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CalSTAT (California Services for Technical Assistance and Training) is a special project of the California Department of Education, Special Education Division, located at Napa County Office of Education. It is funded through the Special Education Division and the California State Personnel Development Grant (SPDG). The SPDG, a federal grant, supports and develops partnerships with schools and families by providing training, technical assistance and resources to both special education and general education.
California’s Youth Leadership Forum
Eddie Rea remembers what it was like to get up in front of his high school class and read. Eddie, who is dyslexic, was the butt of teasing by classmates. But his learning disability didn’t keep him from participating in school activities and demonstrating the qualities that made him a candidate for the California Youth Leadership Forum (YLF), a unique summer program for students with disabilities.
Since its inception in 1992, YLF has given Eddie and more than 900 alumni with learning and physical disabilities the encouragement and the resources they need to make the transition from school to the next phase of their lives — be it work or higher education — and to live independently.
The intensive, five-day program was “an eye-opener” for Eddie, now 20. He says he learned that all students with disabilities “are part of the same community, whether their disabilities are hidden like mine or physical.” Eddie attended YLF the summer after graduating from Sanger High School in Fresno County, went on to study business at Reedley College, and currently sits on the California Advisory Commission on Special Education.
YLF’s annual forum at California State University, Sacramento, is open to high school juniors and seniors who demonstrate leadership potential and whose resumés include both academic achievement and participation in extra-curricular activities. Each year the California Department of Education sends applications to every high school in California, and YLF alumni and independent living centers throughout the state recruit applicants. Finalists are interviewed in person; about 60 students are selected. YLF is funded by private and corporate contributions.
The formal part of the program covers such topics as “Choosing a Career,” “Understanding the History of Disability as a Culture,” and learning to manage health care issues. The students identify obstacles to their personal and professional success and develop plans to deal with them. They also develop public policy recommendations that address the needs of individuals with disabilities, and they formally present their recommendations to state officials. But it is often the informal interaction that students recall — interaction with their peers and with the speakers and staff, many of whom are successful adults with disabilities.
“YLF was a life-changing
experience for me,” says Christina Mills who, like many participants, had been
mainstreamed and had little contact with other youths with disabilities. “I
found my own culture and felt completely accepted.” Christina was born with
osteogenisis imperfecta, a genetic disorder characterized by bones that break easily, and she uses a wheelchair. But the disability hasn’t slowed her down. After attending YLF in 1995 when she was a high school junior, she attended Palomar Community College and California State University San Marcos. Today, at 30, she is the statewide community organizer at the California Foundation for Independent Living Centers. “I wouldn’t be doing this if I hadn’t gone to YLF,” she says.
The forum was initially organized and staffed by the Governor’s Committee on the Employment of People with Disabilities. It was the first of its kind in the country and has been the model for similar programs in more than 30 states. Today it is run by a committee of representatives of several state agencies, nonprofit organizations, and YLF alumni. Catherine Campisi has been there from the beginning — as a counselor the first year, later as a speaker, and then as a member of the planning committee. Former director of the state Department of Rehabilitation and current specialist in the Disabled Students Programs and Services division of the California Community Colleges Systems Office, Campisi says that some students “have a sense of shame” about their disability. YLF “raises their self-esteem tremendously. They connect with one another, and when they leave, many say ‘I know who I am; this is my family.’”
That is the goal, says Teresa Favuzzi, executive
director of the Foundation for Independent Living Centers: “to bring youths
across all types of disabilities together so they understand they’re part
of a larger community. It’s wonderful to see that happen.”
It happened for Shannon Rossall, who graduated this spring from Cal State Fullerton with a degree in child and adolescent studies. Shannon has attention deficit disorder and some learning disabilities, including difficulty with auditory processing. Always mainstreamed, she had no exposure to the disability culture until she attended YLF in 2003. “I had the opportunity to see the fact that I am a person with a disability, but I shouldn’t have to hide that. It’s part of who I am.” Shannon, 22, has been back to YLF as a staff member every year and plans to return to college in the fall for a teaching credential.
Like Shannon, many YLF alumni are graduates of colleges and universities — including UCLA and Stanford. They have successful careers and lead independent lives. While no statistics have been compiled, Campisi says that “about half or more” of the participants attend community colleges. The largest disability group in the community college system is the learning disabled. The colleges aren’t aware of which students are YLF alumni, but, “with appropriate intervention and support, the learning disabled are virtually indistinguishable from other students,” says Scott Berenson, coordinator of Disabled Students Programs and Services at the California Community Colleges Systems Office.
Providing that intervention and support for young people with a broad spectrum of disabilities is what YLF is about. In addition to the information offered during the five-day forum, students learn how they may be eligible to participate in subsequent internships or mentoring programs.
Learning more about past participants and their post-YLF lives is one of the projects of the recently formed YLF Alumni Alliance. With approximately 100 current members, the alliance is using Internet sites like Facebook and MySpace to track other alumni and plans to hold mini-reunions around the state. The alliance is also looking to take an increased role in planning and presenting the forum. Its stated goal is to chair YLF in 2009 with support from state agencies. The alliance was founded by Christina Mills, Eddie Rea, and Cynthia Cadet, a 1998 YLF participant. “The program changed our lives,” says Eddie, “so we wanted to get this going.”
The program also gave Cynthia, 27, a personal goal. Students and volunteer staff stay in campus dormitories during the forum at Cal State Sacramento. “I went as a delegate, and I thought, ‘This is where I want to be,’” she remembers. Now, after graduating from Grossmont Community College, Cynthia, who was diagnosed with arthritis and lupus when she was 12 years old, will reach her goal. She will attend Sac State in the fall.