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SEF News & Success Stories

A New Year and a Look Back

Happy New Year fireworks and SEF logo

As we begin a new year, it’s an excellent opportunity for us at the Special Education Foundation to look back at the past twelve months and the impact of our efforts to help students with disabilities in St. Louis County.

It was an amazing year as we helped nearly 6,000 students through our various programs.

Here are a few highlights from the past year:

More than $21,000 went into our Critical Needs program, which helps students and families in need with assistance for everyday essentials ranging from food baskets during breaks in school to winter coats to care closets that provide personal care items for SSD students across St. Louis County.

Through this program, SEF also provided emergency shelter for a mother and two daughters and, last month, helped a family with a security deposit. Hence, they had a home for the Christmas holidays.

SEF’s Adaptive Equipment program helped 19 students with augmentative communication devices and assistive equipment, including wheelchairs, to foster independence and improve their quality of life. Earlier this year, we told you the story of Vivi, who received a Mini iPad through the program after completing her public school education.

Her parents signed her up to participate in a program the St. Louis University Speech and Pathology Department offers to assist individuals using communication devices. While she knows how to use the device, she needs encouragement to use it to communicate. Her parents are working on helping her see it as more than a tool used for school work and as a benefit to communicating with others. When Vivi first received the iPad, her dad took her grocery shopping and, while on the juice aisle, used her device to say she wanted cranberry juice!

The Tilles Foundation has provided major funding for our Adaptive Equipment and Audiology programs, and in 2023, we helped 63 students with hearing aids and ear molds to help them succeed in and outside of school. We also received additional support from donors to the Arbeiter “Gift of Sound” campaign last winter, supporting our audiology program.

A new initiative, Arts in the Classroom, brought performing arts to students in the SSD schools in 2023. In March, the Imaginary Theater Company performed James and The Giant Peach for students at Ackerman School. Then, Metro Theater Company brought the story of Maddi’s Fridge to Ackerman in October.

We’re planning more music and theater performances in the coming year with new partnerships with The Black Rep (at Neuwoehner High School), the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra (at Southview School), and a return of the Imaginary Theater Company, this time at Litzsinger School.

SEF provided financial assistance to 35 students to attend camp in 2023 through our Kids-to-Camp program. This was double the number from 2022. Among those students was William, a third grader who we helped attend Camp ALEC.

Hosted by Indian Trails Camp in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Camp ALEC is designed so that children aged 8-21 who never thought they could go to a typical camp independently can go. Indian Trails provides highly skilled and compassionate counselors who attend to all of the children’s needs.

In 2023, we awarded 92 grants to SSD educators across St. Louis County through our Classroom Innovation Grants. One of those grants went to Anna Shreves and Jessica Poddig of Neuwoehner School, co-applicants for their Student Lounge project.

The purpose of the Student Lounge is to provide a dedicated space for students to work or to spend time in a calm environment outside of their regular classroom.

The intention for the space is to be both functional and comfortable. It is designed to be utilized in various ways, such as student meetings, alternative workspace, and relaxing outside of the classroom. The items requested helped to develop the space with a variety of sensory items for a wide range of students to access.

This year, we were grateful to the I Have A Dream Foundation St. Louis for supporting our Classroom Innovation Grants. We also received additional support from Sign of the Arrow and the Mariner Foundation.

The John Cary Scholarship program awarded five $5,000 scholarships to college-bound students in for the 2023-24 academic year. This year’s recipients were:

Constance Anthony, a graduate of North Technical High School, who is attending Lindenwood University

Sara Brooks, a Bayless High School graduate, who is attending the University of Missouri-St. Louis

Cara Rhodes, a graduate of Eureka High School, who is attending Lindenwood University

Aaron Sims, a graduate of Parkway West High School, who is attending

Brigham Young University-Idaho

Benjamin Perry, a Ladue Horton Watkins High School graduate, who is attending Morehouse College in Atlanta.

Also, Toshiko Graham, a Ritenour High School graduate, was the recipient of the Christopher Davis Scholarship. She is attending the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

The 2022 - 23 class of the Fred Saigh Leadership Academy returned to a regular schedule of activities after COVID-19 reduced some of the class projects in the previous three years. The students and their families celebrated a successful year at their graduation ceremony in May. Plus, the current FSLA class has been jam-packed during the first half of the school year. The Saigh Foundation continues to provide significant funding to support the Leadership Academy.

The SEF Women Leaders Principal Grants provided more than $11,000 in grants to the five SSD schools, the Bridges program, and the SSD St. Louis County Court Schools. The funding supports several school projects, including a performance from Afriky Lolo’s drum and dance troupe, a weatherproof garden bench, and student graduation supplies.

The year also marked the 21st Annual Dan McLaughlin Charity Golf Tournament and Auction in October, which turned out to be a perfect day for golf and fellowship at Norwood Hills Country Club. This year’s tournament raised more than $330,000 to support SEF, the second-highest in the event’s history.

Finally, the Special Education Foundation added two new staff last year.

Shannon Benedek joined SEF in January 2023 as our Program and Communications Manager, and Jill Salinas came on board in April as our Events Manager. We are fortunate to have these two talented women as part of our organization.

All that was accomplished in 2023 to help students was only possible with the generous support from more than 900 individuals, businesses, and foundations that donate to SEF, a passionate and dedicated Board of Directors, and dozens of volunteers.

We simply could not have the impact on the students we help without that support, and we can’t say thank you enough to our donors and friends for their support of our mission.