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Community Gatepath Leads the Way in Special Education

One Burlingame-based organization helps children and adults with special needs.

Tucked in a small building behind Mills-Peninsula Hospital on a side street in Burlingame is a mighty nonprofit, , which has been serving people with disabilities throughout San Mateo County for nearly 90 years. The organization’s motto is “Turning Disabilities into Possibilities,” and the programs it provides for the more than 8,000 community members are a testament to that catchy phrase.

Executive Director Sheryl Young has been with Community Gatepath for the past 24 years, although she said, “It feels like I just started a year ago because I am still learning and watching the programs grow.” Her focus for the past five years has been on programs for children and their families.

Early intervention focuses on a team approach

Community Gatepath provides early intervention services for children from birth to age three, many of whom are referred by their pediatricians. Special education teachers, occupational and physical therapists, psychologists and nurses work as a team in helping the children and their families. The organization also provides a variety of family support groups, some separated by age group and some by skill levels, and a resource center staffed by parents of children with special needs.

Learning Links Preschool is one of a kind

, the preschool at Community Gatepath, provides an inclusive program for children ages two to five with special needs, as well as typically developing children. The goal is to make sure every child succeeds. The school was designed to fill the gap between Community Gatepath’s established program in early intervention and special education services provided by the elementary schools, and to fill a community need, as very few preschools around the county accept children with special needs.

Learning Links, which is a collaborative effort of Community Gatepath, the Burlingame Parks and Recreation Department and the , serves 173 children, 20 percent of which are children with special needs. Not surprisingly, there’s a waiting list.

“Families of children with special needs are thrilled to have their kids in this inclusive environment,” said Young. “And families with typically developing children want them to learn tolerance, and not to be afraid of children with special needs. We wanted to make this program a model that could be replicated. Right now there is no other program like this in the nation, and people come from all over to see it in action.”

Early education teachers work alongside special education teachers. In many cases it’s hard for a visitor to distinguish the kids with special needs from their typically developing peers.

Attractions for all the kids include the well-equipped playground and pet turtle, Fast Eddy, who has taken up residence in the classroom. The children built him a maze out of cardboard, and they love to watch him make his way through it, even though he is not as speedy as his name suggests.

Abilitypath.org provides web-based resources

A relatively new venture for Community Gatepath is its Internet resource site, www.abilitypath.org, which was created two years ago to provide resources on the go and broaden the organization’s reach beyond the Peninsula. The website provides reports on timely topics for families of children with special needs and a community where parents can blog and connect with each other to share and learn from their experiences.

“The website is also a way to shine a light on policy issues, such as healthcare, special education and employment, which affect children and adults with disabilities,” said Young. “It’s a way to pull stories together and create a call for action.”

A case in point involves an abilitypath.org report on bullying and how it affects children with special needs. The report received a lot of attention―thousands wrote in and many contacted their legislators regarding the problem. Community Gatepath teamed up with Special Olympics to release the report nationwide.  As a result, Community Gatepath staff were invited to attend a conference on bullying in Washington, D.C. and to help develop state and federal legislation on this issue.  Abilitypath.org will publish a report on obesity in September, which will focus on the concern that 40 percent or more of children with special needs are obese.

Community Gatepath serves adults, too

In addition to the focus on young children, Community Gatepath also helps high school students with disabilities transition after graduation from school to work through job training, acquiring life skills and job placement. Their programs for adults with disabilities include community-based classes in conjunction with local recreation departments. Offerings include job training and interview skills as well as language classes and salsa lessons.

But Young admits she is most proud of what the agency does to support families. “Families of these kids are resilient and committed. It’s most important to give them hope and empower them.”

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