For 18 months, Eric Degiaimo could barely leave his apartment, paralyzed by fear of the outside world. Today, he’s a junior in high school who just celebrated his 19th birthday with friends in Times Square and harbors goals of becoming a musical engineer.
He’s also the recipient of a city advocacy groups’s annual award for students who have overcome great obstacles to attend schools that are right for them.
Eric’s path to isolation and back took him through rough terrain. By the time he was 15, he had incurred a lifetime of trauma while being raised by drug addicts, sexual predators, and a sister’s abusive boyfriends. Eric was kicked, spit on, and his apartment raided by drug dealers. He was forced to panhandle and fake Tourette’s Syndrome so people he lived with could collect disability to pay for their next high. Time and again he was hurt and exploited by the same people who were supposed to keep him safe.
His early life, as he puts it, “belongs in a horror film.”
The experiences made him emotionally fragile, unable to complete even the most mundane social interactions. Riding the subway or going to the store frightened him. A psychiatrist diagnosed him with posttraumatic stress disorder and anxiety problems.
Then named Eric Velazquez, he had been removed from his sister’s custody and placed in a group home when he met a social worker, Angela Degiaimo. The pair felt an immediate bond and within months, Eric had moved into Angela’s Flatbush apartment. Last year, she officially adopted him.
“He just has this loveable thing about him that people are charmed by,” Angela Degiaimo said. “I tell him that we were meant to be a family.”
Degiaimo launched a bid to get Eric help at his school, the 3,000-student Long Island City High School in Queens. Eric would regularly get to the front door of the school but succumb to panic attacks.
“I would call and tell them about this and they just kept saying there’s nothing we can do,” she said. “It was too big.”
That’s when Angela Digiamo turned to Advocates for Children of New York, the nonprofit organization that works with — and sometimes sues — the Department of Education to provide resources to meet the needs of disabled and court-involved students. Together, they found that the city couldn’t offer a placement that would work for Eric, whose records show that he is bright, though emotionally disturbed.
“The DOE has very limited programs for kids who are very smart like Eric [and] have high emotional needs, but are not serious behavioral problems,” said Alice Rosenthal, the AFC lawyer who handled the Digiamos’ case.
So the group turned to the Smith School, a private school with tiny classes that specializes in serving students with academic, social and emotional issues. To cover the $30,000 annual cost, AFC sued the Department of Education on Eric’s behalf in a proceeding often used to secure private school tuition for students whose needs can’t by met in public schools.
Tonight, Eric is being honored at AFC’s annual gala. Each year, the nonprofit hands out an “Education Champion” award to a student who has fought for the right placement, then made the most of it once enrolled.
Though Eric has thrived in his new settings, the path forward won’t be easy. As his home life stabilized and he exited what he said had been “survival mode,” he faced the challenge of reacquainting himself with a lost childhood. Even now, meeting someone new sets off a deep-rooted alarm system for him.
“It’s hard today,” he says. “I still think I have to defend myself. It’s just instinct. It’s what I knew my whole life. I mean, I’m just scared to let my defenses down a little.”
Eric still gets nervous and displays that energy through gentle rocking. But as he warms up, he begins to unveil some of the charm that won over his adopted mother. He has a wry sense of humor, punctuated by a thick New York City accent.
Like many of his classmates at the Smith School, Eric occasionally struggles to pick up on social cues that general education students might easily grasp. As he recalled the first time he met Angela, he joked about how he misinterpreted their first exchange.
“She kept looking at me and at first I thought she had the hots for me,” he says. “So one day, I said, ‘lady, do you have the hots for me?’ She said, what are you talking about? And I said, ‘you keep looking at me, you’re freaking me out!”
There are other positive signs. Recently, he lopped off the long black hair that had shielded his face from public view. On his nineteenth birthday last month, he dined out at Dallas BBQ with a group of friends from school, enjoying the barbecue despite the restaurant’s noise and crowds. And tonight, he’ll stand up in front of a crowd of people and make a speech as he accepts AFC’s prize.
“Advocates for Children changed my life forever,” he said. “I’ve learned that I really like school.”