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 Star 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.
This year, 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.
“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 $559 million for these scholarships.
There’s something amazing going on in Step Up For Students partner schools and hundreds of teachers, their students and their students’ parents and guardians are benefiting from it: The Teaching and Learning Exchange.
The Teaching and Learning Exchange (TLE) is a free web-based application designed to support teaching, learning, communication and accountability for administrators, teachers, parents and guardians and students. It was created by Step Up For Students Office of Student Learning and IT team members.
“This tool is opening the lines of communications between all key factors in a child’s education: students, teachers and parents,” said Carol Thomas, vice president of Office of Student Learning. “And our latest update of the applications has really made some tremendous improvements, particularly on the parents’ side.”
The most recent rollout of the TLE features an easy-to-use parent portal, which enhances communication and collaboration between school staff and families.
“It allows families to stay engage in their child’s academic and social progress, all from the click of their home computer,” said Thomas. “It’s not supposed to replace in-person parent involvement, it’s supposed to enhance it.”
The TLE allows teachers to create Personal Learning Plans (PLP) for their students, customizing what they need to work on at their pace. It helps has a collaborative parent conferencing tool, assists in identify student strengths and concern, document academic, social, emotional and note behavior goals and provides parents with a live view of their children’s grades. The TLE also has a comprehensive grade book, allowing teachers to record conduct grades and create progress reports, report cards and transcripts. It even has an attendance tracker and lunch count feature. Other features include easy access to explore Florida State Standards, unit and lesson planning, and standards mapping.
Currently, the TLE has more than 800 administrators, teacher and guardian active users. Educators, especially, are finding it a valuable tool.
Said Lilah Mills, principal at Masters Preparatory School in Hialeah:
“I really like the Personal Learning Plan, especially the conference feature. I think the format of the PLP [the elements of what the teacher is doing, what the student needs to do, and what the parent can do] really triangulates the responsibility between all three groups and provides accountability for the parents and teachers.My teachers think it is so user friendly: all the standards are pre-loaded and all of the resources are easy to access.”
Susan Gettys , lead educator at Broach School Tampa is also impressed with the TLE, especially the Personal Learning Plan.
“I love that the Personal Learning Plan tells us automatically if a student has mastered or passed or failed a specific standard based on their grades, since we can tie assignments to standards,” she said. “The customer service aspect has been amazing. Usually with a software program, you install it and never can reach anyone again. But with Step Up, I can always get help, and I love that you tweaked it based on our suggestions and needs.
“We teach multiple grade levels in a classroom, and students with multiple special needs, so the flexibility of this program makes it really viable for us as a special needs school.”
Thomas said she encourages scholarship parents to ask their teachers to use Step Up’s TLE.
“It really enhances and aids the learning experience for all parties involved,” she said. “It makes it easier for parents and guardians to communicate with their children’s teachers, received class announcements and really be in tune with what standards your child should be mastering and how they’re doing in school on a regular basis.”
Teachers, administrators, and guardians interested in using the TLE or learning about other Office of Student Learning programs, please click here to reach OSL staff.
Reach Lisa Davis at email@example.com.
By GEOFF FOX
Linery Burgos’ voice cracked with emotion as she spoke about the academic progress of her oldest daughter, Ariely, a ninth-grader at the recently opened Cristo Rey Tampa High School.
For years, Ariely has struggled with dyslexia, Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and Auditory Processing Disorder (APD), the last a condition that makes it hard for her to understand vocal tones or distinguish certain sounds.
“Some people think she can’t hear, but she can,” Burgos said of Ariely, who is 15. “Her brain just doesn’t always process what she’s hearing. Some sounds and words sound similar, so she can’t always catch if someone is being sarcastic or joking. It directly influences her reading fluency and that causes issues in school.”
Watching Ariely struggle through their neighborhood school tore at her mother’s heart. Imagine trying to learn how to read when some of the letters don’t look right and the words sound wrong.
“Sometimes, I’ll read words that aren’t even on the page and I’ll mix up sentences or skip sentences,” Ariely said.
Due to her challenges, Ariely often speaks in a soft voice and isn’t one to initiate conversation, but her smile can light up a room.
Burgos wanted to enroll her in a private Catholic school, where she could receive more attention in a Christian setting, but she and husband Jose Burgos couldn’t afford it.
Fortunately, as Ariely was about to enter third grade, her mother learned of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship managed by Step Up For Students. The family applied and Ariely was accepted. She enrolled at Tampa’s St. Joseph Catholic School for three years before transferring to Morning Star School, a private school that serves students with learning disabilities.
At Morning Star, Burgos said, the teachers worked “miracles” with Ariely.
“Step Up was great because we could get her in a school for learning disabilities,” Burgos said. “When she started sixth grade at Morning Star, she was reading on a third grade level. She is now reading on a high seventh-grade or low eighth-grade level. She still has difficulty, but she’s acquired a lot of different skills.”
Ariely said she enjoyed St. Joseph and Morning Star because of more individualized instruction, especially with reading.
“The teachers were really fun and that makes it easier to learn,” Ariely said. “They bring joy into the classroom. They were always cheerful and always caring.”
Morning Star Principal Eileen Odom said that while Ariely was struggling in a few subjects when she entered the school in sixth grade, she was obviously “very bright and spiritual.” Despite Ariely’s reading struggles, Odom said she excelled at math.
“I think she just needed an environment that was more student-centered,” Odom said. “She’s initially kind of shy and quiet. If I would get her to read something, she would talk in a real quiet voice, but if you provide her with some successful experiences she can rise to the occasion. We helped her realize she had strengths and could succeed. We spent the next three years trying to boost her up and give her confidence.”
Ariely was eventually comfortable enough at the school to run for Student Council, star in Christmas plays, assist as an altar server and help with fundraising.
When it was time for Ariely to enter high school, Burgos didn’t hesitate to choose Cristo Rey, which opened in August 2016. She said the school’s Corporate Work Study Program was particularly appealing.
Through that program, Ariely now works at Step Up’s Clearwater office several times a month. In that capacity, she has written a story about herself for Step Up’s blog, helped create a video describing her school’s relationship with Step Up, which will be shown to the nonprofit’s board of directors, as well as paperwork and other duties.
“The opportunity to go into the workforce, and a professional workforce, that’s what sold me,” Burgos said. “These children will have an opportunity that is usually for students who are leaving college. That will pump up their self-esteem and give them networking opportunities they never knew were available. It can help them have a different outlook on life.
“They’re doing it for underprivileged kids because they need it the most. Hopefully, they won’t get stuck in the rut of leaving high school and just getting some job. For a lot of their parents, maybe that’s all they knew. This may help them see that, hey, I can go to college and make something better. That will help my family and anyone who comes behind me. Giving that opportunity to children who wouldn’t otherwise have it is a blessing on its own.”
While Cristo Rey serves only low-income students, it is choosy about who is enrolled. Students must be able to maintain a C grade point average and be able to do college preparatory work.
Cristo Rey is already one of Step Up’s Success Partners, meaning it participates in a two-year comprehensive professional development program that is free to all schools serving Step Up scholars. Success Partners is grounded in current research that directly correlates student success with parent involvement regardless of economic, racial, ethnic or educational backgrounds .At Cristo Rey Principal Jim Madden said Ariely already seems comfortable. She made all A’s and one B in the first semester.
“Ariely is very quiet, but very observant,” Madden said. “She takes in everything around her. She tries hard and has already been having success in the classroom and social environment.”
Burgos said her family is thankful for the scholarship, and not just for Ariely. Her younger daughters, Linery, 13, and Jolie, 6, also have received tax-credit scholarships to attend Villa Madonna Catholic School in Tampa. Linery has been on the scholarship seven years, like Ariely, and Jolie for two.
“We are eternally grateful for these opportunities,” Burgos said. “This was a dream come true. Without Step Up, we couldn’t put our kids in Catholic school and give them the education we think they need. That’s one thing in life people can’t take from you. People can hurt you and break your heart, but no one can take away what you’ve learned.”
Reach Geoff Fox at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By ARIELY BURGOS
My name is Ariely Burgos and this is my story.
I was born in Belleville, New Jersey and when I was little, I moved to Tampa, Florida. I moved to Florida in between the time I was baptized and when my little sister was born.We are 15 months apart. She’s been by my side all of my life. She is my best friend.
My first school was Sam Rampello Magnet school in downtown Tampa. I started in kindergarten there and my last year there was in second grade. My sister and I both went there, but my sister was in a grade below me. I went to that school for three years. We changed schools because my mom was talking to the priest at my church and he told her about the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship through Step Up For Students. He told her she should apply to see if she would qualify, and she did. We went to St. Joseph’s Catholic School in Tampa where I started in third grade. I was more nervous than ever.
That year, I realized how shy I could be. At school, I did not talk to anyone and when I spoke no one heard me because I was so quiet. No one noticed me. The only person I talked to was my sister at lunch. My sister was – and still is – a confident, social and outgoing person. She is sassy and she is not afraid to speak her mind. My sister and I are complete opposites. She always made friends on the same day. My favorite part of attending the same school as my sister was that she always had my back no matter what. It was a little hard being social, but that was the least of my worries for what was next to come.
When I was in fourth grade, I was really behind with my reading, and I really struggled. I went to therapy. I had a therapist named Ms. Jen, and she was so much fun. She helped me with my homework and other schoolwork. We made real progress and one day she asked me to do this quiz. She said it was to see if I have dyslexia so I said, “OK. Why not?” I took it and the test showed that I have dyslexia. I knew I had memory problems, but this was a completely new level. It explains why it took me three hours to do my homework in fourth grade. It made me feel different, so I had to go in for more testing.
I found out I also have Auditory Processing Disorder and Attention Deficit Disorder, or ADD. I tried another year at St. Joseph’s and I was just struggling more. I stayed up really late doing homework; I got stressed out a lot, and I stared to get bad headaches. Nothing was helping me! I really didn’t know want to do. Ms. Jen recommended a new school that would help with everything. So, I changed schools again. I finished my fifth grade year at St. Joseph’s.
The next year, I went to Morning Star Catholic School in Tampa. Again, I was nervous ever. I went without my sister to this school. I made it through the first couple of hours, then on our break between classes, I could no longer be strong and I cried. I cried because I was in a new school without my sister; I missed being with her and I was going to miss my youngest sister going to preschool. I was scared my sisters would think I was different, and their friends would think I was different because I went to a different school. So, I cried, and then a girl in one of my classes noticed me and I told her why I was crying. She reassured me that I would be OK. I was starting to like this school and it was easy for me to fit in. I made friends and I was more outgoing. I loved how all the teachers cared about me and made learning fun.
My sixth and seventh grades were amazing. My eighth grade year was fun, too, but an event happened that changed the way I looked at life. At the beginning of that year, I looked at life with happiness and joy. I never even saw any darkness; I believed in light. I was so excited when I found out who my homeroom teacher because I had her the last year for religion and she was, and forever will be, my favorite teacher. In November of that year, as we got ready to leave for our Thanksgiving break, she said would be out for a while because of medical issues, but back before the Christmas play. She said not to worry, so I didn’t. But she didn’t get to come back at Christmastime. She was in and out the hospital a lot. She came back to the classroom once or twice.
We didn’t see her for a while and my class was worried. She loved us as if we were her own children. All the teachers told us that she would be OK , but she wasn’t. In April, we got a note that went home saying she had died. I was devastated. She was the only person that I ever knew who passed away. At that moment, my mind was not filled with joy or happiness, but with despair and darkness. At that moment, all of my inner-joy was gone. I was not happy about life; I was not looking forward to anything in the future. I was just hurt. I still went on, though.
I decided to just keep it all inside. That didn’t help at all. I put on a happy face for everyone, but inside I was hurt and didn’t know what to do. After a while, I decided to talk to the guidance counselor. I really just needed to talk and she understood that. I began to feel OK. That lasted until I had to choose high schools. I wanted to choose a high school that was right for me and I could fit into just fine. In the end, my mom decided for me because I couldn’t. She decided on Cristo Rey Tampa High School.
It’s a school that gives you an opportunity. It gives you job experience and it comfortably became my new high school. I just started at the school this fall, but I really like it. I am glad my mom chose it. It is a good school and I really recommend it. As part of the learning, the school gives you an off-campus job and you work there once a week. I work Tuesdays at Step Up For Students, where my scholarship comes from, It’s so much fun. Everyone is welcoming and friendly; they all are willing to help you when you need it. I like working at Step Up and learning more about things that happen in the real world and getting really good experience.
Editor’s note: We like having you at Step Up, too, Ariely. We’re so proud of you and how far you’ve come! We were first introduced to Ariely at Morning Star where we did a photo shoot for our annual report. We learned she wants to become an athletics coach. Here’s her photo in our Step Up For Students 2015-16 annual report with her wonderful smile:
By PAUL SOOST
WEST PALM BEACH – The PNC Financial Services Group, Inc. (NYSE: PNC), one of the largest diversified financial services institutions in the U.S., announced Wednesday a $2 million donation to the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program through Step Up For Students for 329 financially disadvantaged children in Palm Beach County.
The $2 million donation will be used for scholarships during the 2016-17 school year. This is the first time that PNC has partnered with Step Up For Students, which is funded by corporationhttp://www,pnc.coms with tax-credited donations. PNC’s contribution will fund K-12 scholarships, so lower-income children can attend the school that best meets their learning needs.
The donation was announced by Cressman Bronson, PNC’s regional president of Florida East, on Wednesday while Atlantic Christian Academy‘s 11th and 12th grade Advanced Placement economics class visited the bank’s local West Palm Beach offices. During their time at PNC, the students learned about monitoring credit scores, applying for school and car loans, as well as learning about the different lines of business that keep the engine of the bank humming smoothly.
“Our support of Step Up for Students is a strategic investment in the future of Palm Beach County children,” said Bronson.
“By easing the financial burden for parents with this tax donation, we’re supporting a solid foundation for the growth and success of our local children, their families and ultimately, our Florida economy.”
The program allows recipients to choose between a scholarship to help with private school tuition and fees, or a transportation scholarship to attend an out-of-district public school.
During the 2016-17 school year, Step Up For Students is serving nearly 98,000 students throughout Florida with tuition scholarships valued up to $5,886 per student. More than 1,700 private schools participate in the scholarship program statewide.
“We are truly grateful for the generosity and support of PNC. The positive impact they will have on 329 children this year alone is truly remarkable,” said Step Up For Students CFO Joe Pfountz. “PNC is a great partner, and on behalf of our families, we thank them for their generosity.”
The PNC Financial Services Group, Inc. is one of the largest diversified financial services institutions in the United States, organized around its customers and communities for strong relationships and local delivery of retail and business banking; residential mortgage banking; specialized services for corporations and government entities, including corporate banking, real estate finance and asset-based lending; wealth management and asset management. For information about PNC, visit the website.
By PAUL SOOST
ST. PETERSBURG – Wright Flood, the largest provider of federal flood insurance policies in the U.S., recently announced its largest contribution to date to the Step Up For Students Scholarship Program. Wright Flood’s $1 million contribution will provide 164 scholarships to financially disadvantaged Florida schoolchildren.
The contribution was announced during the Step Up For Students Rising Stars Awards celebration in Pinellas County. The event, hosted at St. Petersburg Catholic High School, recognized Step Up scholars, parents and teachers for their exceptional work during the 2016-17 school year. Students were able to thank Wright Flood executives and other donors attending the event. In 2016, the corporate community contributed a total $559 million for these scholarships, helping lower-income students throughout Florida realize their dreams of attending a private school that fits their educational needs.
Wright Flood has partnered with Step Up For Students since 2008, contributing $2,850,000, which has provided a total of 516 scholarships. Step Up is a nonprofit organization that helps administer the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship. The program is funded by corporations through dollar-for-dollar tax credited donations.
“Wright Flood is proud to donate annually to the Step Up For Students Scholarship Program and is impressed with the success of the students who participate,” said Patty Templeton-Jones, president of Wright Flood. “As a St. Petersburg company, we are so glad to see students in our home state benefit.”
During the 2016-17 school year, Step Up For Students is serving nearly 98,000 students throughout Florida with tuition scholarships valued up to $5,886 per student. About 1,700 private schools participate in the scholarship program statewide. Scholars may also choose a $500 scholarship to offset the cost of transportation to an out-of-district public school.
“We are always grateful to longtime corporate partners like Wright Flood who recognize the value of educational choice and who support our mission to ensure that all Florida students have access to learning environments that suit their individual needs,” said Doug Tuthill, Step Up For Students president. “We are grateful for Wright Flood’s continued support and for their commitment to the communities they serve.”
By GEOFF FOX
Ampy Suarez laughed heartily, while her husband Jose raised his eyebrows with a sigh.
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 email@example.com.
By STEP UP FOR STUDENTS STAFF
We have gratifying legal news to share. The Florida Supreme Court today rejected a final appeal, and the case against Florida’s 15-year-old Tax Credit Scholarship is officially over. Our students and parents won.
In 2014, the Florida Education Association and other groups challenged the program, arguing it steered money to private religious schools, and violated a provision in the state constitution that mandates a “uniform” public school system. The scholarships, they contended, were similar to school vouchers the high court struck down in 2006. But this time, the state prevailed, allowing tens of thousands of scholars to remain in the schools of their choice. The ruling was handing down early Wednesday, ending a long and tireless fight for Florida’s schoolchildren’s rights for education equality.
“Low-income parents and children in Florida have a great deal to celebrate today knowing that their access to school choice and a quality school will no longer be threatened,” John Kirtley, vice chairman of the American Federation for Children and Step Up For Students’ chairman and founder, said in a statement. “We would like to thank our coalition partners and allies in Florida who have worked tirelessly to defend the program and the children who rely on these life-changing scholarships. There should be no barrier preventing a child from reaching their full potential or receiving a world-class education, and we are thankful this meritless lawsuit has been resolved.”
Community and political leaders throughout the state have been applauding the decision, including Rev. R. B. Holmes of Bethel Missionary Baptist Church in Tallahassee, who helped lead the fight against the lawsuit. Said Holmes: “On behalf of all the scholarship children, their families and their clergy in the Save Our Scholarships coalition, I commend the state Supreme Court on their wise application of the law.”
Step Up For Students president Doug Tuthill added: “The court has spoken, and now is the time for us all to come together to work for the best interests of these children. We face enormous challenges with generational poverty, and we need all hands on deck.”
We know these legal proceedings over the past two-and-a-half years have created some angst among our families and supporters, and we hope you, too, will celebrate this ruling. The scholarship this year is serving 98,000 deserving students, and we expect even greater things ahead.
Faith Manuel, who has had three children use the scholarship, including her first son who was born when she was a teenager and is a senior a the University of North Florida, was overjoyed by the news.
“Almost one year after our Historic March on Tallahassee with Martin Luther King III, three days after we celebrated Dr. King’s legacy, we have such a tremendous victory for the students in Florida,” said Manuel, who was a speaker during that rally. “My children’s ability to choose the school which worked for them has made all the difference in their individual success as students. I’m so thankful that this program will have the ability to continue to make a difference for Florida’s students.”
By GEOFF FOX
Chris Yother could have slipped through the cracks.
A Merritt Island resident, he was one of nine children – and one of a set of quadruplets – born to Kate Brown and Michael Yother.
Unfortunately, Yother’s parents eventually divorced and money was tight. He had always been a conscientious student, but as high school approached, his mother decided she wanted the quadruplets educated at Brevard Private Academy (BPA), a local private school.
The Yothers applied for Florida Tax Credit Scholarships through Step Up For Students, and each of the quadruplets – Chris, Eric, Josh and Allison – were accepted.
At BPA, Chris Yother took dual-enrollment classes through Brevard Community College, now Eastern Florida State College, and often tutored other students. By the time he graduated from high school in 2013, he had also earned an associate’s degree.
Now a 21-year-old senior at the University of Central Florida majoring in international relations, he still wants to help others.
After he earns his bachelor’s degree, Yother wants to join the U.S. Navy as a commissioned officer.
“Down the road, I’d like to the represent the State Department as a foreign service officer; that would be my dream job,” Yother said. “You represent the interests of Americans abroad, protect them and stand up for their rights.
“I’d love to be in France. I speak some decent French, but I really like the French culture. The opportunity to be stationed anywhere abroad would be an honor.”
His brothers, Eric and Josh Yother, currently serve in the U.S Navy and Marine Corps., respectively. Allison Yother has also considered a military career.
“We’re from a huge military family, and I almost joined right after high school,” Chris Yother said. “Both of my grandfathers were in the military and lots of uncles and a great-grandfather.”
Chris Yother said he and his siblings weren’t falling behind at their local public school, but a private institution seemed “more like a better fit,” adding that their ninth-grade transition to Brevard Private Academy “was very smooth.”
“I liked it a lot,” he said. “The big difference was (smaller) class sizes. The instruction was more personalized. The teachers could do more one-on-one stuff. The environment was modified to help the individual.
“In public school, we were having trouble connecting with the instructors and the material.”
Brown, Yother’s mother, was especially pleased with the change of environment for her quadruplets.
“With the one-on-one attention, they really learned and excelled,” she said.
Jenna Brocchini, an administrator at Brevard Private Academy, described Chris Yother as the most outgoing of his siblings. His positive effect on the small private school was almost immediate.
“He’s a friend to everybody and probably never had an enemy a day in his life,” Brocchini said. “What always struck me about him was he always had a very strong interest in politics. He actually went to see Obama speak” at Merritt Island in 2010.
“He camped out just to see the president speak. He was there the night before, and Obama didn’t speak until the afternoon. He was there in a camping chair and waiting for hours. A lot of kids that age don’t know much about politics or really care.”
As Yother prepares for his senior year at UCF, he is working at Office Depot, where he fixes computers in the technology department. He is also busy organizing paperwork for the Navy.
“It’s a rarity that I have much down time, although I did take a little break this summer,” he said. “I like to read a lot, stay home and still follow all the political stuff.”
And, he’s still helping people.
Brocchini said she recently posted a message on Brevard Private Academy’s Facebook page, asking if anyone could help set up computers at the school or offer technological support.
“Right away, he said, ‘I’ll come, anytime,’” she said. “He’s one of those people you rarely come across. He used to tutor his peers, and he wasn’t selfish with his counseling. He was always ready to help any of his friends. Public service is something I’ve always seen him doing.
“He’s a real humanitarian. I really feel like he’s going to have a successful future.”
BY GEOFF FOX
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.
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.”