In a leap of faith, 13-year-old Nelson Sobrino Jr. mustered the courage to stand on stage before his entire school.
As his feet trembled, he grasped the microphone and was determined that nothing was impossible for him — his autism would be no obstacle.
“I am running for president because I care,” Nelson said during his student body candidate speech at Somerset City Arts Conservatory in Homestead in October.
Nelson spoke cautiously, making sure to read every word. Tears cascaded down his peers’ cheeks.
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“I am honest, reliable and hard-working,” he said. “I will represent and serve you all, and together we can make a difference. My leadership will be for all. I will be your voice.”
I will be your voice...I want to give back.
Nelson Sobrino Jr., 13
Nelson received a standing ovation amid triumphant applause and cheers of excitement. And just like that, the sixth-grader was elected student body president of the K-6 Miami-Dade County public charter school with more than 50 percent of the vote. He had three opponents.
“I voted for him because he is always nice,” said Sobrino’s classmate William Morales, 11. “If you fall on the playground, Nelson helps you get up. He also shares his snacks when others are hungry and don’t have any.”
Nelson’s decision to run for president came as a surprise to many. Little did they know that Nelson — known to be a shy and reserved young boy — would overcome fear with confidence. His actions took his parents and school community on an emotional trek.
“When I heard he was gonna run for president, I almost dropped to the floor,” said his mother, Zoila Sobrino, her eyes glossy. “He just comes in with a form and said: ‘Mom, I am going to run for president. I felt like, wow, wow.”
His mother noted that she needed to prepare her son for any given result: “I said to him: ‘Look, I know that you’re running, but there is a possibility of course that you may win, or you may lose.”
“But he told me he was ready; that he would be fine. He told me he needed to give back to the school.”
And so the journey began. His parents helped create campaign posters galore. Hues of scarlet, gold and emerald surrounded Sobrino’s slogan: “Because I care.”
This was a big move for Nelson and his parents, who have labored through many difficult years.
In 2004, Nelson, 14 months old at the time, and his younger sister were adopted from Guatemala. His adopted mother, Zoila Sobrino, had had more than two dozen miscarriages. Her and her husband’s desire for having children grew so much that they ultimately decided to adopt.
For a long time, Nelson didn’t speak, and couldn’t really walk or talk. His parents had him evaluated by a speech pathologist, who suggested Nelson had reactive attachment disorder, a condition in which an infant or young child doesn’t establish healthy attachments with parents or caregivers. This is common in neglected and adopted children.
“Everyone in the family used to tell me that Nelson wasn’t gonna go to school, and it was at that point that I prayed and I prayed,” Zoila said. “I declared that he will go to school.”
And surely the first day of kindergarten came, but extreme difficulty followed.
You have to be positive and you have to think ahead of yourself and think: ‘Yes, it can happen, yes it can happen.’ And it does happen because he is the living proof that he can.
Zoila Sobrino, Nelson’s Mother
“In the first grade Nelson told me: ‘Mom there’s something wrong in my head. There’s something wrong in here,” Zoila said.
That was when his parents took him to get evaluated. “By then we already knew. He barely talked, he had no eye contact. That’s when he was diagnosed with autism.”
Helping Nelson succeed in school was a grueling and collaborative family affair.
His teachers allowed his mother to sit in class with him until he felt comfortable being alone. His classmates helped him with his classwork and the principal was flexible with his learning curve. His teacher worked with him, making sure to include him in normal classroom activities.
With time, the bashful boy no longer sat alone in a corner at student dances, and was cheered on by his classmates. He began to let loose. Slowly and steadily Nelson made it through. But then, the end of third grade came, and he had to repeat it.
That didn’t stop him. That same year, Nelson got an award for ‘Reading Plus,’ a web-based comprehensive reading program. He had completed more content than any other student at school.
And for all of that, Nelson said he is very grateful.
“I have been a Stingray since kindergarten,” Nelson said. “I love this school because it has helped me be the young man I am today. I want to give back.”
Principal Idalia M. Suarez considers Nelson one of her “career highs.”
“I’ve seen him transform from kinder[garten] to sixth grade and has defied all odds,” Suarez said. “Through the support of his parents, the staff, the peers and the school environment where he is able to be who he is, he has been accepted and celebrated for who he is. The truth is, he’s doing things that most students with autism may not ever reach.”
Nelson’s father, Nelson Sobrino Sr., said the journey has changed him forever.
“That same day of the elections, I got texts from parents of the other kids that were running too,” Nelson Sobrino Sr. said. “Everyone was very emotional throughout the process, everyone was crying, even the lunch ladies. It was very unique, hopefully not just once in a lifetime. It goes to show that with care and love and acceptance, anything is possible.”
His wife agreed.
“Parents that have an autistic child need to give their child that opportunity,” Zoila Sobrino said. “You have to be positive and you have to think ahead of yourself and think: ‘Yes, it can happen, yes it can happen.’ And it does happen because he is the living proof that he can. When everyone thought he would never, ever been where he is today. Middle school is coming and I have no doubts.”
For now, President Nelson will begin working on getting more “spirit days at school and helping people with food for Thanksgiving,” he said.
Said his principal smiling: “President Nelson. It has a nice ring to it.”