In his house in Westchester, Armando Montes de Oca wakes up at 5 a.m. every day to walk his beloved dog Monti, a shih tzu. He then heads to Goodwill Industries of South Florida, where he has worked for the past 14 years as part of the employment program for adults with disabilities.
However, Armando can’t face much pressure and must do everything slowly. He also does not speak.
The 37-year-old was born with craniosynostosis, a birth defect that causes one or more sutures on a baby’s head to close prematurely, which creates problems with normal brain and skull growth.
This doesn’t mean that Armando doesn’t enjoy performing different tasks: “He is determined to use the same blue shirt that counselors wear,” said Juana Maria Montes de Oca, his mom. “He wants to imitate everything they do. That’s why he carries a folder stacked with papers like they do.”
In addition to his dog Monti, Armando likes flipping through magazines. And he loves music: His mother believes the gift of music equipment or a tablet through the Miami Herald Wish Book program will help her son stay connected and be less isolated.
Armando’s love for music dates back to his childhood days in Cuba, where he listened to the songs of Mexican romantic ballad singer Juan Gabriel on a small cassette tape player. Today, he’s part of a youth prayer group in St. Agatha Catholic Church in southwest Miami-Dade, which has a musical group.
“He’s always the first one to arrive, touches the microphone, and with a natural flair, he moves his lips,” Juana Maria said. “I have to accept that he can only sing in silence.”
In Cuba, Armando’s childhood had been filled with joy even as the family struggled to find an education program well-suited to him.
“He was always a very happy child,” his mother said. “He played with his cousins, talked to them, with everyone around him.”
But when he became an adolescent, Armando suddenly stopped speaking and began to have epileptic attacks. Medications helped control the seizures, but he hasn’t spoken for more than 20 years.
Juana Maria said that when the family was in Cuba, her eldest daughter Janet urged the family to come to the United States for Armando’s sake. The daughter argued that he would never make progress if he remained on the island and spent all his time sitting on the couch without interacting with anyone.
Juana Maria and Armando came to the United States in 1994. They followed Armando Montes de Oca Sr., who had taken a raft across the Florida Straits a few months before, in December 1993. Juana and her son had had their U.S. travel visas ready, but the Cuban government delayed their exit permits until they were sure that Armando Sr., who was a systems analyst at an electricity company, hadn’t taken confidential documents. It would take 14 years for Armando’s sister to be reunited with the rest of the family. At his new home in South Florida, Armando has had access to medical treatment and special education.
One of the happiest moments of Juana Maria’s life was watching Armando don a cap and gown for his graduation ceremony from a high school and services program in Kendall, formerly known as South Development Center, for children and young adults with developmental disabilities.
“I could never have imagined that my son would parade down an amphitheater holding a Cuban flag and an American flag,” recalled Juana Maria. “The whole experience was a huge honor.”
Juana Maria fondly remembers her son’s days at South Development Center where he worked in an orchard, learned about the earth, and came home every Friday with a bag full of produce that he had helped cultivate. She said the love and support her son received there made a world of difference.
After graduating, Armando was hired at Goodwill where he helps pack bay leaves for a program that Goodwill has with Badia Spices.
“He is respectful and has a very good character, with a great sense of responsibility. Because of that, he does not like to miss work,” said Silvia Riorda, director of vocational programs at Goodwill.
“The work they do here helps develop manual skills and they are paid per piece,” added Riorda, explaining that every person in this training program has a production supervisor and counselor as well as a psychologist who monitors behavior.
Armando is as loyal to Goodwill as he is to his adopted homeland.
“Armando already has become an American citizen and lives proudly in this country. The other day, someone asked him if he was born in Cuba, and he always says no,” said Juana Maria, adding that she has to remind him that he was born in Placetas, in Villa Clara Province.
His family members do everything possible to maintain a comfortable standard of living for Armando. But during the recent recession, they lost their car and their small business — a clothing store on Coral Way. Armando’s father is currently unemployed and his mother earns what she can cleaning houses.
“When we lost everything, I said, Lord, put something in my path even if it’s just selling guavas, to keep a roof over my son’s head and so that he has a place to sit and lay down,” Juana Maria said.
How to help
Wish Book is trying to help hundreds of families in need this year.
▪ To donate, pay securely at MiamiHerald.com/wishbook.
▪ To give via your mobile phone, text WISH to 41444.
▪ For information, call 305-376-2906 or email wishbook@MiamiHerald.com.
▪ Most requested items: laptop computers and tablets for school; furniture; accessible vans.
Read more at MiamiHerald.com/wishbook.