When we adopted our son Malachi from an orphanage in Ethiopia five years ago, we didn’t fully understand the depth of the challenges a child with special needs faced.
Florida’s Gardiner Scholarship and its flexible spending has helped us overcome some of those obstacles.
Born with spina bifida, Malachi had limited access to both health care and education in Ethiopia. His caregivers did the best they could with what little they had.
Blessed with plenty, my husband and I wanted to play a very small role in Ethiopia’s orphan crisis by helping just one child, Malachi, receive the education, the health care and the family that he deserved.
Along our journey, we’ve encountered a community of support — sweet friends, family, doctors, nurses, therapists and teachers who have invested their time and resources to help Malachi. The Gardiner Scholarship — an education savings account program for students with special needs — has been a significant piece of that support system.
The Gardiner Scholarship gives families control over a flexible spending account which can be used to pay for tuition, fees, tutoring, curriculum, assistive technology and more.
A bill in the Florida Legislature would extend those opportunities to more families by turning all the state’s education choice scholarships into flexible spending accounts similar to Gardiner. Imagine the possibilities of matching resources chosen by parents to the specific needs we see in our children.
That philosophy has been a godsend for Malachi.
Gardiner pays for his tuition at Holy Trinity Lutheran School, where the small class sizes make his school feel more like a family than an institution. But it does so much more.
Malachi’s spina bifida limited both his strength and his mobility. In Ethiopia, Malachi was only able to crawl along the orphanage floors. Once on the scholarship, we were able to use funds to help pay for physical therapy where Malachi could develop the strength to stand up with the aid of leg braces and a walker. After four years on the scholarship Malachi now has the strength to walk with forearm canes. He can even walk upstairs on his own.
Despite not learning English until the age of five, Malachi’s language and reading skills have improved considerably thanks to three summers at the University of South Florida’s summer reading program. He’s been reading “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” and now wants to finish the entire series.
Math, however, is still his favorite subject.
Gardiner helped pay for weekly guitar lessons and even a summer music program for students with special needs. I’ve found music to be a powerful tool for brain development while helping with memorization, math and improving his strength and finger dexterity.
The flexibility of the Gardiner Scholarship program allowed us to consider homeschooling Malachi during the lockdown. Though we ultimately kept him enrolled in his private school, the scholarship helped us facilitate e-learning at home, paying for a dictionary, pattern blocks for math and school supplies.
We even bought Malachi an iPad that we use for online instruction, such as math lessons through Kahn Academy.
Whether it is health care or education, as a parent of a child with special needs you often feel like you’re fighting a system you are powerless to impact. The Gardiner Scholarship has been a bright spot in that struggle. It’s a program that’s on your side, and it has helped us access the resources our child needs.
Turning other scholarships into flexible spending accounts similar to Gardiner would help more families customize education for the unique needs of their children, making a noticeable impact in their lives just as Gardiner has for Malachi.
Kamden Kuhn lives in Tampa with her family. She wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.