Editor’s Note: This post originally ran March 18, 2021 on the redefinED blog, which is hosted by Step Up For Students. This is the second in a series of stories exploring the Gardiner Scholarship Program.
By ROGER MOONEY
Danielle Drummond was skeptical when she first saw the virtual reality headsets and consoles, and even the large-screen TVs, that are available to families who receive Florida’s Gardiner Scholarship for students with special needs.
“At first, I even wondered, ‘What on earth is the educational value of this?’” said Drummond, who lives in Fort Lauderdale.
It was 2018 and Drummond’s son Tristan, who is on the autism spectrum and is homeschooled, had recently undergone back surgery to correct a tethered spinal cord, which he had since birth. Drummond hoped Tristan, 6 at the time, could relearn to walk with the help of virtual reality.
Virtual reality has been used since the mid-1990s to help people on the spectrum learn to communicate and connect with others. Adults can use the technology to prepare for job interviews. Children use it to improve cognitive and gross motor skills.
Drummond believed the VR equipment could do the same for her son. She purchased the equipment with funds from Gardiner’s education savings account (ESA) through MyScholarShop, Step Up For Students’ online catalog of pre-approved educational products. It includes curriculum materials, digital devices, and education software.
Families can also purchase items or services that are not on the pre-approved list. They must submit a pre-authorization request that includes supporting documentation and an explanation of how the purchase will meet the individual educational needs of the student.
A review is then conducted by an internal committee, which includes a special needs educator, to determine if the item or service is allowable under the program’s expenditure categories and spending caps, and a notification is sent to the parent. The item or service may then be submitted on a reimbursement request, and it must match the corresponding pre-authorization.
Step Up For Students employs numerous measures to protect against fraud and theft. For example, if a service provider’s reimbursement request is submitted from an IP address and the platform sees that the parental approval came from the same IP address, the anti-fraud staff is alerted to investigate.
Thanks to the VR equipment made possible by the ESA, Tristan, now 8, did relearn to walk. But that was just the beginning.
“Then we discovered it had a lot more value,” Drummond said.
Since he began using virtual reality, Tristan has increased his attention span, improved his hand-eye coordination, and developed his core strength. He has learned how to interact socially, how to count and how to exercise.
Tristan cannot go on field trips like other students. He can’t even sit in a movie theater.
However, through virtual reality, Tristan has visited Walt Disney World’s Epcot Center and the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C. He landed on the moon with Apollo 11, and went scuba diving through the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, where he swam with sharks.
“It’s enriched his life in ways that we would have been otherwise unable to do,” Drummond said.
Tristan also uses VR for his occupational and physical therapy. Drummond said it used to be a chore to get Tristan to participate in therapy.
“We would lose 75% to 80% of therapy lessons trying to get him into a groove to enjoy what he is doing,” she said. “It’s a struggle every parent with a child like Tristan knows.”
But with virtual reality now part of the sessions, Drummond said it only takes Tristan a few minutes to get into the therapy groove.
“So, we’re now getting full therapy sessions and because of that, he’s talking more, he’s interacting with us more. He’s actually becoming more social,” she said. “It’s gotten him into being healthier, because he has the ability to do physical therapy, which is absolutely his favorite thing to do.”
The technology also helps Tristan overcome his fear of visiting a place for the first time, like a medical facility. He can tour the facility virtually ahead of time.
“But now with the virtual reality, I can set him up on that, have the exact place we are going on it, and allow him to look around in a safe environment,” Drummond said. “That way when he finally goes, I don’t have to make plans for our arrival like an army general. I don’t have to have 500 contingency plans because he’s expecting it. He knows what it’s going to sound like. What it’s going to look like. He’s going to know where things are. All these things help him get acclimated and actually get more out of going to these places.”
Drummond never thought that Job Simulator on Oculus Quest, or the Ring Fit Adventure game for Nintendo Switch, or Beat Saber would improve Tristan’s life in so many ways, but they have.
“They’re a lot of fun, but it’s also a way to sneak education into him,” Drummond said. “I don’t know if I can really say it enough about it. It just helps him to do pretty much everything. He has a blast with it.”
Roger Mooney, communications manager, marketing, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By ROGER MOONEY
Reid Stakelum was tired when he entered Equally Fit in Tampa in the afternoon, a result, his mom said, of staying up a little too late the night before to watch the movie “Back to the Future” at a local drive-in theater with his family.
Fatigue can be a trigger for Reid, 17, who is on the autism spectrum and receives the Gardiner Scholarship managed by Step Up For Students. It puts “more stress on his body and his brain,” said Reid’s mom, Brittany. Add an hour’s worth of exercise, and Brittany was expecting an unproductive session for her son at the gym.
She based that on experience. Reid had been a member at other gyms, and the trainers there, when facing a less-than-energetic Reid, often pushed him to work harder to shake off the lethargy. That method might work for some, but Brittany knows it does not work with her son.
But Mark Fleming, 32, who owns Equally Fit (formerly Puzzle Piece Fitness), is also on the spectrum. He understands Reid.
When Fleming realized Reid wasn’t physically ready for his typical Thursday afternoon workout, he made adjustments on the fly. Fleming eliminated some of the planned exercises, added more rest and recovery time and increased the weight or the repetitions of others. What had the potential to be a lost afternoon at the gym turned out to be a productive session.
“Mark totally gets it,” Brittany said. “He is totally self-aware. He was able to relate to Reid and get him to calm down. Mark made sure it ended with a positive, where in other gyms, it would have been, ‘Nope, you got to do it,’ and that doesn’t work for people with autism.”
Bringing back the ‘personal’ trainer
Fleming, who was raised in Tampa and attended private schools, has a bachelor’s degree in exercise science and a master’s in human performance from the University of Alabama.
It was a natural progression from a youth spent playing sports, mostly basketball and football.
His first love was baseball. Family lore has it, Fleming could read a baseball box score before he could read a book. But his passion for the sport went away when a lack of hand-eye coordination prevented him from hitting a baseball. He moved on to basketball, but again encountered difficulty, because, he said, “my hands didn’t work the way they need to.”
“I had very limited physical skills,” he said. “But due to my fascination with sports, I was able to be determined enough to overcome those issues.”
In high school, Fleming played linebacker on the Cambridge Christian School’s football team despite weighing 145 pounds.
Fleming began working with a physical trainer when he was in middle school. “Traditional weight room stuff,” he said, with the emphasis on weight training.
“I greatly benefited from it,” he said, “because I gained confidence.”
But, he added, “Toward my junior year, I started to accept that I can’t do sports. What am I going to do? It took me a while to find exercise science. That parallel interest really helped me.”
While in graduate school, Fleming said he started working in applied behavioral analysis as a behavioral assistant. He also became a volunteer coach for the Special Olympics.
He worked with children with autism in a school setting and saw those with fine motor and gross motor deficiencies go through occupational and physical therapy. On weekends, he saw the same deficiencies with the adults he coached at Special Olympics.
Many people on the spectrum have low muscle tone that can be improved with therapy but not corrected. It returns when they stop physical and occupational therapy.
Fleming learned there were few if any opportunities for these adults to stay active after they completed occupational and physical therapies.
Fleming had an idea. Already certified as a physical trainer, he decided he would work with those on the spectrum. But instead of emphasizing weight training, he would emphasize basic movements as a means of getting his clients physically active.
There is often stimming behavior – hand-flapping, rocking – but that is not exercise.
“When we’re dealing with autism, specifically, we’re dealing with a lot of sedentary behavior,” Fleming said. “Exercise helps pull kids out of that a little bit.
“A lot of these kids have gross and fine motor issues that need to be worked on. Those are where the starting points are. Let’s get these basic movement patterns down first and then we’ll get into the more complex as we go along.”
Fleming spent his first year as a physical trainer loading hurdles, resistance bands, sandbag style weights, soft medicine balls and steppers in his Honda Accord and driving to his clients, who were fanned out across the Tampa Bay area.
New client fills out a questionnaire, so Fleming can learn their objectives and their triggers. Are they sensitive to the florescent lights? He’ll turn them off. Noise? He’ll slow down an exercise if he hears a loud truck outside. Does their medication raise their body temperature when they are active? If so, Fleming will make the gym cooler during their session.
“You have to bring personal back into personal training,” Fleming said.
Bonding over Phineas and Ferb
Diane Carothers had taken her son, Mikey, to gyms that had classes designed for children. But those gyms played loud music and the lights were too bright. The trainers were loud and a little too enthusiastic for Mikey, who also used a Gardiner Scholarship through Step Up.
“I don’t think they would understand him,” Diane said.
She learned of Fleming’s gym through a Facebook group for mothers who home-school special needs children. Like Reid Stakelum, Mikey, 13, is on the spectrum. And like Brittany Stakelum, Diane spent her first visit at Equally Fit filling out the questionnaire and answering questions about Mikey.
Diane said she immediately knew this was the gym for Mikey. The question was: Would Mikey feel the same way? The answer is yes, though it took a few visits.
Mikey and Fleming formed a bond over their shared interest in the video game Roblox and the animated TV series Phineas and Ferb. They discuss those two while Mikey rides an exercise bicycle, lifts his feet over small hurdles, lifts the sandbag style weights and performs squats and lunges.
Mikey has coordination issues. He will slouch if sitting too long. This sometimes causes him to fall out of a chair. But after attending twice-weekly classes for the past year, Diane said Mikey’s coordination has improved and he has more strength in his hands and core.
“It’s been great for my son,” Diane said. “I’ve tried to get him involved in sports, but he doesn’t do well in team sports, and he’s just not very coordinated. Having a personal trainer is great for him, and I think that might not be the case if it was just any personal trainer, but Mark is so good with him. He’s so patient and he’s low-key and he understands him. Mikey is just so comfortable with him.”
So comfortable that Mikey walks on the treadmill at home.
“The only reason he’s willing to do that is Mark encouraged him to do that,” Diane said. “He looks up to Mark as an authority on the subject whereas Mom is not.”
Equally Fit is located 40 minutes from the Carothers’ home in Port Richey. Toss in a 60-minute session to the nearly 90-minute roundtrip commute and that is quite a commitment to make twice a week.
“I do it because it’s really beneficial for Mikey,” Diane said.
Perhaps the biggest endorsement Diane can give Fleming is this: He is one of the few people she feels comfortable leaving Mikey with.
“I’ve always been the kind of mom who sort of hovers,” Diane said.
Initially, she sat in the gym’s waiting room and watched Mikey work out. Then Diane would remain in the car and watch from the parking lot.
Now, she can use that hour to run a quick errand.
“It’s a big thing because Mikey is so comfortable with Mark, and Mark is so competent and understanding that I know Mikey will be fine with him for an hour,” Diane said. “There are very few people that I can leave Mikey with for an hour without Mikey becoming uncomfortable or distressed and there are no other people that I trust to handle a situation where Mikey becomes distressed.”
Excited to work out
Brittany Stakelum knows her son, Reid, would rather stay home and read a book or play a video game. The sedentary lifestyle, she said, fits many who are on the spectrum.
“They have more to offer than that, but they haven’t been around the right people in their lives who actually believe in them and will encourage them and tell them they can do anything they want,” Brittany said. “Mark’s mission is to help my son and his other clients to live their best lives.”
Reid has a part-time job in a supermarket. He used to struggle lifting and carrying cases of water. Fleming showed him the proper way to lift by using his legs. Problem solved.
Brittany also teaches children with special needs. She called Fleming “a breath of fresh air” for his dedication to working with clients on the spectrum and his desire to help them live a life that includes a degree of activity.
Fleming knows his clients do not need the same training he received when he was in school. Fleming, after all, was on the football team.
“A lot of kids I work with aren’t into that stuff. They don’t need that,” he said.
But what they need is the right exercises to get them off the couch, to improve their coordination, flexibility and strength. To improve their confidence, too.
Reid serves as an ambassador for the gym. Fleming posts pictures of Reid’s workouts on the Equally Fit’s Facebook page. For that, Reid received a $100 American Express gift card.
“He’s trying to show each person with autism that their time means something as well.” Brittany said. “Not only is he a great personal trainer, but he’s a great businessman, and he’s a great advocate and a great role model, especially with teens.”
Reid said he enjoys doing leg lifts. He said he likes going to Equally Fit because Fleming is “patient and encouraging” and is helping Reid get stronger.
Like gyms everywhere, Fleming had to close his for a few months during the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic. He continued to work virtually with some clients. Others found it difficult to complete the exercises without being in the same room with Fleming.
Reid found himself slipping back to his sedentary lifestyle. He could not wait for the gym to reopen.
“Reid is actually excited to go,” Brittany said, “and I don’t ever remember my son being excited to work out.”
Roger Mooney, marketing communications manager, can be reached at email@example.com.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
By ROGER MOONEY
If it were any other spring but this one, Ryan Sleboda would stand in front of the graduates at the Pace Brantley School and, as valedictorian, would deliver his speech.
Ryan would tell the room filled with students and their families, teachers and administrators about living on the autism spectrum and how it shaped his life.
To illustrate his points, Ryan would hold a piece from a puzzle – the autism symbol.
One puzzle piece for his family. One for his friends. One for his teachers. Put them together and you see a picture forming of Ryan Sleboda.
“It’s going to bring people to tears,” Ryan, 19, said.
He hopes the visual has the same impact when viewed remotely. Since this is the age of the coronavirus, Pace Brantley’s 2020 graduation will be held virtually.
Disappointing, for sure, but not enough to damper Ryan’s enthusiasm for his graduation. Nothing really dampers his enthusiasm for anything.
“Ryan simply has a zest for life,” his mother, Susan, said.
That zest began to emerge when Ryan was 13. He joined a taekwondo class and developed self-confidence and a knack for leadership. It exploded two years later when Ryan attended Pace Brantley in Longwood, Florida as a ninth grader with the help of a Gardiner Scholarship managed by Step Up For Students.
The Gardiner Scholarship is for students with certain special needs.
During the 2019-20 school year, 13,035 schoolchildren received a Gardiner Scholarship, including 8,097 who are on the autism spectrum.
Susan and her husband Bill, who live in nearby Sanford, wanted to send Ryan to Pace Brantley for high school. Brantley is a grade 1 through 12 private school that specializes in teaching students who need individualized attention.
Susan said she knew the school would challenge Ryan both academically and socially. With the Gardiner Scholarship covering most of the cost of tuition, Susan said she and Bill could use other funds to pay for Ryan’s medical expenses and social activities, like taekwondo and a dance program.
Those are also pieces to the Ryan Sleboda puzzle. There are more. Many more.
You can add his attempts at playing soccer, baseball, basketball and swimming as a youngster, because Ryan’s inability to take to those sports is what led him to taekwondo.
And it was in taekwondo where Ryan began to find Ryan.
“It was,” Susan said. “Ryan had had many difficulties behaviorally and socially. Ryan had a lot of difficulty regulating his behavior. He didn’t speak until he was 7.
“He had a very difficult time. Kids could be mean, and some kids knew which buttons to push to get Ryan to explode, and he could be very explosive back then.”
Yet Ryan found a calmness in taekwondo, a martial art that emphasizes jumping, spinning and kicking.
Susan and Bill took him to Breaking Barriers Martial Arts in Sanford, which trains children with special needs.
“It was kids with disabilities helping others with disabilities,” Susan said. “Ryan took to it quickly.”
“I got more energy,” he said, “being more active and communicating with others, being around other people, and definitely the ability to be a leader.”
“Lots of confidence,” he said.
Ryan has earned a third-degree black belt and is a certified taekwondo instructor, teaching other special needs children on Saturday mornings.
“It makes me feel like a leader when I get that opportunity,” he said.
Ryan always wanted to be a leader, even when he was struggling to find himself on the baseball field or a basketball court. Society was telling Ryan what he couldn’t do, as it often does to children on the spectrum. His classmates and teammates were mean, as they often are to classmates and teammates who are perceived to be different. But Ryan felt it didn’t have to be that way, and he said he knew someday it wouldn’t.
He had weaknesses, sure. But Ryan also knew he had strengths.
Those strengths began to surface when Susan and Bill enrolled Ryan in Bridges Academy, a private K-12 school for children with autism and other special needs.
In an instant, Ryan was no longer different from his classmates.
“He was one of the students, and that’s what started him on the path to building self-confidence,” Susan said.
Ryan moved to Pace Brantley as a high school freshman. He was challenged, both inside and outside of the classroom. And he embraced those challenges.
“Ryan has grown up so much and truly wants to make a difference for others,” said Pam Tapley, Pace Brantley principal.
Not only will Ryan graduate as the class valedictorian, he is school president, an anchor of the school’s TV channel and a member of the running club.
He also gave a prerecorded speech online for Step Up For Students Class of 2020 Senior Celebration.
Ryan’s term project for the television class he took as a junior was a documentary on the history of Pace Brantley. He received an A for the assignment, and the video was voted the documentary of the year at the school.
The documentary also earned Ryan the University of South Florida’s Arts4AllFlorida program’s Student of the Month for Sept. 2019.
“The end product was wonderful, and he worked so hard on it to make it represent the history of our wonderful school,” Tapley said.
In collaboration with Chance 2 Dance, a program that works with students of all abilities, Ryan starred in a music video shot in the halls of Pace Brantley.
The song is “Waving Through a Window,” from the Broadway musical, “Dear Evan Hansen.”
“On the outside, always looking in
Will I ever be more than I’ve always been?”
The song symbolizes what children with special abilities go through.
Once, that was Ryan’s life.
That puzzle piece has been tossed aside by others, including ones that are yet to come.
Through his vocational rehab program, Ryan scored an internship with the Central Florida Zoo’s conservation education department. He is fascinated with wolves and tigers.
“Very unique animals,” Ryan said.
In the fall, he will begin classes at Beacon College in Leesburg, Florida.
The college serves students with learning disabilities. Ryan will major in anthrozoology. He hopes to someday work at an animal shelter or a zoo.
“I’d like to build a really good facility with a lot of animals,” he said. “I could have a training program of some kind.”
That’s another puzzle piece – his future.
Ryan could stand in front of a packed room or stare into his laptop for a virtual graduation ceremony and his message will be the same.
Yes, he is autistic.
No, it does not define him.
The puzzle pieces, they define him.
His family and friends. His school and teachers. Taekwondo. Dance. TV production. His love of animals. His desire for a career working with animals.
“Pretty much all the other stuff I’ve managed and done throughout my life,” he said.
Together, those pieces help build the picture of Ryan Sleboda. But it is far from complete, because there are still more pieces to come.
“I’m going to the next part of life,” Ryan said. “That will be extra hard, but I like challenges, and I am excited to see what comes next.”
Roger Mooney, marketing communications manager, can be reached at email@example.com.