BY ROGER MOONEY
OCOEE, Florida – Justin Williams was 8 when he underwent surgery to allow more room for his brain to grow. For two months he wore a halo brace and a plate on the roof of his mouth to push the bones in his face forward one agonizing millimeter at a time.
At one point, Justin told his dad, John, that he’d rather die than live through that again.
“At the time, I was probably exaggerating,” Justin said, “but it was the worst eight weeks of my life.”
Justin, 18, was born with Apert syndrome, a rare condition where the joints in a baby’s head, face, feet, and hands close while in the womb. He’s undergone surgeries on his feet, hands, face and head – 15 in all. The first was when he was 9 months old. He learned to walk with both feet and hands in casts.
While Justin has endured some difficult moments in his life, he will be the last to say he’s had a difficult life.
“I’ve gone through a lot,” he said, “and it hasn’t affected me.”
Justin grew up on Ocoee, just a short walk from his family’s blueberry farm, where he helps direct the parking during picking season.
He graduated in the spring from Foundation Academy in nearby Winter Garden. He attended the private Christian school since pre-K on a McKay Scholarship for Students with Disabilities (now the Family Empowerment Scholarship for Students with Unique Abilities, administered by Step Up For Students). He begins classes at Valencia College in August.
Justin was one of the most popular students on campus and certainly the most popular player on the basketball team. His classmates would fill the stands and chant his name until Coach Nathaniel Hughes sent Justin into the game. Then Justin would reward his fans by hitting long-range 3-point shots.
“It’s so much fun to watch him play,” Justin’s mom, Stacy, said. “It blows me away, the support of all the people.”
Justin’s efforts on the court led to his receiving the Jersey Mike’s Naismith High School Basketball Courage Award. The honor is given annually to a male and female high school basketball player who has “gone above and beyond throughout the basketball season and has demonstrated courage in their approach to their team, school, and community.”
“I don’t think I’ve ever heard him complain, say something was too hard or he couldn’t do it,” Hughes said. “I never heard that, and he has way more reason to complain than I do.”
“What is a normal life?” John Williams asked on a recent afternoon at the blueberry farm.
While pregnant with Justin, Stacy said she wondered what type of life he would lead. Would he excel in sports? In school? What would his interests be? His talents? What would he choose for a career?
Justin was born in September 2003 with a craniofacial disorder so rare it is found in 1 in 65,000 to 88,000 babies. Now Stacy and John had entirely different questions: What would Justin’s quality of life be? Could he even go to school?
“When you have a child with special needs, your whole outlook is different because everything changes,” Stacy said, “so you have to find your new normal.”
The new normal included flights to the Craniofacial Center at Medical City Children’s Hospital in Dallas for those surgeries, and what John said seemed like endless months in hotels, as well as nights where he and Stacy tried to sleep on the couch in Justin’s hospital room.
It also included Little League baseball and youth basketball, soccer and golf, and plenty of roughhousing with his cousins around the blueberry farm.
Stacy and John were determined to meet Apert syndrome head on.
Justin would do everything every other kid his age did. They signed him up for baseball when he was 4 even though he had trouble holding a bat because he doesn’t have knuckles in his fingers.
So what if he couldn’t hit the ball? Neither could the other 4-year-olds, John said.
It was the same way in school.
“Do not help him,” Stacy sternly told Justin’s teacher on her son’s first day of kindergarten. “He can do it.”
“I think I scared her,” Stacy said. “I just wanted to give him a chance. You have to give people a chance to be who they can be.”
Maybe people outside of school stared at Justin and made rude comments to Stacy, but at Foundation Academy, Justin was just one of the kids. His popularity grew as he moved up through the grades.
“There is something about Justin that makes everyone love him,” Foundation Principal Sarah Reynolds said. “He is so friendly, so kind. No one sees his disability. No one. It’s just a non-issue.”
With the education choice option that came with the McKay Scholarship, Stacy and John settled on Foundation Academy because they wanted a smaller scholastic setting for Justin, one where his teachers would know and understand his needs and where he could spend the years with the same classmates.
Having the scholarship pay his tuition was huge when Justin was undergoing his surgeries and treatments.
“We, honestly, would not have been able to keep him at the same school had we not had the scholarship,” Stacy said.
John put up a basketball hoop in the family’s driveway because he thought it was a game Justin could play. He was right. Justin was hooked at an early age.
Justin’s ability score on long-range jump shots earned him the nickname “J-Money” from his teammates because, as Hughes said, “He makes his money on the 3-point line.”
Justin was not the most talented player on the team, but Hughes said he made the most of his skills. He also understands the game, the way the offense and defense work. Hughes often asked Justin what he thought of something that occurred during a game, and Justin would offer an honest and accurate assessment.
He was also the teammate who kept everyone loose and focused.
“A glue guy you can’t live without as a team,” Hughes said.
As he walked out of the gym after every practice and game, Justin would always find Hughes and say, “Thanks, Coach. See you tomorrow.”
It was Hughes who nominated Justin for the Naismith award, and the school celebrated the announcement of Justin winning with a pep rally in front of the entire student body. They chanted his name and Justin took a shot, though opting for a high-percentage layup. The crowd went wild as the ball dropped through the net.
There were TV crews from Orlando-area news stations and one shooting a video for the award.
“I like sharing my story and having an impact,” Justin said.
“You need to lean on your family and friends because they are always there for you, no matter what you’re going through,” he said. “If you’re having a rough day or a hard time, always trust in God. He will make your path straight. I think people get down on themselves because they think they are not normal or not as good as someone else, but I think if they pray and follow God, they will be fine.”
College classes begin soon for Justin. He’s thinking of studying business. He will help Hughes coach this season and wants to someday coach high school basketball.
“He has totally superseded anything I envisioned for him,” Stacy said. “I never thought he would be as awesome as he is. He surprises you all the time. He has the best sense of humor. He never complains about anything. He’s always a try-hard kid, which blows me away.”
As for what she now envisions for Justin’s future, Stacy said, “I think it’s up to him. The sky is the limit. I can’t wait to see in five years where he’s at.”
Roger Mooney, manager, communications, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
BY ROGER MOONEY
For Daarina Cue, an 11th grader at The Foundation Academy in Jacksonville, marching in the city’s annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day parade is a “great experience.”
The people who line the parade route cheer the students as they pass by while carrying large photos of Martin Luther King Jr. and other luminary figures of Black history.
It is not lost on Daarina that some of those people received a much different reaction when they marched during the civil rights movement
The parade, Daarina said, “is very meaningful, since it’s our history. It also means a lot since we see what they accomplished in life. We can keep doing what they did.”
More than 70 students, staffers and parents of The Foundation Academy participated Jan. 17 in Jacksonville’s 41st MLK Holiday Grand Parade. It was the seventh consecutive year the private K-12 school has marched in the parade.
“Our diverse school wanted to show that we honor our African-American brothers and sisters,” Principal Nadia Hionides said.
This year’s theme was “Strength In Unity.” The float, pulled by one of the school’s vans, was lined with cutout figures depicting children of every race and nationality holding hands. Those who walked alongside wore sandwich boards with photos of Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, Mae Jemison (first black female astronaut to travel into space), Fredrick Jones (inventor, entrepreneur), George Washington Carver, Barack Obama, Oprah Winfrey and other notable people in Black history.
“The first time I learned about the history of myself, I really got to see how my ancestors used to be, and I am honestly proud to be Black,” said Nasiyah Halls, a seventh grader.
Nasiyah echoed Daarina’s sentiment when he said participating in the parade was “a great experience.”
“Loved the people. Loved the energy,” he said.
Like Daarina, Nasiyah attends the school on a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship managed by Step Up For Students. The Foundation Academy has a student body of 375, with 231 attending on a Step Up scholarship. That total includes 179 on FTC Scholarships.
In a head start to National School Choice Week, which begins Jan. 23, the school incorporated education choice into its celebration. Students wore yellow National School Choice Week scarves. Those in the elementary grades who rode on the float wore orange T-shirts from Step Up that included the words “Parent Power.”
Many of those who walked wore blue T-shirts with the words “I AM ESSENTIAL” printed on the front. Tia Unthink, the school’s admissions director, said that message is shared among the student body every day.
“When you come to our school, you don’t see one color, you see all colors represented,” she said. “You see multiple nationalities represented, and that’s the only way we will ever present ourselves, because we are all children of God. We are all capable and are excellent in what we do. We want the students who attend TFA to see themselves in leadership.”
Roger Mooney, manager, communications, can be reached at email@example.com.
By RON MATUS
Two years ago, Jordan Massie was lost and hurt. Rocked by turbulence at home, she was skipping school and hanging with the wrong crowd. Drugs swirled around her. At one point, she watched a friend sell OxyContin to a pregnant classmate.
Two years later, the 18-year-old Jacksonville, Fla. student graduated June 2 as the salutatorian of her class. She’s racked up $10,000 in college scholarships.
She sees a future in healing.
Credit a girl with guts, a vow to Grandma, and The Foundation Academy, a school for square pegs that shored up her strength. Credit, too, a scholarship that gave her access to that school and, from there, a real path to living out her dreams.
“People at the school want you to succeed so much. That’s something you’re going to latch on to, whether you want to or not,” Jordan said. “I don’t know how you can still go towards the negative when they want the positive for you.”
The spiral down began in ninth grade. Darkness descended on Jordan’s family – mental illness, domestic violence, jail, death. Relationships frayed and snapped. Over the next few years, she would spend far more time than a teenager should in hospitals, nursing homes, hospices – a girl with emotional wounds, still tending to family members who were hurt or dying.
Jordan said it’s not an excuse, but “I dragged that to school with me, and I went in all the wrong directions.” The girl who was on the honor roll in middle school stopped turning in work, then stopped going to class. Things got even worse in 10th grade.
Then, in the middle of the year, her grandmother died. Months later, she could still hear Grandma’s voice: “Work hard. Stay in school. Don’t get stuck in a dead-end job.”
“I felt like I didn’t get to make her proud while she was here,” Jordan said, “so I needed to make her proud now.”
Jordan didn’t think she could do that at the school she was in. Some teachers there told her she’d never amount to anything. Others just dialed it in. There was, she said, no spark.
She thought back to happier times, to the school she attended in sixth grade. For that one year, before her family moved, she lived next door to a gem: The Foundation Academy, a preK-12 school with 280 students. Thanks to a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, her family could afford to enroll her.
Jordan’s mom, a sales associate at Wal-Mart, loved the school’s understated spirituality. Jordan loved the emphasis on responsibility. She worked with students of all ages on dance and theater productions, and everybody had to do their part.
Jordan couldn’t get a tax-credit scholarship for her junior year; growing demand led to early application deadlines. But the school’s principal, Nadia Hionides, allowed her to attend for $100 a month until Jordan’s mom, Elizabeth Waterman, secured a scholarship through Step Up For Students for 2015-16 school year.
The turnaround was immediate.
“I had not done work in so long, I was actually excited about doing things,” Jordan said.
Among the 1,600 private schools that participate in the tax credit scholarship program, The Foundation Academy is fairly distinctive. It stresses project-based learning and community service, arts and the environment. It sits on 23 acres with an organic garden and an aquaponics pond. It offers Bible study and tai chi.
The mix is perfect, Hionides said, for kids who feel like they don’t fit in.
“The design of our school is because kids generally feel like misfits. But when they come to The Foundation Academy, they see everyone’s a misfit,” Hionides said. “You come in knowing everybody needs help. You just join the team, and you help, and you get help. And it works.”
Returning to The Foundation Academy, Jordan dove back into school work. After a guest speaker at school talked about domestic violence, she found herself writing about it for two hours for a class assignment. She focused her senior project on cancer after her uncle passed away. She organized a blood drive.
She also cut ties to the past, avoiding old friends and keeping her head in the books. “I basically became like a hermit crab,” she said.
When Hionides announced at the senior cookout that Jordan was salutatorian, cheers erupted while Jordan stood speechless. She said she wanted to let the tears roll, but couldn’t allow herself just yet.
No such restraint for Mom. “It was amazing,” Waterman said. “I cried and cried and cried.”
Now Jordan is working on her graduation speech, about how much The Foundation Academy changed her life. “We’ve drawn strength from each other,” she is going to tell her teachers and classmates, “and overcome things we didn’t think we could.”
Jordan is also focused on what’s next. She plans to attend Florida State College at Jacksonville this fall.
She wants to be a nurse.
She said she was inspired by the hospice workers who tended to her uncle. They treated everyone like family. They understood the pain. They radiated calm in the midst of the storm.
That, Jordan said, is who she strives to be.
About Foundation Academy
The Foundation Academy in Jacksonville was founded in 1988, with a mission to “educate children using arts integration in a family-like environment, helping each student become a critical thinker, a lifelong learner, and grow in knowing that God loves them.” It serves 280 students in PreK-12, and currently enrolls 106 students with tax credit scholarships. It is fully accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. Tuition is $6,000 for grades K-5, $7,000 for grades 6-8, and $8,000 for grades 9-12. The school administers the Stanford Achievement Test.