Special needs scholarship helps student stand on his own

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Mitchell and Kamden Kuhn spent two years on a waiting list to adopt a child. The couple saw it as their mission to adopt a child in need from a developing country.

Editor’s note: This month, redefinED is revisiting stories that shine a light on extraordinary students. Today’s spotlight, first published in August 2016, tells the story of an orphaned, medically challenged child whose life was transformed by loving foster parents and a Gardiner Scholarship for students with special needs .

For nearly three years, starting before his third birthday, Malachi lived in an orphanage in Adama, in central Ethiopia. Born with spina bifida, a birth defect that causes leg weakness and limits mobility, he had to crawl across the orphanage’s concrete floors.

The orphans shared clothes from a communal closet and he rarely wore shoes causing his feet to become covered with callouses. At night he slept in a crib in a shared room with five other orphans. They ate communal meals prepared by their caretakers over a wood-burning fireplace. With his doctor more than an hour away in Addis Ababa, the capital, he rarely had access to much-needed medical attention.

His caregivers did their best with what little resources they had, but Malachi was only surviving. It seemed impossible that he would one day stand on his own — much less walk, or go to school.

All of that changed last year, when Malachi arrived in Florida where he now lives with two adoptive parents, and, with the help of a revolutionary scholarship program, has begun pursuing an education.

Kamden Kuhn and her husband, Mitchell, decided to adopt a child before they were  married eight years ago. Their faith inspired them to seek out a child in need from a developing country.

“God has rewarded us,” she said. “We can attempt to show love in a similar way.”

The Kuhns spent the next two years on a waiting list for a healthy infant. As they waited, they realized they’d drifted from their mission to adopt a child in need.

Each month the adoption agency sent them a “waiting child list” full of older children who were struggling to find homes. One month, they received a description of a four-year old boy with spina bifida named Malachi.

The Kuhns talked to parents with children with special needs to learn about educational opportunities, insurance and medical care. One family friend told them about the Gardiner Scholarship, a state education savings account program for children with special needs. (Step Up for Students, which publishes this blog and pays my salary, helps manage the accounts of students on the Gardiner Scholarship program.)

After three years of searching, two trips to Ethiopia, mountains of paperwork and $42,000 in expenses, the Kuhns brought Malachi home to Ruskin, Fla. on Sept. 21, 2015.

They applied for the Gardiner Scholarship and enrolled him in Ruskin Christian School. Kamden Kuhn said the nearby public school was good, but she didn’t want her son pulled out of class time for therapy. She wanted Malachi to have the same amount of class time as the other students. The Kuhns used funds left over after paying his tuition to purchase after-school physical, occupational and behavioral therapy.

His mother said the therapists provided instruction and therapy through play.

“I’m not the best educator for my son,” Kuhn said. “But this allows me to shop around for the best educators and best therapists. I can decide what is best, because I know him best.”

Malachi needs a stable, predictable environment where he can thrive. His parents and the teachers at the school worked together as a team.

“He made so much progress in the first nine months,” Kuhn recalled. He quickly started to learn to speak English and to stand upright with the aid of a walker. Now stronger than ever, he uses a forearm cane to walk.

“Ms. Stacy helped me learn to walk, and Ms. Colleen helped me get in control,” Malachi said of his physical and occupational therapists. In a telephone interview, he said phonics is his favorite subject because he loves learning letters and how to put them together to make words.

One day, according to his mother, his class was learning about firefighters. As the children went into a field and pretended to battle make-believe blazes, Malachi’s walker got stuck. A teaching assistant (Ms. Shelly) carried him out to the other children, allowing him to join in the fun. He still recalls that day fondly.

“I like Ms. Nichter because she helps me, and I like Ms. Shelly because she carried me,” he said of his teachers.

Malachi has access to care and support that would have been unthinkable at a cash-strapped orphanage in one of the poorest countries in the world. Ethiopia’s per-capita gross domestic product ranks 208 out of 229 countries, according to the CIA. Still, it has a long history and is now home to one of the world’s fastest-growing economies. His parents say they hope he’ll learn more about his home country and take pride in his roots.

Now six years old, he is starting his second year on the Gardiner Scholarship at a new school, Holy Trinity Lutheran, after his family moved north to Tampa.

The Kuhns recently visited his new school to meet the teachers.

“I’m really excited,” he said about his new school.

“He’s been saying this nonstop all week,” his mom added.

Raising a child with special needs isn’t easy. In fact, “it’s way, way harder than we ever thought it would be,” said Kuhn. “But we are confronting the challenge, knowing the blessing that he is.”

Spina bifida can limit people’s physical mobility, but with proper support care they can often excel in school, participate in other activities, and lead full lives. Malachi has realized that anything is possible. Not content with just walking, he now dreams of soaring when he grows up. Asked about his future career goals, he said: “I want to drive an airplane!”