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PROGRAM — Empowerment Scholarship Accounts Program

My name is Gloria Guerra and my son, Joaquin Tejeda, is 21 years old. He’s in twelth grade now and he has not graduated yet.

Joaquin has severe autism. When he was born they said that he was not moving and wouldn’t be able to do anything. They gave me a wheelchair and feeding tubes that they said he would need for the rest of his life. I’m a person of faith so I decided that things will happen and miracles will happen. I worked with him 24/7 through therapies, getting in debt because I didn’t know of any resources. But we started seeing some progress with him.

He started preschool when he was three years old, then went to public school. We then moved him to a charter school because there wasn’t enough personalized attention and there was also a lot of unintentional bullying. 

Joaquin went into high school and they wanted to graduate him, mainly because of his age. Technically, the law says he can have education until the age of 22, so he can still have more years to learn. We went and did some supplemental schooling, then found out there was a “secret” scholarship called ESA. I had no idea.

Depending on the psychological diagnosis at the public school, it will trigger how much scholarship. I had Joaquin tested. When I didn’t want him to graduate, his school put him in what’s called the Next S.T.E.P. program. It’s mainly working, and there’s no academics. It’s just basic folding and labor work. I thought he can do that but he wants to do more than that. I fought that and almost went to court to fight for his rights. 

When I found out about the ESA, we applied and got denied seven different times for different reasons. I just kept applying and gave it our all to get what he needs. When we were finally awarded ESA, I remember Joaquin’s dad saying we weren’t going to get it. And I said, “Just watch, we will get it!”

By this time, he was in high school. He was in the Next S.T.E.P. program and had mastered the labor items like folding clothes. He said, “What else can I do?” He accomplished these milestones in six months. Although it’s called IEP, they are understaffed and underpaid. I think they have the best intentions, but kids need more attention if they want to move forward. 

I started looking for another school and we found Aspire Academy. The school started with 12 kids and now they are serving over 200 kids. Half of them are thanks to ESA, because otherwise, how can you afford a school that is$2,000 or $3,000 a month? It has been a blessing to have the ESA program because my son gets a one-on-one education. He has math, general education, English at work, reading at work, and how to do the day-to-day activities that he needs for his future.

I couldn’t have done this without ESA. I have my own business and it does well, but I could not have given my son the education level he has had without ESA. We also have been able to spread the word to other kids. I have a team of people that we get lunch with together once a month and now they are all in the ESA. They ask how I found out about it. I said an angel told me about it. They use ESA for therapies and for transportation and everything. I’m blessed. When I hear that politicians want to get rid of the program, it breaks my heart.

Joaquin is doing so much better now being at Aspire Academy and in ESA. He has such a pure soul and he always thinks good about everything and everyone. One of the things that crushed him was when he saw an email from the school that he was at that said they didn’t want him to come back to the school. He thought they liked him. Well the teachers may have liked him, but if the leaders say don’t come back here, go find another school, we couldn’t believe it! When you transition into a school that he was received with open arms from the leadership, with good intentions and good heart, he said he’s on a mission now that he wants to tell everyone about the ESA. 

I’m looking forward to seeing what else Joaquin can do. HWhen people say he’s doing a good job, I think well he’s only 21. He can still do more and contribute to the community so any time we can spread the word, we do it. You can impact the lives of people. Those with special needs can contribute to the community in another way because they are pure souls. Joaquin would tell you, ‘I’m not supposed to do anything and here I am.’ It has been a team effort by meeting with specialists, and believing that if you think and you speak and you think you can do the impossible, you just get it done.


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