SPRING HILL — Xavier Astacio arrived at Central High School with few English words in his vocabulary. But he knew what a diploma meant.
Libertad. Freedom. A passport to greater things.
A native of Puerto Rico who moved with his parents to Spring Hill four years ago, Astacio learned enough English and worked hard enough to graduate with his class Friday evening with a B average.
He did it without knowing the same kind of freedom that most of his peers enjoy.
Spina bifida robbed Astacio of his ability to walk, confining him to a motorized wheelchair. He can shake your hand and hold a computer mouse, but his arms are weak. He rides a school district bus to and from school, but since October, Astacio has been homebound, battling other medical complications stemming from an infection that spread to his brain.
The youngest of three children, he still managed to keep up with schoolwork.
"It's taken a lot of perseverance on his part to get where he has," said Central assistant principal Troy LaBarbara.
There's another obstacle to libertad for Astacio.
By last summer, his family had squeezed the last bit of life out of the van that accommodated Astacio's wheelchair. They bought an 11-year-old Chevy van, planning to add an electric lift and ramp.
Then they got the quote: nearly $5,000.
Astacio's stepfather, Marco Mirabal, is a maintenance worker. His mother, Lisandra, stays home as a caregiver. Both speak little English. Astacio receives some disability benefits, but not enough to cover all of the day-to-day expenses, they said.
"It's been bad because I haven't been able to go places," Astacio said in a quiet voice as he sat recently in the living room of the family's small, tidy rental home on Deltona Boulevard.
School officials have worked the phones for months to find a program that could provide the family financial help for the lift, LaBarbara said. With deep budget cuts throughout the various levels of government, however, "money just doesn't get funneled down like it used to help students," he said.
They continue to look for a way, though. The family would consider a trade for a comparable van with a lift, Lisandra Mirabal said through a translator as she cut a cake LaBarbara brought with "Congratulations Xavier" written in blue icing.
The district doesn't provide transportation to an event like graduation or rehearsal, but Astacio made it to both, LaBarbara said. General Transportation Inc. in Brooksville offered to deeply discount what would have been a roughly $80 round-trip fee.
Astacio will continue to attend Central. As a special-needs student, he is eligible for services until he turns 22. The next couple of years will help him polish his English and focus on a transition to a job. He is "absolutely employable," LaBarbara said.
"There are places where he can be productive, but he will need assistance getting there," he said.
The shy young man who greeted a reporter is not the one who rolls onto campus every day, calling out greetings to teachers and friends, LaBarbara said.
"He's a fighter. He wants to do things with his life," said Sandra Hurst, a school social worker who has helped the family look for financial help. "He's very social, so for him to be stuck at home, it's very sad."
On Sundays, Astacio boards a church van to attend service at Iglesia De Dios Corona in Spring Hill. His family follows in their van.
"Our faith in God is what's kept us focused above all else," his mother said.
Lisandra said she looks forward to riding to church as a family, then grabbing a meal at one of their favorites, Golden Corral.
Astacio offers his own destination when asked where he would want to go in the family van:
Tony Marrero can be reached at (352) 848-1431 or firstname.lastname@example.org.