Julie and Faith Kleffel

Seven-year-old Faith Kleffel giggles in the background as her tutor, Tammy Forte, talks on the telephone.

faithThey’re at Faith’s house in Longwood, near Orlando, where the first-grader with Down syndrome lives with her mom and is homeschooled.

“We have a room,’’ explained Forte, a former local school district paraprofessional. “That’s her school. It has a computer and a proper school table.’’

A typical day for Faith starts with Bible study and reviewing the days of the week followed by spelling, handwriting, computation and geography. There’s also time for art projects, music, phonics and even P.E., when Forte, who lives nearby, shares her pool with Faith. On Fridays, they head to a homeschool co-op so Faith can socialize with other kids while Forte teaches an enrichment class.

“She loves it!’’ Forte said. “She’s so highfunctioning. I see her totally being able to get a job. I’d love to see her drive someday.’’

Faith’s mom wants that, too. But such milestones come with a huge commitment that often involves special therapies, equipment and teachers. And all of that costs money.

“The financial challenges of raising a child can be insurmountable some days,’’ said Julie Kleffel, a banking executive whose husband died from a ladder fall when Faith was just four months old.

“Compound that with a special-needs child. It can take your breath away.’’

That’s why she couldn’t wait to apply for the new Gardiner Scholarship (PLSA) through Step Up For Students. The Kleffels are among the first families in Florida to receive the K-12 scholarship, which allows them to tailor Faith’s education plan to meet her specific needs.

Awards average about $10,000 per qualified applicant and can help pay for private school tuition, therapists, specialists, curriculum and technology. Families can roll over unused dollars from year to year and even use them to help save for their children’s college costs.

To qualify for the Gardiner Scholarship (PLSA), students must be diagnosed with one of eight disabilities, including autism, cerebral palsy, spina bifida or Down syndrome.

“Money that can come from the scholarship can make a huge difference in our lives,’’ said Kleffel, who estimates spending about $30,000 to $35,000 a year on Faith’s tutoring and child care needs.

For Faith, the scholarship will allow her to continue learning at home where she has blossomed since a public school pre-K experience left her digressing academically and emotionally.

“It started off fine,’’ Kleffel said, noting there were only five students in Faith’s preschool class taught by a seasoned special education teacher. But in 30 days, when the class grew to 11, “we had unbelievable issues.’’

Faith suffered from night terrors at home and wetting accidents at school. That’s when Kleffel decided to homeschool her daughter.

She hired Forte, who knew the family and previously had worked with Faith. They researched curriculum and created lessons for Faith to study kindergarten and first grade simultaneously. Now she’s reviewing first-grade skills and moving forward with second-grade work.

“We have a very customized classroom and it changes all the time, depending on Faith’s needs,’’ Kleffel said. “We need that flexibility.’’

The award also will help pay for additional speech therapy, which Faith really needs twice a week, her mom said. But at $1 to $2 per minute for the service, adding an extra day was too expensive – until now, Kleffel said.

Then there are physical therapies necessary to treat Faith’s ankle problems and the occupational therapies that will help her learn to brush her hair and teeth, tie her shoes – all skills that will allow Faith to be more independent.

And the needs will continue to grow as Faith grows, too, said Kleffel, who estimated she will receive about $10,000 this year from the Gardiner Scholarship (PLSA).

“It’s a drop in the bucket for a lot of families,’’ she said. “A very tiny drop in the bucket. But I am so grateful … because it is life-changing.’’

To have any sort of assistance adds to her peace of mind – “And you can’t put a price tag on that.’’

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