vice president

Coconut Creek Senior Challenges Stereotypes About People With Disabilities

He's literally a big man on campus, a senior who can hang out with anyone at Coconut Creek High School, but Santiago Juan Orozco chooses to walk a different path.

On any given day at any given time of day, you're likely to find Santiago mentoring kids who have autism, Down syndrome, and other disabilities.

"All these kids have a wonderful attitude, they have so much heart, and so much love in their life, all they really need is a little push and a little faith to actually succeed in our society," Santiago said.

Inspired by two cousins who have autism, in sophomore year, Santiago founded his school's chapter of Best Buddies and led it with a mission: to shatter perceptions about special needs kids among his classmates by bringing everyone together.

"When they see a kid who has special needs, they won't look at 'em in the sense that they're different, but they're the same as every one of us and I've really, for the last four years, been trying to push that as hard as I can," Santiago explains.

Special education teacher Kristine Monforte sponsors the Best Buddies club. She says it's a huge success, which she says is due directly to Santiago's dedication and persistence.

"He definitely inspires many people, not only does he inspire he teaches people how to really make an impact as well, which I think makes him really special in that sense," Monforte said. "So kids like him, when they're leading this world, you know they're gonna do good things."

Santiago has recruited 22 classmates to join him as mentors in the program. Fellow senior, Joannese Jean, is the club's vice president.

"He's a very altruistic person so he does it just to do it, it tells a lot about his character because he doesn't ever look for a reward, he loves to do things knowing it'll make other people happy, that's where he gets his pleasure from," Joannese said.

We always seem to find that students who choose to work with the special education kids end up benefitting as much from the experience as the kids they're helping, and Santiago is no exception.

"It's really opened up my eyes to many things," Santiago said. "And it's really inspired me to know that they're in this closed net, where all these kids are in, like, their own little world, but it's so much bigger than we actually understand and it inspires me to go on beyond my own boundaries."

Boundaries for this guy? Good luck finding any.

Santiago played on his school's football team, he wants to become an aerospace engineer, and he says he'll keep challenging stereotypes about the disabled throughout his life.

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