OCALA – Seven years ago, Vicki and Tim Fouche were greatly dissatisfied with the care their daughter Hannah was receiving at her school for students with special needs near their Summerfield home.
The situation was made worse by the fact that Hannah, who has cerebral palsy and is nonverbal and can’t walk, couldn’t communicate with her parents what was wrong.
In August, when they would talk to Hannah about returning to school to begin the third grade, she would cry.
“For, like, half an hour,” Vicki said. “She was inconsolable.”
How could they send Hannah back to a school that wasn’t taking care of her needs?
“At what point is she going to stop trusting us?” Vicki asked Tim.
So, Vicki made the bold decision to homeschool Hannah.
“Going into it, it was very scary,” Vicki said. “I had no idea what I was going to do, but I’d figure it out. I had no idea how we could afford it, but we’d figure it out.”
Then, a friend told Vicki about the Family Empowerment Scholarship for Students with Unique Abilities (FES-UA), known then as the Gardiner Scholarship. The scholarship is managed by Step Up For Students.
“What a blessing,” Vicki said. “What a blessing to us, and what a blessing to her.”
The scholarship enabled them to afford the curriculum, and Hannah thrived academically once she settled into the homeschool setting.
“Hannah has a physical handicap, but she’s smart as a whip,” Vicki said. “She’s super smart. She just happens to be trapped in this body that doesn’t cooperate with her.”
The specially designed hoist that lifts someone from a wheelchair to the back of a horse was doing its job on a warm October evening at Marion Therapeutic Riding Association in Ocala, a 20-minute drive from the Fouches’ home.
With hardly any effort and in barely any time, Hannah sat astride Snowflake, the horse she rides during her weekly equine therapy sessions.
“She’ll come to life when she gets on Snowflake,” Tim had said moments earlier, and he was right. Hannah’s laughter filled the corral.
“I love horseback riding because I can’t walk, and it gives me the feeling of being able to do that,” Hannah said after the session.
Hannah, now 15, uses the Proloquo2Go app on her iPad to communicate. Both are paid for with funds from the Education Savings Account (ESA), which is the FES-UA.
The ESA is vital for a one-income household like the Fouches. Tim is a manager for a homebuilder.
The ESA pays for the curriculum needed for Hannah’s homeschooling. It also pays for her physical, occupational, speech, and equine therapies, and her EasyStand, which helps Hannah transition safely from sitting to standing at the push of a button.
Hannah, who is in the ninth grade, has received the scholarship since 2016. Over the years, it has helped her make great strides both physically and socially.
Hannah answers questions with the help of the Proloquo2Go app on her iPad.
Proloquo2Go app allows Hannah to join a conversation. The EasyStand comes with a holder for her iPad, so she can communicate and do her schoolwork without sitting. It also allows Hannah to be at eye level with her friends, which helps her confidence. Standing, even for a half-hour at a time, means Hannah is not always sitting, which is healthier.
“Standing is important,” Vicki said.
Paying for Hannah’s therapies is also huge, Vicki said, because, before that, she or Tim had to drive Hannah once a week from their home to UF Health Shands Hospital in Gainesville, a two-hour round trip.
Tricia Steffey, Hannah’s physical therapist, said being able to work with Hannah in her home is one of the keys to her development. It allows her to show Vicki and Tim how to use the equipment so they can continue Hannah’s therapies throughout the week.
Tricia has been working with Hannah since Hannah was six months old. She has watched Hannah blossom from a shy young girl who did not like being around strangers to a social butterfly who craves friends.
“She’s really smart and sociable, and she likes to have friends and talk to people and learn new things,” Tricia said.
Hannah is quick to pick up on jokes and has perfected the art of the eye roll.
Physically, Hannah is developing her core muscles, which allows her to sit on her own for longer periods of time. She can walk with assistance, though only for short distances.
“If I hold her while standing, she can take steps,” Tricia said. “She just doesn’t have enough strength or balance to maintain standing on her own yet.”
That’s where Snowflake comes in. The equine therapy helps Hannah build those core muscles.
Hannah’s grandmother lives with them, and one of Hannah’s favorite games is to walk down the hall with Tricia’s help, knock on her grandmother’s bedroom door, and then hide. It’s the indoor version of ding-dong dash, and Grandma doesn’t mind.
“She gets to participate in some of the fun things that kids get to do,” Tricia said.
Jokes aside, Hannah is a very empathetic person.
“She’s always for the underdog,” Tricia said.
Hannah said she likes being homeschooled. Her favorite subject is language arts. She is studying Latin. She recently helped her team win a mock trial with her decision to make the defendant an expert witness and question him on the witness stand.
“It’s so much better with her being home and me taking care of her and knowing what she needs,” Vicki said.
Once a week, Hannah attends class with four other students.
“They love her, and she loves them,” Vicki said.
The outgoing girl who likes to make friends and prank her grandmother, loves visiting theme parks, loves to read, loves to play Minecraft, and loves everything about Pokémon Go.
“Typical teenage stuff,” said her mom.
Hannah enjoys Christian music. Her favorite band is Mercy Me, and her favorite songs are “I Can Only Imagine,” by Mercy Me, and “This is Me,” from the movie, “The Greatest Showman.”
“I am brave, I am bruised
I am who I’m meant to be, this is me
Look out ’cause here I come
And I’m marching on to the beat I drum
I’m not scared to be seen
I make no apologies, this is me”
Hannah loves anything to do with animals – cats, dogs, horses, especially Snowflake, the horse she has been riding for 10 years.
“When I ride Snowflake, I get so excited,” she said. “My favorite part of the lesson is when I get to trot because I get to go fast.”
Hannah wants to be a veterinarian and work with horses, she said.
Hannah wears a gown and gets her hair and nails done. The night includes some karaoke with her mom.
When asked about Night to Shine, Hannah smiled.
When asked about singing, the smile grew bigger.
“I like that,” she said.
Hannah answered the question by pressing the correct icon on her iPad, the one she was able to buy with her ESA.
“It’s just been such a blessing for our family. It really has,” Vicki said. “We have been able to get her things that she absolutely needs. It’s a necessity for her to be able to stand, and it’s a necessity to be able to have her voice, and she has those because of the scholarship.”