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Homeless teen successful against all odds

Susan Notes: This is a series of articles about a quite remarkable young man. Grab a handkerchief before you start to read about Daniel.

Homeless and learning-disabled, Edgewater High School senior Daniel Lazzatti becomes a model student.

May 13, 2007

WINTER PARK -- Daniel Lazzatti's obsession with dragons both haunts him and helps him fight the triple beasts of poverty, homelessness and a learning disability.

In his dreams, winged dragons swoop from the sky to rescue him from the backyard shed he sleeps in.

Other dragons inside him rage against what he does not have when he wakes up each morning: an intact family, clothes, quick wit, a home.

But Daniel is winning this battle.

The boy who had every reason to give up on his life has instead climbed out of exceptional-education classes at Edgewater High School, earned a regular diploma and won a full college scholarship.

Others see unexpected success and bright hope; Daniel sees survival.

"He's phenomenal, and he doesn't know it," said Jennifer Eubanks, a specialist at Edgewater who helped boost Daniel's career.

Daniel just shrugs.

"I want more than to be just-over broke," the soon-to-graduate senior said.

Daniel is a loner, a quiet youth people love, tall and golden amid a gray, worn-out neighborhood.

No one prods 18-year-old Daniel awake at dawn so he can get to Edgewater High on time. It takes him 25 minutes to cruise to College Park on a cobbled-together silver mountain bike, squeezing his 6-foot-4-inch body onto the bike's 24-inch frame. Sometimes he walks an hour. Still, he has near-perfect attendance and a 3.7 grade-point average.

He carries his "main notebook" wherever he goes, a kind of planner that makes up for the mental organization his learning disability scrambles. Daniel looks forward each day to his computer and math classes because numbers don't change. There are no surprises. Words sometimes jumble on the page and spell out emotions he would rather hide.

He said he has to take time to think things through: "I just can't do things like normal people."

Daniel lives in a shed on Loren Avenue, behind the home of Sondra Allen, a woman who raised three boys alone and takes in all kinds of strays: pit bulls, alley cats, transient women. The neighborhood, Home Acres, is a purgatory of ramshackle houses where the residents wait for a developer to win county approval to raze the neighborhood and replace it with new homes, shops and parks.

Daniel's old house is gone, bulldozed by the developer who rid the area of many homes with problematic septic fields a few years ago.

He isn't sure where his mother, Marcia, is. His older brother, Joseph, lives in Lake County with a new wife and in-laws. Daniel's father, Alfred, lives in a tent nearby. The elder Lazzatti said he uses crack cocaine.

At night, after long shifts at Burger King, Daniel slips through Allen's fence to what he calls "the pool house," a vine-covered shed beyond an empty pool. Allen offered to let him sleep on the floor in her house, four doors down from where he once lived, but he said he volunteered to live in the shed.

The windows are boarded up and cobwebs hang from the rafters, but he has neatly ferreted items left from the old house into the shed: a bed, two dressers, a desk, a rickety armoire, crates of mementos and a shopping cart of clothes. He keeps a menagerie of dragon figurines by the door.

Daniel studies his English texts and dragon articles under a utility light. He has just enough power to play video games on an XBox 360 that he hooked up to a faux-wood-paneled Montgomery Ward TV with push-button channels. It took him a year to save up for the console.

At night, the rustlings outside his thin door sometimes startle him awake. Then they go away.

Daniel had a good life as a child. He had a mom, a dad and a brother in a three-bedroom house with a backyard. Daniel had a "Keep Out" sign on his door. Marcia Lazzatti found jobs through a labor hall. Alfred Lazzatti worked as an Orlando code-enforcement officer.

The dragons came when Daniel was in fifth grade, after strong storms destroyed a storage shed behind the old house.

The family had fun at first, burning broken boards and downed tree limbs, and roasting marshmallows over the bonfire.

But Daniel knew back then that bills went unpaid. He remembers the family getting food stamps. He remembers, too, that when the insurance company reimbursed the family for its losses, they bought a new TV, computer, tools and car parts. They later returned it all for cash.

The dragons that Daniel began to study, collect and dream about helped him build a wall to separate him from the crumbling world around him.

"I would wish that I was a dragon so I can fly away from all this," he wrote in a personal essay.

Things spiraled further out of control in 2003 after Daniel's mother left. Alfred Lazzatti sold his house to the development company and began renting it. Marcia Lazzatti got most of the money; Daniel's father got the boys.

Lazzatti, 57, said he had already cashed out his retirement fund to help his wife with legal troubles, so he often had to work odd jobs. Daniel said he loved helping his father scour work sites and city streets for scrap metal and aluminum cans to recycle.

In Daniel's mind, man and son toiled proudly in the heat to bring home dinner.

But by the fall of 2004, Lazzatti received his first eviction notice. He owed $1,200 in rent. On Dec. 9, 2004, one week before Daniel's birthday, police knocked on the door and told them to leave.

Father and son squatted in the near-empty house for a month more before parting ways.

Daniel strapped some things to his back and pushed the rest in a cart to Allen's house. He was 16.

By legal definition, Daniel is homeless, one of the 2,000 Orange County children in similar situations that the school district estimates it educates each day. Officials suspect 20 percent to 40 percent more go uncounted.

Daniel's case is unique, experts add, because most teens find someone to take them in. Few are on their own.

But Daniel persevered.

Though he had spent all of his school years in special-education classes, his teachers at Edgewater decided that the sophomore should be placed on a regular track -- a rarity in the education world.

By his junior year, he was still aiming for a special diploma for teens who can't quite meet the demands of high school. Teachers told him, however, that with two years of night- and summer-school classes, he still could get a regular diploma.

His father feared Daniel would fail, get fed up and quit. During one grueling summer science class, he nearly did.

"I just wanted one afternoon to myself," he said.

But quitting was just too easy, he said.

"Knowledge is power," he likes to say. "It will give me an easier life."

This month, he won a full scholarship to Mid Florida Tech to study computer-support services, as well as Edgewater's outstanding academic-achievement award. He passed on a career with the U.S. Marines out of deference to his father, who said he didn't want to see his son die in Iraq.

"Part of me wants to spread my wings and fly," Daniel said. But part fears the unknown.

Daniel calls his success "an accident." Eubanks, one of his Edgewater mentors, said he was simply too smart. "How about 'remarkable?' " she said.

Sometimes Lazzatti and Daniel bump into each other on the street. Sometimes they sit under a tree and study. Sometimes Daniel gives his father a few bucks. Sometimes Lazzatti knocks on the shed door in the early morning. Tell me, son, about your day, he says.

But Daniel likes his freedom.

"All Daniel's gotta do is whistle" to see him, Lazzatti said. "He didn't whistle too much."

Homeless teen in awe as offers of aid pour in

May 17, 2007

Daniel Lazzatti, the Edgewater High School senior who lives in a shed, could have a bike for every day of the week, a beach house and at least two cars -- if he chose.

Nearly 200 people have offered help and money since reading in the Orlando Sentinel last weekend about the learning-disabled teen who is raising himself after his family split up and lost their home.

But Daniel resolves to take only what he needs and to funnel the rest into a scholarship fund for other Orange County teens who grew up in poverty, the way he did.

"I am thinking there are other people who could use it," he said. "I am lucky enough the way I am."

Daniel, 18, graduates from the Orlando high school Saturday despite obstacles that might have defeated anyone else.

For the past two years, he has been living in the shed without air conditioning behind a home in Winter Park, bicycling or walking to school and surviving on his wages from Burger King.

He isn't sure where his mother is. His father, who acknowledges using crack cocaine, lives in a tent nearby.

The teen worked his way out of special-education classes in two years, earned a regular diploma and won a college scholarship.

His story brought offers of support from people across Central Florida -- money, cars, bikes, clothes, homes, gift cards and mentoring.

"I feel like my life is just beginning," Daniel said.

Humbled and grateful, he is, nonetheless, confused by the attention.

"I guess my story fills up their hearts enough so that they want to do something," he said. "But it's not about giving me stuff. I just want them to look at it [my story] and it would be enough if they just responded to things in life in a different way."

Help is a foreign word

He struggles with the notion of accepting help. He has since his father dropped him off at the neighbor's house and disappeared. When teachers let him select items from Edgewater's food pantry, he would choose two cans, prompting teachers to stuff pasta sauce and dried noodles into his backpack.

When he turned 18, he began to donate blood at school-based drives, the only way he could find to "give back," he said.

But for the teen, who has been waking up knowing his only sure meal is a school lunch, the new, seemingly limitless options overwhelm him. He fears the change. He fears making a mistake.

"I know there are people out there who don't want me to falter," he said. "But after everything that's happened, I just need time to think."

For now, Daniel is sorting through the offers with his mentor from Edgewater, Jennifer Eubanks, and comparing them against a list of what he needs, one he tries to pare down when she's not looking.

Eubanks said she thinks Daniel will give up the scholarship to Mid-Florida Tech because he has no drivers license and would have difficulty getting to school and work. Instead, he likely will enroll in Winter Park Tech, using some of the donations to pay the new school's tuition.

He may later transfer to Valencia Community College. He will continue to work at Burger King.

Teen wants to stay in shed

School officials are sorting out the rest of the details, including where he will live. They would like to see him out of the run-down neighborhood off U.S. Highway 17-92, someplace where he doesn't have to knock on the homeowner's door to use the bathroom, where he has heat when it's cold and ventilation when its hot.

Daniel has not bought into the idea. He said that he loves the shed and that if he moved to a new apartment, "I would go crazy." The shed, where he volunteered to live, is the only place, he said, where he can get away.

With that issue unsettled, Edgewater officials also are working to hire an attorney to set up a trust fund for the teen. Daniel also hopes to set aside some money for teenagers "who go the extra mile," as he put it -- the homeless, struggling learners or anyone else who needs it.

Eubanks and Daniel also plan to send thank-you notes and calls to everyone who reached out to him.

Note is a wake-up call

On Monday, the day after the Sentinel told Daniel's story, Eubanks gave him copies of e-mail from the inch-thick stack she printed out. He spends nights reading through them. One kept him awake the first night.

It was a letter from Nadine Gascoyne of Longwood, a mother of five boys and former special-education teacher.

Gascoyne wrote that in all her years of teaching, only one child moved into regular classes like Daniel did. Inspired, Gascoyne offered Daniel a bike or anything else he needed.

In an interview, Gascoyne said that in her 10 years of teaching, it took her five to push a youngster out of special-education classes. By fifth grade, with Gascoyne's and his mother's help, the boy was reading and doing math at grade level.

In Daniel, she said she saw a story of a hero defeating the insurmountable. First, he had the courage to fight peer pressure and ridicule for not wearing designer shoes, or riding a new bike.

He also had the unique ability to see a future beyond the dysfunction he grew up in. Most students in similar situations can't do that, she said.

"They don't see why they have to read or why they have to do math if it's so hard," she said. "They live day by day."

Negatives turn to positives

Daniel took all his obstacles and made them into "something positive," she said.

But for Daniel, it's Gascoyne and teachers like her who are the heroes.

They "strive to make someone better," he said.

They're the ones who care, when everyone else doesn't, he said.

Until a trust fund is set up, the Edgewater Foundation, a charitable group made up of the school's community supporters, will coordinate donations for Daniel. All donations can be sent to the high school at Edgewater Foundation, c/o Daniel Lazzatti, 3100 Edgewater Drive, Orlando, FL 32804.

Homeless teen graduates, wins Edgewater award

May 20, 2007

Orlando -- The Edgewater High School senior who overcame homelessness, poverty and a learning disability graduated Saturday night not only with a regular diploma, but with a special award as well.

Daniel Lazzatti, 18, who pulled himself out of special-education classes in two years, was named one of two seniors of the year out of more than 600 students in the graduating class. Brittany Waters was the other senior of the year.

Principal Rob Anderson called him a role model for everyone. "Daniel," he said, "your story inspired not only those here but thousands of people" across Florida.

Offers flooded in to help Lazzatti after his story ran last week in the Sentinel. He supported himself on Burger King wages for two years. Without a stable family, he lived for two years in a shed in a Winter Park backyard.

The usually solemn Lazzatti stood beaming in his red cap and gown as he waited in the Amway Arena basement before the ceremony.

"So this is what it's like," he said.

His brother Joseph, 21, traveled from Leesburg to see Daniel graduate. He recalled when teachers put Daniel in special-education classes in elementary school.

"I never imagined he'd walk across the stage and get a regular Edgewater diploma," he said. "Heck, he didn't, either. I am so proud of him."

— Erika Hobbs
Orlando Sentinel


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