A young artist blossoms with the love of her grandparents and the help of an education choice scholarship

Apr 3 2023 • By Roger Mooney


PLANT CITY – Lilly Bowden flipped through her sketch pad and proudly showed off her work.

There’s a fox on one page and a cat on another. A giraffe from the neck up and a mountain range in all its purple majesty. One drawing begins on one side of a page and ends on the other, forming a U-shape. A snake? An eel?

“I have no idea what that is,” Lilly said.

More pages, more drawings. An armadillo. A seahorse. A seashell. A leaf. One page has a pineapple, a watermelon, and some grapes.

“It’s a still life,” Lilly said. “Kind of abstract.”

Lilly, 12, wants to be an artist, and she’s taking her first steps with the “Drawing Lessons for Beginners” DVD purchased with her education savings account (ESA) that comes with the Family Empowerment Scholarship for Students with Unique Abilities (FES-UA). Managed by Step Up For Students, the ESA gives parents the ability to customize their child’s educational needs. The money can be used for curriculum and education materials, therapies and medical specialists, tutors, and tuition to private schools.

Lilly's displays her drawing of a fox, one of many drawings that fill her three sketch pads.

“The scholarship has been such a blessing for us,” said Debbie Bowden, Lilly’s grandmother and legal guardian.

Lilly was born with pulmonary atresia with ventricular septal defect, a congenital heart disease that left her with one working ventricle. She’s had three reconstructive heart surgeries, one each year for three years beginning when she was 1.

When she was 5 a blood clot led to a stroke, which led to the diminished use of her right arm and hand.

She has a pacemaker.

She has scoliosis and wears a back brace 20 hours a day.

She has several allergies.

Because of Lily’s weakened heart, a minor cold can turn into pneumonia and land her in a hospital for two weeks. A growth spurt could place too much stress on her heart and prove deadly, Debbie said.

“With Lilly, we take it one day at a time. For everything that’s she’s got, she’s still a fighter. She’s lived a lot longer than they ever thought she would,” Debbie said.

Among the many doctors Lily visits on a regular basis are a cardiologist, two neurologists, an orthopedic surgeon (for her back) and a pediatrician.

Lilly is classified as hospital homebound and is homeschooled. Debbie is her teacher, working with curriculum purchased through Lilly’s ESA.

“I can get all the school supplies that I need. Everything,” Debbie said.

A computer and printer for assignments. English, history, science and math books. A telescope to study the nighttime sky. A microscope for science projects. A protractor and compass because math is about to get interesting.

The videos that Lilly watches to hone her drawing and tracing skills.

“We wouldn’t be able to afford all that,” said Debbie, who lives with her husband, Chris, and Lilly in a comfortable mobile home park in Plant City that’s bordered in the back by ponds and a lake.

There is plenty of wildlife for Lilly to observe and draw, including snakes, the occasional alligator, and a duck that laid eggs under a bush out back.

Lilly holds her sketch of a cactus in a flowerpot.

Lilly’s life began in a small Texas town, located 30 miles outside of Dallas. Her biological parents lost their parental rights because of neglect, and her grandparents became her legal guardians in 2018. They moved to Plant City in 2020 to escape the allergies that prevented Lilly from spending much time outdoors. Chief among them is an allergy to tumbleweed, something Lilly doesn’t encounter in Florida.

When asked what she likes about living in Plant City, Lilly said, “That I can get outside more than in Texas. Plus, I don’t have to be in the hospital.”

Lilly struggled at her district school in Texas. Her long hospital stays made her fall behind in her classes, leaving her two years behind her grade. Debbie and Chris thought of sending her to a district school when they moved to Plant City, but they weren’t comfortable with the accelerated learning plan the administrators wanted for Lilly so she could catch up to her grade.

Debbie learned of the FES-UA from Lilly’s homebound/hospital bound teacher. Debbie decided on homeschooling because the scholarship allows her to tailor Lilly’s education. They can move at Lilly’s pace and spend more time on a lesson until Lilly learns it. She’s now learning at a fifth- and sixth-grade level.

“She’s come a long ways,” Debbie said. “She gets excited. She didn’t get excited at her old school. I challenge her when it comes to school. I challenge her to learn as much as she can.”

Lilly loves to sing and listen to Christian music on the clock radio in her bedroom. Her favorite TV show is the early 1970s sitcom, “The Partridge Family.” Danny Partridge is her favorite. “Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile” is her favorite movie.

She likes to attend church on Sundays and spend time with the 2- and 3-year-olds during Sunday School.

“If someone is crying, I comfort them,” Lilly said. “I’m good at that.”

“She’s a real good comforter,” Debbie said. “That’s always been her thing. You give her lots of love, she gives it back two-fold.”

Chris comes home from his job as a locksmith in the late afternoon and is greeted by his granddaughter, eager to tell him what’s she learned or show him her latest drawing.

“We have an interesting life with her,” Debbie said. “It’s been an interesting journey. She teaches us something new every day.

“When you think of everything she’s been through, she’s a fighter. We were told when we got her that we could wake up one morning and she’d be gone. She’s an inspiration. She doesn’t let too much stop her. If there is something she wants to do, we try it and see how it goes.”

Roger Mooney, manager, communications, can be reached at [email protected].

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Roger Mooney