School “voucher” lifts father and son

Orlando and Gaby
Orlando and Gaby

Orlando Garcia never imagined he’d be a single father, and his friends didn’t think he could handle it.

When his buddies asked him how he could take care of his infant son when he couldn’t even take care of himself, Orlando would shrug it off and quickly answer that he didn’t have a choice.

“When he is sick, I will take him to the doctor,” he told them. “And when he needs medicine, I will go to the pharmacy. When he is wet, I will change his diaper.”

Despite his positive attitude when talking with his friends,Orlando still had some doubt about how he could raise young Gabriel “Gaby” alone — until he saw a man with four young children standing in front of him in line at the grocery store.

“Are you a single dad?” Orlando asked, holding his 1-year-old Gaby. ”Yes,” the man answered.

Orlando smiled, and that moment changed his outlook.

“He looked so happy, and I will never forget that. I remember it like it was yesterday,” Orlando said of his memorable conversation that was nearly 10 years ago.

It gave Orlando the confidence that he could be a good dad, even solo.

For personal reasons, it was best that Orlando and Gaby distance themselves from Gaby’s mother and Orlando became a single dad.

“It’s so sad because he wants that love that only a mother can give, that mother’s love,” Orlando said. “I try. I give him extra kisses. He’s 10 now, and I still treat him like a baby.”

As the years have passed, Orlando and Gaby have made a life that works for them, but when the father saw his son struggling in school and encountering bullies, he didn’t know which way to turn.

“He was doing kind of bad and didn’t want to go to school,” Orlando recalled.

He spoke of his concerns at his church and he was told about Florida College Academy, a pre-kindergarten through eighth grade private school in Temple Terrace, just outside of Tampa.

“I told them I couldn’t afford the $5,000 tuition. I could barely pay my bills,” said Orlando, a construction worker.

Then, he heard about and applied for the Step Up For Students school choice scholarship. Gaby started at the school in the second grade.

“I noticed he was happier and he was studying every day. He said he loves the school,” Orlando said.

Orlando, who was born in Nicaragua and became a U.S. citizen in 2009, has worked in construction for years, but work has been scarce since the economy stalled.

When he works, he works hard, long hours, returning home dirty, exhausted and with calloused hands – all things Gaby notes.

“He sees me and he feels bad,” Orlando said, adding with a laugh that Gaby wants a clean job. “With all that hard work, I barely make a living.”

And of course, Orlando wants so much more for his son.

“I’m trying to get it into his head that you have to have an education,” Orlando said. “My dream is his dream. My dream is for him to become somebody.”

Orlando says now that Gaby is attending a school that shares both his own moral code, family values and solid academics all within a safe environment, he’s even more hopeful for his son’s future.

“They think like me. They help children. They help their spirituality and their academics,” he said. “It gives me peace of mind that he’s in a great, safe school.”

Gaby is earning A’s and B’s, and his enjoyment of school is obvious.

“Gaby is a young fellow who gets along with his classmates and wears his smile to school and keeps it on throughout each day,” said Principal Lynn Wade.

It’s clear his school community is also doing everything that can be done to ensure Gaby’s success. Because of Orlando’s work, he is unable to drive his son to and from school, so a teacher picks up the boy and brings each day.

“We couldn’t do this without them,” Orlando said.

Gaby’s fourth-grade teacher, Julie Sanchez, says he’s a joy to teach.

“He is a delight to have in the classroom.  He is respectful and sweet, and I am so proud of the young man he is growing into here at FCA.”

Florida College Academy, Temple Terrace

Established in 1958 as a Christian-based, non-denominational school, Florida College Academy (FCA) stresses language arts, science, math, social sciences and Bible principles as a foundation of all education. The school is associated with and governed by Florida College, Hillsborough County’s second oldest institution of higher learning. The partnership brings numerous Florida College students into FCA to provide free tutoring during school hours and after school on a daily basis. For the 2012-13 school year, 37 students of 173 attending the school are Step Up For Students scholars. Tuition ranges from $4,900 for kindergarten to $5,300 for eighth grade. The school uses the Stanford 10 to measure academic achievement.

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BY Lisa A. Davis

Lisa A. Davis, a Massachusetts native, cut her journalistic teeth in the Boston market as a student reporter for The Boston Globe and moved to the Tampa Bay area in 1994, where she continued her nearly 20-year career. For more than a decade, she covered crime, courts and local government for The Tampa Tribune, and most recently was a correspondent for the Tampa Bay Times (formerly the St. Petersburg Times). She joined Step Up For Students, a nonprofit that oversees the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program for low-income children, in May 2012 as the public relations manager and chief storyteller.