ORLANDO, Fla. — As students head back into the classroom for a new school year, some may be taking ongoing challenges — like health concerns — with them.
A Harris Poll on behalf of the nonprofit On Our Sleeves Movement for Children’s Mental Health found that 71% of American parents say their children experienced challenges last school year — ranging from safety concerns, bullying, to mental health issues.
What You Need To Know
- A Harris Poll found that 71% of U.S. parents say their children experienced challenges last school year, from safety to bullying to mental health
- Bella Aguilar is managing a lifelong battle with epilepsy but is able to enjoy flag football and excel academically
- The senior at Boone High started Vagus Nerve Stimulation, or VNS Therapy, to send pulses to her brain to prevent and lessen seizures
- Special programs allow Aguilar to access certain conditions for test-taking and other resources that allow her to be successful
One Orange County high school senior, Bella Aguilar, is managing a lifelong battle with epilepsy. Thanks to her progress, she’s able to enjoy something that she loves — flag football.
“I rarely worry when I play flag football," Aguilar said. "It’s just super fun, and we’re always giggling on the sidelines."
When Aguilar was 18 months old, she was sent to the hospital for a sudden illness, where doctors discovered her condition.
“We were like, 'Oh, she’s a space cadet'," said Aguilar's mother, Shannon Aguilar. "She would stare off into space, and we didn’t realize what was happening.”
Shannon Aguilar recalls talking with Bella’s father about their daughter's diagnosis.
“She has epilepsy, and she’s not going to live a normal life," Shannon Aguilar remembered. "She’s not going to go to college, and she’s not going to graduate high school. She’s not going to drive. She’s not going to be like her peers. I remember having to tell him that and him holding her just crying, and we had no clue what the future was going to look like.”
Bella Aguilar doesn’t remember much from her early childhood. Seizures erased most of her memories, but she remembers worrying she wouldn’t be able to do things that other children could.
“I was afraid I wasn’t going to be able to do things like normal kids, like a sleepover,” Bella Aguilar said.
Aguilar’s mom and dad were worried she may never grow up and be able to live on her own. At one point, she suffered about 20 seizures a day, and they even worried epilepsy could prematurely end her life.
“Her seizures were so bad," Shannon Aguilar said. "She was losing memory. She was losing just regular skills. She forgot how to spell her name. She couldn’t write her name. She couldn’t tie her shoes — all things a fourth- or fifth-grader should be able to do."
Even with all her prescribed medications and after five brain surgeries, Aguilar was still struggling. She did some of her own research into something her doctor suggested — VNS, or Vagus Nerve Stimulation, Therapy. And she started VNS Therapy, getting a small device implanted that now sends pulses to her brain to prevent and lessen seizures.
VNS Therapy allowed Aguilar to worry less about when her next seizure would be and focus more on her education. Like all students with disabilities, Aguilar was able to access an Individualized Education Program, or IEP, in addition to a 504 program that allowed her certain conditions for test-taking and other resources that allowed her to be a successful student.
She went from falling behind to surpassing her grade level and now is beginning her senior year at Boone High School and is dual-enrolled at Valencia College.
She’s also working on applying to more colleges. She’s already been accepted at one school.
“It’s really cool, especially since my parents thought I’d never get here, so I feel accomplished,” Aguilar said.
Aguilar stars on Boone High School’s varsity flag football team, just one of four sports she’s competed in during high school.
“I feel really good about my future,” Aguilar said. “I don’t know what it holds, but I’m excited, and I know I have people to support me, even with my health.”
Aguilar said nothing is holding her back, “besides my parents not wanting me to move away.”
Aguilar said her goal is to work in public relations to advance the cause of organizations that have helped her. She’s already raised thousands of dollars for the Children’s Miracle Network.
Her parents’ hopes and dreams were answered, even if it means letting their daughter spread her wings and move away.
“I’m getting accustomed to opening up to the fact that she may not be here for the rest of her life, but I look forward to seeing wherever that journey of life takes her to,” said Aguilar’s father, Chris.
The Orange County Public School district serves nearly 38,000 students through its Exceptional Student Education Program, including more than a third of those students considered gifted. Students enrolled are evaluated annually to gauge progress. Parents can reach out to the school district at any time in the school year if they want to ask about enrolling their child simply by getting in contact with someone at their child’s school.
“If they feel like their child is struggling and they want that help, they go to the school, they speak to a staffing specialist sometimes or an administrator, and ask for a meeting,” said Wendy Ivory, OCPS ESE executive leader. “At that point, that’s what the school will do is help them navigate that process.”
Parents can also access the OCPS website and click on a button on the website labeled “submit a parent support ticket” to request more information about ESE services.