Teen rises above spina bifida, earns academic scholarship to Florida Tech

Jeff Barlis

The Kowalik family on graduation day, from left, Pawel, Skieler, Alek, Tiffanie and Maja.

Tears tumbled down Tiffanie Kowalik’s cheeks as she tried to hold her camera phone steady and focus on documenting her firstborn son, Skieler, reading aloud his acceptance letter to the Florida Institute of Technology.

When he got to the total value of his scholarship – $83,440 over four years – she could hold back no longer, as bursting pride, joy, relief, and memories flooded her mind.

Skieler was born with spina bifida with lipomeningocele. Doctors did not think he would be able to walk or use the bathroom by himself. He endured five surgeries on his lower back, grueling physical therapy, and chronic pain.

From the start, going to school in the Florida Panhandle town of Niceville was problematic. Skieler missed loads of time and felt he didn’t belong. He went to three district elementary schools in three years. He fell behind and needed special arrangements. He was bullied for being different.

Then a friend told Tiffanie about Rocky Bayou Christian School and the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship administered by Step Up For Students (which hosts this blog).

Tiffanie and her husband, Pawel Kowalik, were surprised and ecstatic. They had long thought about private school for Skieler but never took the idea seriously.

“A cook and a waitress,” she said, shaking her head. “There was no way we could pull that off.

“But when I see how far he’s come and where he’s going … we’re just so grateful to have the scholarship. It’s been everything to us.”

When he was younger, it was easy to label Skieler as quiet and reserved. Today, it’s clear he is comfortable, content.

When asked about his life, he pauses to compose his thoughts, create an analogy, or paint a picture. Skieler doesn’t try to inspire others. There’s nothing visibly different about him. He doesn’t share his story unless asked. He doesn’t like rehashing the chronic pain (“Like a dagger being twisted in the bottom of my back.”). Instead, he’d rather talk about how it’s shaped him, how it’s given him a superhuman level of empathy.

“I’ve found myself caring more about other people and less about myself,” he said. “I can honestly say that if I could take the pain of everyone in the world and put it on myself, I would.”

Rocky, as the school is affectionately known by its denizens, helped shape Skieler as well. It was where he felt safe, made friends, rebuilt his confidence, and forged a future.

None of that was happening at his previous school.

Tiffanie volunteered at the last neighborhood school as often as possible to watch over Skieler. He had been singled out for abuse because he couldn’t play sports. She saw the bullying for herself. Kids throwing things at Skieler on the bus to a field trip. It was cruel. The last straw was when Skieler took a fist to the face for no reason.

“That’s when I started seeking other options,” she said. “It wasn’t going away, no matter how much I complained. Whatever I did, it seemed like things got worse for him.”

Because of his surgeries and rehabilitation, Skieler was working below grade level when he came to Rocky as sixth-grader.

“I didn’t even know what a subject or a verb were,” he said. “I didn’t know how to do simple division. I barely knew how to do addition.”

Within one school year, he was on the advanced track.

“It was a combination of hard work and my teachers saying I was intelligent,” he said. “They thought I was made for something great. So all of them worked with me and pushed me to be a better me.”

Tiffanie, who got a degree and had moved on from waiting tables to working for an airline, started substitute teaching at Rocky to help with tuition. She became a full-time English teacher there when Skieler started eighth grade.

During ninth grade, Skieler had his fourth and fifth surgeries – one to release a tethered spinal cord, the other to repair a spinal fluid leak. This time, recovery was a different experience. He had good friends visiting regularly. They even snuck him some Dr. Pepper, his favorite soft drink.

Skieler’s determination to keep up with his schoolwork earned him the respect and admiration of Rocky superintendent Michael Mosley, who became a mentor.

“This is my 39th year teaching, and I’ve never had a kid that had to deal with this combination of chronic and acute health issues,” he said. “The fact that he’s never been on Hospital Homebound is actually remarkable, because for half of his high school career, his condition would have warranted that.”

Mosley got to know and grew close to Skieler teaching advanced placement courses. He marvels at Skieler’s strength and maturity. He and his wife, Juliana, a counselor at the school, also shed tears of joy when Skieler got his acceptance to Florida Tech.

“This is an argument in favor of the smallness and the personalized approach to education,” Mosley said. “Their kid’s success feels as great as your own kid’s success. That’s sort of the golden tonic for educators. We get to share in the joy and accomplishment and the hope for the future.”

A future Mosley can just about predict.

Many small private schools offer and tout their family atmosphere. In this case, there is such depth and intimacy that Mosley is certain he’ll attend Skieler’s wedding someday, that Skieler will send his kids to Rocky if he lives in the area.

“Not to be too funny,” he said, “but the sky’s the limit for that kid.”

With Tiffanie recording videos for YouTube, Skieler got his acceptance letter in March and graduated in May. And in August, the 18-year-old will become the first in his family to go away to college. For so much of his childhood spent indoors, he dreamed of learning to program video games.

“Now I want to study computer science,” he said. “I want to make programs that employ scientific and mathematic ideas to help people, to make life better in general for everyone.”

Spoken like a superhuman empath.

About Rocky Bayou Christian School

Established in 1973 with 22 students, Rocky Bayou Christian School has campuses in Niceville and Crestview. The schools serve 760 K-12 students, including 152 on the FTC scholarship. RBCS provides transportation services in Okaloosa, Walton and Santa Rosa counties. The school is accredited by the Florida Association of Christian Colleges and Schools (FACCS). It uses a mixture of curriculum tools, including Abeka, Bob Jones University Press and Saxon Math. It administers the Stanford Achievement Test annually. Tuition is $8,300 a year for grades 1-6 and $9,195 for 7-12.

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