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Sunday gala aids special-need Foothill students

'It kind of makes your heart sing to see these young people,' a volunteer says

As education budgets are slashed across California, volunteers are working to preserve threatened services to students with disabilities at Foothill College.

A gala musical event Sunday (July 25) -- kicking off performances of the Cole Porter musical "Anything Goes" that runs through Aug. 15 -- will raise funds for Foothill's Adaptive Learning Division, which serves 400 students each quarter but is itself hit by cutbacks that have reduced services.

The center offers "everyday services" to students with physical disabilities, or who are blind, deaf or have learning disabilities. It also helps veterans of Iraq, Afghanistan and even Vietnam who have post-traumatic stress disorder.

The help comes in many forms, from note-taking assistance in class to extra time on tests. Assistance can include voice-to-text technology that enables a student to dictate school assignments, and individual counseling and tutoring.

Sara Moussavian, a 2009 Gunn High School graduate who just finished her first year at Foothill, uses software called "Dragon Dictate Naturally Speaking" to dictate and edit her essays.

Moussavian -- who has had multiple surgeries for congenital problems and has difficulty using her hands, walking and processing lectures -- also gets help from note-takers and uses a special test-taking room, where she gets extra time on exams.

After Foothill, she said she hopes to transfer to a four-year state college or university and aim for a "high demand" job.

"I want to be able to work somewhere where I will look forward to going to work every day," she said.

Without the counselors and tutors from the Adaptive Learning Division, she said, "I would have dropped out by now. These things mean a lot."

Kelli Lee, a 2008 Gunn graduate who has trouble speaking and writing because of cerebral palsy, uses Kurzweil 3000 software to enlarge the type in her e-mails or even have the computer read them to her.

Lee, who said she is interested in math and science, also takes advantage of tutoring and note-taking services.

For visually impaired student Brandon Keith Biggs, the Adaptive Learning Center on campus "has been the backbone of my existence there."

Biggs is working toward two associate's degrees -- one in general humanities and another in music technology -- and plans to transfer to a four-year college to study opera.

"I think the hardest part of being blind isn't the disability itself; it's the limits placed on me by those with sight," Biggs said. He will share the podium at Sunday's gala with the emcee, state Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto.

"Foothill has the best adaptive-technology center in California for the blind community," Biggs said.

Although he can see only shapes, light, some colors and movement, Biggs has performed in community-theater productions from Woodside to San Jose and aims for a career in music.

But maintaining the program has been its own struggle. Budget cuts earlier this year meant layoffs for three of the 19 staff members, according to Coordinator Margo Dobbins.

"We were cut quite substantially so a lot of our resources that went to things like note-takers and tutoring -- which is not state-mandated but is critical to student success -- have been reduced."

The note-taking program pays non-disabled students in a class to take notes and share them with classmates who have disabilities.

Jean Gardner Ching, who spent 25 years as a special-education coordinator in the Palo Alto Unified School District, now volunteers as a member of the Foothill College Commission, which sponsors the annual summer musical.

She recently gave Biggs a ride to Foothill's Los Altos Hills campus to go over preparations for Sunday's gala.

"I was just so moved by him and his wonderful sense of humor," Ching said.

"I think it's extremely hard for young people in general these days, let alone having a very severe disability tagged on to the other challenges.

"It kind of makes your heart sing to see these young people."

The Foothill College Summer Musical Gala is scheduled for Sunday, July 25, beginning at 1:30 p.m., followed by an auction and wine-tasting buffet reception. Tickets are available at 650-949-6230 and https://secure.entango.com/donate/fhda_event.

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