Meet Julian Cruz

For more than two years, the Cruz family chose to live apart.

Eddie Cruz resided in the family’s Lake Mary home, while his wife, Emily, and their son, Julian, shared a series of rented rooms and tiny apartment on the other side of the state. It was the only way, at the time, for Julian to attend a school that truly addressed his special needs.

“Splitting up the family was unimaginable,” Eddie said. But after they visited Blossom Montessori School for the Deaf in Clearwater, “we were forced to reconsider. Not sending him there was not an option.”

It worked, for a while. But the bills became too much, Eddie lost his job and the family lost their house. They didn’t want to ask their relatives and friends for more financial help. So they resigned themselves to leaving their beloved Blossom.

Then Eddie and Emily heard about Florida’s new Personal Learning Scholarship Accounts, now called Gardiner Scholarships. The program helps pay for tuition and other needs, such as therapies and medical specialists, for families whose children have specific disabilities.

“I thought it was too good to be true,” Eddie said. “We had become so accustomed to rejections and dead ends.” But he applied anyway and received Julian’s acceptance letter a day or two before they were to call Blossom to inform the school Julian wouldn’t be returning. “We all just cried. To know that the burden of constantly scrambling for funds for your child’s education, for his basic needs … the relief of having that is indescribable.”

Since coming to Blossom, Julian has experienced the most transformative years of his life, his parents said.

The school, in classic Montessori tradition, allows students – deaf, hearing-impaired and hearing – to experience what they learn. Children can touch and feel their way through lessons and collaborate with each other. They are encouraged to move around the classroom and work together or alone. Teachers try to reinforce whatever a student shows interest in.

“I think the one-on-ones with teachers work really well for him,” said Julie Rutenberg, Blossom’s director. “Teachers can sign with him and he can learn at his own pace. With his many appointments [for therapies and such], his teachers can catch him up and cater to his learning needs.”

He also has benefited from having older students help him, Rutenberg said. Now the 13-year-old is a role model for younger classmates.

It’s the perfect learning environment for Julian, who has cerebral palsy, hydrocephalus and a severe hearing loss that has impeded his speech. For Julian’s parents, the school is everything they wanted for him.

When he was born three months premature, Julian was saddled with a grim prognosis. He spent the first seven years of his life disproving those predictions and undergoing a blur of surgeries and multiple therapies. All the while, he persevered – even thrived.

It motivated his parents to do as much as they could to move him forward. And they knew education was key.

They sought public schools with reportedly excellent special-needs programs. But the older Julian got, the more he needed. Emily homeschooled him for a while and Julian soaked up knowledge like a sponge, but he needed socialization. So the family traveled to St. Augustine with plans to enroll Julian in the city’s well-known Florida School for the Deaf and Blind. It turned out the school couldn’t accommodate his needs.

Blossom was their last hope.

“When he got to Blossom, he was able to feed off the abilities of the other kids,” Eddie said, “and they fed off him. It’s such a mutually supportive environment.” Julian still struggles with spelling and reading, like many kids. But he loves learning and his parents love watching him embrace it. Now, when they go out places, Julian sees words and tries to read them aloud.

“We were afraid to believe we’d ever see that,” Eddie said. “He’s smart, he’s happy, he loves dancing and bowling and cycling and basketball, and he wants to be a teacher when he grows up,” Eddie said. “The doctors standing around us when he was born assured us none of that would ever be possible.”

This, his parents say, makes Julian’s achievements all the more sweet.

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