Below is a transcript of the conversation between our executive director, David Diener, and Jim Doyle of “Friday Morning With The Arts” on local radio station Classic 107.3.
Jim: It’s “Friday Morning With The Arts.” I’m Jim Doyle. So nice to be with you today. We have with us David Diener. He is the Executive Director of the Special Education Foundation. They’ve been in business since 1984, 37 years of serving students with needs. David, first of all, welcome.
David: Thank you. It’s a pleasure to be here.
Jim: I saw on your website, I loved it because it just is, it’s short and it makes sense, we connect the dots to meet students needs.
Jim: Brilliant. That’s brilliant.
David: Well, what can I say.
Jim: Now how long have you been with the foundation?
David: Well, I’ve been with the foundation in two capacities. I was on their board for approximately 11 years while I was still in my primary career in finance and estate planning. I’m an attorney by training. And then I retired from the wonderful world of finance in 2015, took a year off, and heard that Special Education Foundation needed a new executive director. Our wonderful long-time director was retiring. And I applied and I got the job. So I have been with Special Education Foundation for four years now.
Jim: Okay. Now this is going to sound silly, but tell us what the special foundation is, the Special Education Foundation is. I’m sure that there are a lot of people who are not even aware that you exist.
David: That’s very true, and hopefully this wonderful broadcast will bring it to light to more people. The Special Education Foundation is a nonprofit organization that supports the Special School District of St. Louis County with…
Jim: And the Special School District deals with kids who have disabilities.
David: Disabilities. That’s correct.
David: And fun fact, the Special School District is the second largest special school district in the entire country behind LA County, Los Angeles County.
David: So we are a major organization. The Special School District, they serve close to 25,000 students in St. Louis County. They are in every public school district, in almost every school in the public school districts, and we have five stand-alone schools for the profoundly disabled and two tech schools. So it’s a big organization.
Jim: Now disabilities can range in severity, if I’m using the right wording.
Jim: And you just mentioned that you have three schools that are stand-alones for kids who obviously must have severe problems. Tell me what an average kid with disability who goes to a public school in St. Louis County, sort of describe that girl or that boy.
David: Well, if they are mainstreamed, there are often special classes for the hearing impaired, for the sight impaired, for the communication impaired. Just about anything you might call a disability we serve those kids until they graduate high school. And we also have an adult school after you graduate from high school till 21. So it’s a wide range of disabilities. Autism is certainly one of the largest subgroups and just you, paralyzed. We in the stand-alone schools where the most profoundly disabled children are, we have special programs and specialized teaching and all to serve those kids as best we can.
Jim: Would you say that we’re, in 2021 we’re more aware of disabilities?
David: Absolutely. Yes. I think since the Federal Disabilities Act was enacted, it’s now quite a few years ago, it has become more of a front-burner issue. And I think that the public is more educated about these individuals and the incredible things they can do despite their disabilities. I think we’ve got a long way to go before they are as mainstreamed as anyone else, but we’ve come a long way.
Jim: I have to tell you a story. I was recently, I was flying and I had thrown my back out and I couldn’t walk and I had to get a wheelchair at the airport. And I was amazed at how you notice how many people are in wheelchairs when you’re in one yourself. When we’re just walking through the airport, sometimes we just sort of, “Oh, yeah.” You don’t really take note like you do when you’re suddenly disabled.
David: Absolutely. Since I’ve been involved with the Special Education Foundation, I have noticed how omnipresent disabled individuals are in our community. It’s like anything else. When I bought a new car, suddenly I saw every other car on the street was the same car. And you understand…
Jim: You had to go and buy the same car as everybody else, didn’t you?
David: Yeah, I guess.
Jim: Obviously, what you do with the foundation is, you’re here to raise money, obviously.
Jim: The financial burden of having a disability for the parents, for the kids can be debilitating in and of itself.
David: Absolutely. The need is almost infinite. And when you talk about fundraising, it has been an extremely difficult year for us and for probably every nonprofit organization due to COVID. We had to postpone three of our major four fundraisers. But despite the obstacles put in front of us because of COVID with our loyal donors and all, we continued to serve our kids during the pandemic to the best we could. And I can say that we’re very proud of what we’ve been able to do over the last year.
Jim: What more can we do? What would be your call to action to our listeners?
David: My call to action would be see in your heart that every child that we serve needs as much support as he or she can receive from the community. And the number one way you can help us is to donate to Special Education Foundation. And you can find a place to donate on our website, which is sef-stl.org. And when the community is opening up, come to some of our wonderful events. We have a golf tournament in October every year, one of the largest in the city. We have a fashion show.
Jim: You have to know how to golf though.
David: You, well, I don’t know how to golf and I go so…
Jim: People ask me if I golf. I say, “I pretend.”
David: Yeah, well, that’s my way too. We have a special…
Jim: But it’s for a great cause and it raises money for a wonderful group of kids.
David: It does. And it’s a lot of fun and there’s a lot of networking at the golf tournament. We have close to 300 golfers out at Norwood Hills Country Club on Columbus Day every year.
Jim: And this is the Dan McLaughlin.
David: It is indeed. It’s a wonderful event. And now that things are opening up, we have a special program each year for the hearing impaired called the Arbeiter Event where we go to some iconic landmark in St. Louis and have a party and raise money for kids hearing aids and replacement parts. A lot of kids don’t break their hearing aids, but they break the shells of them or sit on them or lose them.
Jim: This is very close to my heart because my son is an audiologist.
David: And I’m an audiologist receiver of services. Yes, I have hearing loss. And it’s a wonderful…
Jim: One thing you should keep in mind, never say to an audiologist, “Huh?” They don’t like that joke at all.
David: No. They don’t. No. I’ve kind of learned that over the years. Yeah. But that’s just one of the wonderful services we provide for kids who can’t afford their own hearing aids. And those are very expensive. And that’s just one of six or seven programs that we offer for our kids.
Jim: Well, as I said, and I think all you have to do is give it a few moments of thought and it’s pretty obvious that the financial burden that a disabled child carries around on his or her shoulders, or on his or her parents shoulders more likely, it can be devastating.
Jim: And that’s where you guys come in.
David: Yes. I would say fully a third to a half of the eligible students are at or below the poverty line that we serve. And it’s very heartwarming to hear the comments from parents and teachers on how the services we provide help these kids reach their ultimate capacity to be a part of society.
Jim: David Diener is the Executive Director of the Special Education Foundation. They’ve been in business since 1984 helping kids with disabilities in the St. Louis County Public Schools. And David, keep up the good work, man.
David: Thank you.
Jim: It’s a noble cause.
David: It is indeed. And we need your help now more than ever so…
Jim: Let’s get that website again.
David: It is S as in Sam, E as in every, F as in Frank, dash STL, S-T-L dot org.
Jim: And we will have this interview on our website so you can reference it later and get more info if you would like it. David, thank you so much for joining us.
David: Well, thank you. It’s been a pleasure.
Jim: Keep up the great work.
David: Thank you, Jim.