Lazaro Arbos, featured in story about stuttering, becomes 'American Idol' sensation

A mother reaching out in her grief met a boy with a stutter. Now the world knows Lazaro too.
When he was 13, Lazaro Arbos received his SpeechEasy device, placed in his ear by Tampa speech therapist Janet Skotko. CHRIS ZUPPA   |   Times (2004)
When he was 13, Lazaro Arbos received his SpeechEasy device, placed in his ear by Tampa speech therapist Janet Skotko.CHRIS ZUPPA | Times (2004)
Published January 25 2013
Updated January 26 2013

Martha Lopez-Anderson was in Seattle last week when she got a text about a boy she hadn't seen in years.

. . . Lazaro Arbos . . .

He's on American Idol!

Martha had to read it twice.

She grabbed her husband, Andy, and together they ran to their hotel room and turned on the television and, because of the time difference, sat on the bed and waited an hour. They waited through teasers and commercials and bickering judges and crooning weirdos.

Then across the stage walked a boy she used to know. Same sweet face, chiseled now. Same sad eyes.

When the judges asked his name, he twirled his index finger like he was drawing circles in the air, and the words clogged his throat.

Martha winced. He still stuttered.

• • •

Martha met Lazaro almost a decade ago at the worst time in her life. Her 10-year-old son, Sean, had collapsed at their home near Orlando and died. Something was wrong with his heart, but doctors never figured out what. Sean had a debilitating stutter, but he had gotten relief with a remarkable device, like a hearing aid, that helped smooth his speech when he wore it. He was happy, getting help, and then gone.

In the months after his death, searching for a way to make sense of any of it, Martha and Andy decided to donate that device, called a SpeechEasy, to another child.

Lazaro was 13, living in Naples with his mother, who cleaned houses, and his father, who worked in construction. When he spoke, his face would twist and his head would jerk and his hands would flail and sometimes he couldn't get a word out at all. "Sing it to me," his mother would say. Lazaro never stuttered when he sang. His parents scraped together all they could for speech therapy, but they couldn't afford the $6,000 SpeechEasy device.

When Lazaro wore the donated device for the first time, Martha and Andy were there to watch.

"What's your name?" speech therapist Janet Skotko asked.

"Lazaro. Lazaro Arbos."

The Times wrote about the Andersons' gift to Lazaro in a story called "Sean's echo."

Martha kept in touch with Lazaro for a while. She traveled to visit him in Naples. She took him to the beach. She got a call from him on Mother's Day. Then she lost track. She started an organization that screens children for heart defects, and stayed busy.

Then this. American Idol cut to footage of Lazaro, who is 21, lives in Naples and has a job scooping ice cream. He still holds his mother's hand. He told the camera he had few friends growing up and stayed home. He smiled, to will away the tears.

Mariah Carey asked him what he was going to sing.

"Bbb ... bbbb ... ridge Over T...

Carey finished for him. Bridge Over Troubled Water.

Lazaro grew still, and he started to sing, and the words came out like, well, you just really need to see the video.

Martha and Andy began to cry.

Now Lazaro is viral. Ryan Seacrest tweeted that his audition was one of the most emotional ever. We glean from Twitter that he's cuddly with last year's Idol runner-up Jessica Sanchez. His audition video has been viewed more than 1.6 million times. His former speech therapist has watched it at least 25.

Skotko, the Tampa speech therapist, had lost track of Lazaro too. The last she knew, he was using the SpeechEasy, and it was helping. It was a tool, not a cure. Just because he still stutters doesn't mean he hasn't improved. She remembers a boy so shy he could barely order in a restaurant. That was not the man in the video, singing on that stage.

"Is that the same person?" she said. His words and gestures are more relaxed and fluid. "He got rid of the struggles."

The more he is in the public eye, the better he will feel about himself, she said.

"He's going for it," she said. "He's going to do it."

When Lazaro finished his song, the judges unanimously sent him to the Hollywood round, and Lazaro cried so hard his whole face got wet.

And when he hugged Mariah Carey, and told her "I love you so much," he did not stutter. Not one bit.

Kelley Benham can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8848.