TALLAHASSEE Fla. — When Carlos Andres Baeza carefully walked his way across the stage at Florida State University to receive his postgraduate degree, 11 years had passed since he had taken similarly hesitating steps at Camden Hills Regional High School to accept a diploma in front of admiring family, friends, teammates, teachers, counselors, and coaches.

None of it was supposed to happen.

When he was born three months premature in Bogota, Columbia in 1991, Carlos was blind in one eye. The other was so compromised it was already doomed to a failure that would strike years later, leaving him blind as a young teen and a relative newcomer still learning the language and adjusting to life in the Camden/Rockport community.

But there was more heartbreaking and lethal news to come after the newborn Carlos was rushed clinging to life into the womb-like neonatal incubator, where temperature and oxygen levels were designed to keep him alive. His tiny, underdeveloped body was suddenly convulsed by a stroke whose aftermath was horrendous and whose effects profoundly impact Carlos’ life to this day. It caused hydrocephalus, fluid in the brain that swells the head and can do serious damage to the brain and other organs. In a delicate procedure, a long shunt tube was inserted in his brain to drain the life-threatening fluid and deposit it in his abdomen where it would be absorbed by his body.

Then, his medical team discovered the struggling preemie also was afflicted with cerebral palsy, an incurable, life altering condition that causes motion, balance and posture problems and makes common movements, such as walking, difficult to impossible. As his challenges were both overwhelming and life threatening, doctors gave the newborn baby little chance of survival. You are just 27, they told his single mother, you can always have more children.

Thirty-one years later, on Dec. 9, 2022, Inirida and Victor Baeza watched their son Carlos sweep his white cane from side to side and find his sightless way across the stage to accept a master’s degree in public administration from the Askew School at Florida State University.

 

Proud father Victor Baeza with his son Carlos at the master’s degree celebration. Photo courtesy of Inirida Baeza.

At that moment, his mother was overcome with “an infinite gratitude to God and an immense pride for everything (Carlos) has achieved,” she told the Camden Herald two days before Christmas, while spending time with family in Columbia and awaiting a holiday visit from her son and only child.

“It was amazing,” said Victor Baeza, 78, of the graduation ceremony. He is the Camden man who fell in love with and married Inirida and adopted Carlos after she had emigrated to the United States seeking a better future and care for her fatherless 10-year-old boy with all those special needs and, as it turned out, more difficulties to come.

 

Carlos Baeza receives his master’s degree from Florida State University during ceremonies Dec. 9, 2022. Photo courtesy of Inirida Baeza.

 The doctors didn’t give me any hope of life, they said that he could end up as a vegetable,” Inirida, 58, recalled of those days. It was the pain she felt as a mother, she said, that “led me to fight day by day, give up everything I had dreamed of, and dedicate myself full time to (my son).”

A university finance student at the time, Ini, as her family calls her, left school and career dreams behind. She moved in with her divorced mother, taking in shoemaking as piece work with the rest of the family to support herself and Carlos — whom she and other family members call Andres, his middle name.

 

Carlos, center, with CHRHS pals at their 2010 graduation. Photo courtesy of Judi Schelble.

 

Of his mother’s toiling as a shoemaker, “That’s what she did until we moved here,” Carlos recalled in an interview from his recently purchased home in Tallahassee. He lives independently and also has earned bachelor’s degrees from FSU in international relations and psychology.

“Because of all my medical complications, she had to quit the job, and also dropped out of college so she never got to finish,” he said of his mother.

Inirida Baeza with her son, Carlos, recently in Florida. Photo courtesy of Inirida Baeza.

In Columbia, his grandparents were positive influences in his life. “Despite them being divorced, my grandfather came by almost every day to hang out with me and play board games and cards and soccer.” His grandfather has passed away, but Carlos and his mother still cherish his memory and recall him as a beloved father figure for the first 10 years of Carlos’ life. And so, it has been his mother and her steadfast determination to do right by her son that were the constants in his life, according to Carlos.

 

Carlos outside his home in Tallahassee, Florida. Photo courtesy of Inirida Baeza.

 

“I never made him feel different, I encouraged him. I spoke to him clearly about his condition,” Inirida Baeza said. “But I always told him that this was not an impediment to fight, that it would be harder for him, but never to lower his head or feel less than anybody; that he was a special person for God and for humanity. Sometimes I think that I was a little hard on him, but I think that helped him to be strong and not be afraid.”

Early on in Columbia, Carlos showed himself to be a bright lad. He dealt with his issues and was for the most part out of urgent, life-threatening medical danger — although he endured surgeries for the shunt and his afflicted legs and eyes. It was not long before his mother embraced the idea that would be a pivotal decision in her life and Carlos’ future. In 2001, the single mom and her physically challenged son left home, family and country and flew 2,600 miles to the United States. Neither mother nor son spoke English. And while Carlos is fully bilingual in Spanish and English, his mom communicates mostly in Spanish.

“Seeing that my son had potential and that he was intelligent…I decided to emigrate to the U.S., where my son struggled to achieve his goals,” she recalled in Spanish. ln Columbia, she explained, “there were no possibilities for him, and he would be locked up in a house with no possibility of development.”

Shortly after arriving in Boston on Aug. 31, 2001, days before the 9/11 terrorist attack in New York City, the former university finance student went to work cleaning private homes in Camden. Soon, she met and later married Chilean-born Victor Baeza. He had been in the community about 20 years and ran the popular Red Barron coffee shop. Later he worked in retail clothing and for car dealerships. The family lived on White Street in Rockport and Carlos attended local grade, middle and high schools. By the time the couple followed their son to Tallahassee several years ago, Victor had lived in the Camden/Rockport area for 40 years.

“Despite seeing my son’s condition, Victor adopted him and loved him as if he were his own,” Inirida said of her husband.

 

Carlos and friend Monica Doucette at their 2010 graduation from CHRHS.

I liked Carlos an awful lot, he was very smart and very personable,” Victor said. “He was a nice boy and he wanted to have a father; he really was extremely nice to me.” Victor has older children who are close to Carlos, he said. Rafael lives in Camden and Angelica lives in Tallahassee.

Indeed, Victor and Carlos bonded so completely, Victor said, that on one occasion, when his wife contemplated a return to Columbia, “Carlos said, ‘I’ll stay here with my dad.’”

As Carlos moved through the grades and learned to speak English like a native, he fit right in as just one of the guys. “My friends treated me like a peer,” he said. “I haven’t been back in 12 years because of my circumstances, but I miss them dearly, I grew up with them.”

Those friendships and close relationships with key school staff buoyed his spirits when he would find himself occasionally feeling down and out.

He lived with mobility and shunt issues and severely impaired vision. When he was 14, his failing right eye lost all vision. Of the 40 or so operations he has endured, most on his legs, a handful were on his eyes and the shunt that had been inserted when he was an infant but then clogged dangerously when he was older.

“He lost his sight totally right before the prom. He had to be flat on his back for weeks. He could no longer use his scooter,” recalled retired high school special education teacher and friend Judi Schelble, adding, however, that it did not stop him from attending the prom with his friends — under his own power.

Loss of all vision was always a threat, but still it was a crushing blow when it happened. “That was real, real tough for all of us, especially my wife,” Victor recalled.

For Carlos, the memory is vivid. He was at school when things started to go blurry. He went to the school nurse’s office. Five hours later what remained of the vision in his right eye was gone forever.

“I went blind on Monday, March 14, 2005, it’s one of the things you don’t forget. The Monday before, I took eye tests and passed; I was a year away from my driver’s test,” Carlos recalled. It was one of the lingering impacts of his premature birth and being in an incubator as long as he was, he said.

Before losing his sight, Carlos in grade and middle school typically needed a mobility scooter to get around because of the damage cerebral palsy had wreaked on his legs. He later was able to walk in a fashion under his own power, ultimately with a white cane the blind use to feel their way. But in terms of goals, nothing stopped him, according to his father, who was “very impressed” with the master’s degree. “But it didn’t surprise me,” Victor said. “If he gets something between his ears, if he wants to do something, he does it.”

It was a characteristic Carlos’ teachers and counselors picked up on quickly and admire still. It was demonstrated perhaps most unabashedly in his devotion to the Windjammers basketball team and his teammates.

“Carlos would have loved to have been able to play basketball, and his passion was soccer. He knew he could not do that at a competitive level, but he never let it hold him back,” said Jeff Hart, Carlos’ PE teacher and CHRHS varsity basketball coach when Carlos, as a senior, helped the Windjammers capture a state championship. He remains the only student ever to be voted team captain while also serving as the team manager. After one of the team cinched the championship, it was Carlos who was hoisted on teammates’ shoulders to tear down the basket netting in exuberant celebration of what he called “a dream come true.”

Carlos Baeza pulls down the basketball net after the Camden Hills Regional High School Windjammers win the 2010 Eastern Class B championship at the Bangor Auditorium. Photo by Ken Waltz.

Hart, who knew Carlos before he lost his sight, still gets emotional when he talks about his former student. “He and I would play H-O-R-S-E, and for his limited vision he could shoot the ball. He would do all our fitness testing. He did pushups and sit ups and he would try to run through the pain he had because of the cerebral palsy,” Hart said. “And he would do it all with a smile in his face. He loved coming into class.”

Carlos was so emotionally involved with the teams, Hart added, “The guys who were playing thought of him as much as a team member as anybody who was suited up and playing every day.”

And in his own way, Carlos, with his big, engaging smile and his positive attitude in the face of adversity, sort of changed the typical dynamic between student and teacher, according to Hart. “As a coach, you’re supposed to influence your players, but Carlos influenced my life probably as much as any person I have ever been around,” said Hart, now CHRHS Athletic Director. “I am just so proud of that young man for who he is and all the challenges he has had in his life and continues to go for and fight through — he is a pretty special young man.”

 

Carlos at his 2010 high school prom with friend Maddy Smeaton. Photo courtesy of Judi Schelble.

Judi Schelble was Carlos’ special education teacher and case manager when he was in high school. They have stayed in touch. On the eve of his Florida graduation, she suggested The Camden Herald publish something about him because, even though he moved away in 2010, there still are many people in the community who remember him, she explained.

He is, she said, “Someone who never let his disability get in the way of his dreams…a unique young man who demonstrated to all of us lucky enough to know him the true meaning of optimism, resilience and perseverance.”

Inirida Baeza could not agree more. “I believe that my son’s personality was forged by all his good and bad experiences that he had, and made him the man he is now, responsible, noble, a good son, a good friend, in short, words are not enough to say the great man that my son is; (I feel) pride and admiration for the person we managed to train to serve society.”

Since moving alone to Florida in 2010, living in a dorm for four years and earning three degrees, Carlos has bought his own home in Tallahassee. For the past five years, including while earning his master’s, he worked full-time for the State of Florida’s Child Support Division of the Department of Revenue. He loves music and is a rabid fan of soccer, following the Columbian national team and the World Cup winning Argentinian team, whose recent victory left Carlos “incredibly happy,” he said.

Schelble noted the laudable nexus between Carlos’ life, academic study, and choice of vocation to date. “His 57-page Capstone Project (thesis) entitled “Increasing Employment Opportunities For Individuals With Disabilities …” thoughtfully addresses the need for meaningful employment of people with disabilities and the steps required to achieve this, a subject Carlos understands better than anyone given his own life experience,” Schelble told The Camden Herald.

Although he does not easily share his innermost feelings, according to Schelble, she recalled a moment during high school when he felt his issues were making him bitter and negative and didn’t like the person he was becoming. He asked Schelble to help him with that, she remembered.

He rarely complained and did his best to bolster others who were also dealing with his issues, mentors said. Schelble recalled another incident when Carlos’ mobility challenges caused him to trip coming through a doorway into a room where she and other students were gathered. So, he put out his hands and landed on them and pretended he had hit the floor purposely so he could do pushups, she recalled. “He did it to put the others at ease,” Schelble said.

The feelings Hart and Schelble have for Carlos are returned in kind. “If there is anybody outside of my parents and family, I owe Judi Schelble and Jeff Hart,” Carlos said. “If it was not for her, I would not have gone to college; she helped with all my applications and all the scholarships. I spent hours with her after school filling those out.”

As for Hart he said, “I basically owe him having a reason for wanting to stay alive after I lost my sight; basketball gave me a reason to want to keep living. It’s hard to be 14 years old and all of a sudden you lose your sight.”

He continued, “You realize at the doctor’s office that your sight will never be back. At the same time, you realize your life is screwed; it will never be what it could have been.” It is a theme that would continue to occupy his thoughts.

Carlos has had his share of disappointments beyond what ails him physically, but the most vexing are intertwined with people’s perceptions of him. Take for example getting into college back in 2010. Carlos earned a full scholarship to Maine’s Colby College in Waterville. That excited him, he really wanted to enroll. So, off he went to a meeting with the college official who oversaw issues for handicapped students.

“The guy said to me, and this is almost verbatim, ‘We have the resources to help you, but we have never had a blind person here before, so you might want to consider going elsewhere.’”

It was a difficult lesson about the world beyond his high school and the close-knit Camden/Rockport community Carlos still calls home. “Not only did I get into the school and get a full ride, but the irony was also I could not go because of what that person told me. That was hard. Colby is prestigious. Knowing I couldn’t go there was very annoying to say the least,” Carlos recalled.

“One of the things that I have had to get used to ever since I left is that when I was in middle school and high school, my friends never treated me like I had a disability. It was not till I left that I knew no one was going to treat me like my friends, they are going to see me as a guy with a visual impairment.”

The same sort of annoying thing has followed him into the work world. It took Carlos two years to find a job after graduating with simultaneous degrees in international affairs and psychology. He and his parents had visited and enjoyed Spain. But one attempt to work in Madrid went nowhere.

“When you go to college and have a disability, you kind of think everything will work out, but it turns out it’s a lot harder to find a job,” he said.

And how is life now that he works full time, owns his own home, has his parents and a sister nearby along with a crowd of mostly Argentinian friends in town — and gets to visit family and his old stomping grounds Columbia with some regularity? And what about the future? Carlos likes where he came from, where he grew up in Maine and all that he has accomplished, but he is ready to move on after five years with the state’s Child Support Division, he said. And the thought of what might have been lingers.

“I know I have done a lot, but I never lose sight of the fact I could have done more if my circumstances had been different. Yes, I have a job and I bought a house, but I think if I had not lost my sight, I might be in a better place.”

When he spoke with The Camden Herald, Carlos was packing for a trip to Columbia, leaving Dec. 27, to spend the holidays with family there.

“I am talking a little break and after I come back, I’ll send out resumes and see if I can find a better position with better pay,” he explained. “I’d like try to promote employment opportunities for people with disabilities in Florida, or maybe go the politics route if I can do that, but ultimately to keep growing.”

In the meantime, both Carlos and his parents say they owe a lot to the Camden/Rockport community — and the United States of America.

“I will always be very grateful to God and all the people who crossed our path, Inirida Baeza said. “His teachers, especially Mrs. Schelble and Mr. Hart, his classmates and their families who accepted my son into their lives; I have no words of infinite gratitude for them. And may God bless that country for the opportunities it gave us.”

Carlos added he will “never lose” the values he learned here. “Camden was incredibly important in my life…the community rallied around me. Camden will always be my home. That community did a lot for me, and a lot of things I learned there as a kid, I can see now how Camden shaped me as a person. Ask me where I am from,” Carlos said, “and I’ll say Maine.”

(NOTE: Judi Schelble invites anyone who wants to contact Carlos and congratulate him to do so by finding him on Facebook or by contacting her for his phone number or address. Schelble is at 207-322-3199.)