learn like every other kid. I didn’t know that was going to be possible.”
Ezra felt more comfortable right away. He made friends. One teacher wondered if he really had autism.
Just wait, Kuruzovich said.
“When we saw it, it was pretty big,” she said of the inevitable first meltdown. “But it’s not a negative.”
That was the biggest relief to Laurie, who used to lose sleep worrying Ezra would get kicked out the next time he knocked over a desk. But at LiFT, the teachers, administrators and his therapists all know how to avoid and defuse meltdowns.
One year later, Ezra is in first grade, studying at a second-grade level. He even represented the school recently when some business people came to visit, telling them: “I love this school because I’m really safe. I can be who I am. People like me here.”
With structures in place at school and a home, everything was going well. Laurie had a plan to go back to work.
Then Luis’ new orders came. They’re moving to Alabama in January.
“Ezra is about to experience the biggest transition of his life,” Laurie said. “And he doesn’t do well with transition anyway. His school is going to change. His friends are going to change. His support is going to change. All of that keeps me up at night.”
Laurie has family in Alabama, but there is no special needs scholarship. The school she found charges $8,000 for tuition – paid up front. It’s a price tag that would make any working-class family swoon.
A proposal in the U.S. House of Representatives to create education spending accounts for some military families would have helped the Guzmans, but the House Rules Committee did not include it for a vote in May.
Rather than panicking, Laurie feels herself rising to the challenge of helping to create a scholarship.
Now, she’s the one with marching orders.
“We were meant to come to Tampa,” she said. “We were meant to get the diagnosis. We were meant to come to LiFT. And I am meant to go to Alabama and make the difference I can make.”
“That’s my mission, to talk to people eye to eye and say what we need, what would help. I’ll say, ‘Look at a mother and a father who got a diagnosis that was completely devastating, thinking our lives were over. And they’re not.’ ”
Jeff Barlis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.